The biretta is a square cap with three or four ridges or peaks, sometimes surmounted by a tuft, traditionally worn by Roman Catholic clergy and some Anglican and Lutheran clergy. It is also the term used for a similar cap worn by those holding doctoral degrees from some universities, and is occasionally used for caps worn by advocates in law courts, for instance the Advocates in the Channel Islands.
Its origins are uncertain but is mentioned as early as the tenth century. The most probable origin of the biretta is the academic hat of the high Middle Ages, which was a soft, square cap. The medieval academic hat is also the ancestor of the modern mortarboard hat used today in secular universities. The tuft or pom sometimes seen on the biretta was added later; the earliest forms of the biretta did not bear the device.
The biretta is used by all ranks of the clergy from cardinals to priests, deacons and seminarians. Those worn by cardinals are scarlet red and made of silk. After the Second Vatican Council the ceremony of giving the galero to Cardinals was replaced with giving the biretta. The biretta of a bishop is amaranth in color, while those worn by priests, deacons, and seminarians are black. The Pope does not make use of the biretta, instead wearing the more ancient camauro, which Pope Benedict XVI has brought back into use.
Cardinals bear no tuft or "pom," bishops bear a purple pom, priests who have been appointed as prelates to certain positions within the Vatican wear a black biretta with red pom, diocesan priests and deacons wear a black biretta with or without a black pom. It is often asserted that seminarians are only entitled to wear a biretta without a pom-pom, but there would seem to be no formal ruling on this point. Priests in religious orders do not usually wear birettas, though the canons of the Order of Prémontré wear a white biretta and the black biretta is also part of the habit of some other congregations of Canons Regular. The Congregation of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri also wear birettas, but without a pom, regardless of rank. The Pope does not make use of the biretta. The liturgical biretta has three peaks, with the 'peak-less' corner worn on the left side of the head.
According to the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia, "It was formerly the rule that a priest should always wear it in giving absolution in confession, and it is probable that the ancient usage which requires an English judge assume the "black cap" in pronouncing sentence of death is of identical origin."
The use of the biretta has not been abolished as a result of changes in the regulation of clerical dress and vesture following the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council and still remains the correct liturgical headgear for those in Holy Orders whilst 'in choir', but its use has been made optional. It is occasionally seen today, and is often only used by bishops and cardinals. Some priests wear it during outdoor services such as burials or processions and, as is intended, during the celebration of Mass and other liturgical services. The biretta is also worn by a priest, deacon, and bishop in attendance at a Mass offered according to the rubrics for the Roman Missal of 1962.
In the Medieval university, the ceremony by which a new master or doctor received his degree included the placing of the biretta on his head. While the academic biretta developed into various styles of academic headgear on the European continent and in the British Isles, and the liturgical biretta underwent its own separate development, there are today secular universities that still use the term for their academic cap.
In commencement ceremonies and other academic settings, clergy often wear the biretta rather than the mortarboard. For clergy who do not hold pontifical degrees, the biretta used academically is the same as the liturgical biretta. However, a four-peaked biretta is awarded to those who complete a doctoral degree in a pontifical faculty or university (as opposed to doctorates from other faculties), which may be piped and tufted with the color indicating the field of expertise; thus dark blue for philosophy, green for canon law, and dark red for theology. Similarly, a three-peaked biretta may be awarded to those receiving the licentiate (S.T.L., Ph.L.). The biretta, in medieval times, was often given with a token book in recognition of the person's scholarship. The "academic biretta" may not be worn during liturgical services.
The pontifical doctoral biretta is sometimes seen in depictions of St. Teresa of Ávila, because she was declared a doctor by the University of Salamanca. This recognition is distinct from her status as a Doctor of the Church. The doctoral biretta has been borrowed for depictions of another doctor of the Church, St. Thérèse de Lisieux.
The biretta was considered as possible headwear for female barristers in England and Wales. In 1922, immediately prior to the first lady being called to the Bar, there was discussion among the senior judges about what she should wear on her head. Darling J and Horridge J suggested the biretta, but were outvoted by the other 9 judges present. As a result, female barristers wear the same unpowdered men's wig as male barristers, which completely covers the hair.
- Herbert Thurston (1913). "Biretta". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Catholic_Encyclopedia_(1913)/Biretta.
- St. Therese Catholic Church Q&A. Archive.org revision of 05-05-2006. Accessed 2006-11-26.
- EWTN Catholic Q & A. Accessed 2006-11-26.
- Olmert, Michael (1996). Milton's Teeth and Ovid's Umbrella: Curiouser & Curiouser Adventures in History, p.178. Simon & Schuster, New York. ISBN 0684801647.
- Paul Rhetts, Saint Teresa in New Mexico. Tradicion Revista, Volume 7, No. 1, Spring 2002. Accessed 2006-11-26.
- Portraits/Chicago Inc. Accessed 2006-11-26.
- Noonan, Jr., James-Charles (1996). The Church Visible: The Ceremonial Life and Protocol of the Roman Catholic Church. Viking. ISBN 0-670-86745-4.
- Philippi, Dieter (2009). Sammlung Philippi - Kopfbedeckungen in Glaube, Religion und Spiritualität,. St. Benno Verlag, Leipzig. ISBN 978-3-7462-2800-6.
- "Instruction on the dress, titles and coat-of-arms of cardinals, bishops and lesser prelates." L'Osservatore Romano, English ed. 17 April 1969: 4. Online at http://www.fiu.edu/~mirandas/instruction69.htm
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