Diocesan News

Ask the Register: cassocks and zucchettos and mitres?

Q. Why does the pope wear a white cassock?

A. This is an interesting question that many Catholics will want to know the answer to. For a priest, bishop, cardinal and the pope, the cassock is used for a variety of reasons – in the liturgy, the celebration of the other sacraments and in various occasions and events. 

A priest wears a black cassock, a bishop an amaranth (red; similar to purple) cassock, and cardinals wear a scarlet cassock (a sign of the blood of martyrs).

A white cassock is the pope’s attire in all public events.

Popes since the pontificate of Pope St. Pius V (1566-72) have worn white cassocks. Pope St. Pius V was a member of the Dominican order whose religious habit is white. He wanted to retain his white religious habit as pope and all of his successors have retained the practice.

Of note: St. Pope John Paul II said at an investiture of cardinals in 1998: “red is a sign of the dignity of the office of a cardinal, signifying that you are ready to act with fortitude, even to the point of spilling your blood for the increase of the Christian faith.” Pope Francis just announced that he will create 13 new cardinals, from every part of the world, in a consistory Oct. 5. 

Q. What is the small circular cap a bishop wears on his head? Also, what is the “hat” that comes to a point with two tassels in the back that the bishop wears at Mass?

A. This is another really good question, which I think a lot of readers have thought about at one time or another. 

That small circular “cap” (which people sometimes call a skull cap) is a zucchetto (zu-kett-o). Originally, its uses were practical – when clerics received the tonsure – (the cutting of one’s hair on the top of one’s head), it provided warmth. Today, it marks the ecclesiastical rank of the wearer: white for the pope; scarlet for a cardinal; and amaranth red for an archbishop or bishop.

The other “hat” you refer to is the mitre. The mitre, which is pointed at the top, foldable, and has two tassels in the back, is a part of a bishop’s headdress for liturgies. It has its origin in Scripture (Exodus 28:4, 37, 39; 29:6, Ezekiel 21:26, Leviticus 8:9, 16:4, Zechariah 3:5). 

It has been said that the two tassels represent the Old and New Testaments. Other scholars have theorized that the bishop’s mitre symbolizes St. Paul’s analogy: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” “From now on a merited crown awaits me.” (2 Timothy 4:7-8). Thanks again for asking this question.


These questions were answered by a priest of the Diocese of Lincoln. Write to Ask the Register using our online form, or write to 3700 Sheridan Blvd., Suite 10, Lincoln NE 68506-6100. All questions are subject to editing. Editors decide which questions to publish. Personal questions cannot be answered. People with such questions are urged to take them to their nearest Catholic priest.

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