Right Rite, Right or Wrong.

August 18, 2014

Had I not been born a Jew, I would have made a good Roman Catholic. Dwight Eisenhower said of Dartmouth College “this is what a college should look like.” This is true of the Vatican’s rite: it’s what a religion should look like.

Granted, a millennium and more of entrenched dogma that seemed like a good idea when first promulgated but subsequently staggered under its own contradictory weight is heavy baggage – but baggage common to most faiths. The Holy See has an excess of it because it has been more aggressive in recording the strictures of its faith than others: no fewer than 37 universities, including the Pontifical colleges in Vatican City, offer degrees in canon law, that body of doctrine in comparison to which the Internal Revenue Code looks like See Spot Run. The Hindu faith is older than the Roman one, but the Indian swamis never bureaucratized their beliefs and so, thousands of years later, are not caught in their contradictions.

Still, the ins and outs of any particular faith are irrelevant for our purposes, assuming they all allow for belief in a higher power and propound the idea of treating others as we would ourselves. With those basics in place, the details are unimportant because it is highly unlikely that any specific religion knows much of anything about God. This strips importance from the details of belief; what harm or benefit is there in preferring one myth to another? A man once asked Rabbi Hillel to teach him the Torah while standing on one foot. The Rabbi stood on one foot and told him: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The rest is just details.”

Absent the details (like whether God really spoke to Moses from a burning bush, or guided the magi via galactic GPS), and assuming the fungibility of a belief in God and a moral commandment to treat others as we would ourselves, the difference in religions boils down to the appearance of ritual. So what value is there in organized religion, Catholic or otherwise (on a personal level – setting aside charitable works)? This: comfort and guidance. It gives voice to faith, and provides for the expression in ancient, beautiful forms of thoughts and hopes which would otherwise be private. In public acts of faith there is comfort: comfort in tradition, comfort in community, comfort in ritual, comfort in a public affirmation of personal belief. This is worthwhile, and the Roman religion excels at these: it has beautiful, elegant trappings. Its rituals are nearly unequalled for splendor and ceremony, which elevate their moral content.

Perhaps the Jews understand this appeal especially well. In 1994, the Dalai Lama visited Israel and asked a rabbi: “What it is that unites Jewish people the world over — what the kernel of the doctrine is that unites all Jews?” The rabbi told him: “When it comes to doctrine, there is hardly any uniformity. What unites all faithful Jews are the rituals. Come Friday, all Jewish homes, from Siberia to Ethiopia, hold Sabbath in the same manner. We have been doing this for thousands of years, since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.”


The Pope’s Tailor

December 5, 2010

Of the things people treasure the world over, two of the  most venerated come mainly from Italy: religion, and fashion. The Roman Catholic church is one of, if not the, largest and most influential religious organizations in the history of man (and woman). It’s produced kings and advised the leaders of nations, lead billions of people in their spiritual affairs and, as a church whose leadership has been comprised for centuries of Italian men, it’s looked great doing it, in the way only Italian men can. But those Italian gentlemen haven’t done it all by themselves; they’ve had some help over the centuries, and not just from above.

The House of Gammarelli operates out of a small workshop in the shadows of the Pantheon, a landmark of ironically Pagan origin. Ironic, because for over 200 years the Gammarellis have been official tailors to the Vatican, dressing Popes, Cardinals, and other princes of the Church. Bonaventura Gammarelli, 61, runs the firm today, keeping up with the work his great-great-grandfather started in 1798 when he moved to Rome and began to dress the hundreds of local priests. The House of Gammarelli still dresses priests, and it’s good for business: “Over seventy percent of the Cardinals we now serve,” says Mr. Gammarelli, “started coming to us when they were only monsignori.”

The average priestly cassock runs about $40.00 American; the vestments of a Cardinal can cost as much as $2,000.00.

Years ago, when Pope Pius XII died, Mr. Gammarelli received a rush order from the Vatican: three Papal soutanes, one cut for a small man, one medium, and one large. The three cloaks were locked in with the Cardinals as they deliberated on a successor to Pius, each ready for whatever size of man might be next elected Pontiff. Mr. Gammarelli, a shrewd and practiced handicapper of Popes, predicted the next successor to Saint Peter would be Cardinal Roncalli of Venice. He cut one of the outfits accordingly, based on Cardinal Roncalli’s measurements (he had been a Gammarelli customer for years), and the bet paid off: Roncalli, newly christened Pope John XXII, emerged from the conclave resplendent in Mr. Gammarelli’s perfectly-fitting soutane to greet the faithful from the balcony overlooking Saint Peter’s Square.

The challenge in Papal tailoring is in adhering to centuries of tradition; each garment produced in the cramped Gammarelli workshop (which comprises two small rooms above the main storefront) is made of the finest materials and based on a book of patterns hand-painted in watercolor by Maria Gammarelli, Bonaventura’s sister.

The earthly rewards of dressing the Catholic princedom are considerable, but Mr. Gammarelli says the greatest reward is the praise of his customers. Indicative of that praise is a letter he received years ago from an American Bishop stationed in Texas, which reads simply: “We Texans like to deal with people who know their business.” And who knows the business of clothing, or religion, better than Italians?