Why Does the Pope Wear White?

The custom of the pope wearing white is believed to have begun with Pope Saint Pius V, Michael Ghislieri, who was a Dominican friar and priest before his election as successor to the chair of Saint Peter in 1565. He was an extremely pious and austere pontiff, and he continued to wear his white Dominican habit while pope. The custom continued after his pontificate, and continues down to our present day.

The present customary daily attire of the pope is a white version of the simar, the floor length garment worn by bishops; it is similar to the cassock a Catholic priest might wear (which is usually black). The pope also wears a white sash around his waste, and a white shoulder cape called a mozetta. He wears a white zucchetto, the skull-cap also worn by bishops and a pectoral cross, another sign of his office as a bishop, the bishop of Rome.

Who was Pope Saint Pius V?

Pope Saint Pius V is the greatest of the four Dominicans to be elected pope.  He reigned as pontiff during one of the most difficult times in the history of the Church.  Known to be a man of great prayer, austerity and zeal for the welfare of Holy Mother Church and the souls entrusted to her care, he was above all, even after being raised to the episcopate and the pontificate, a faithful Dominican friar and one of the Order’s greatest saints.

Saint Pius was born to a poor family in the small village of Bosco in northern Italy, January 17, 1504 and given the name Antonio Ghislieri.  He showed remarkable intellectual aptitude as a boy, but his family was too poor to provide any advanced education.  At the age of twelve, however, two Dominican friars happened through Bosco, and the boy approached them and demonstrated his knowledge, unusually advanced for his age.  With his parents permission, the two friars took him with them for a period of preliminary education and probation for the Novitiate.  He entered the Dominican Order at the age of 15, taking the name Michele, and continued his studies until he was ordained at the age of twenty-four.

Soon after his profession, he was sent to a Provincial Chapter to defend the faith against the then young Lutheran heresy.  Afterward, he served as prior in several convents until finally he was sent as Roman Inquisitor to Como in northern Italy to stop the spread of Protestantism.  There he endeavored to halt the heresy and braved ecclesial and civil opposition and threats of violence to preserve the faith from corruption.

In 1551, he was made Commissary General of the Roman Inquisition.  He visited convicted heretics in prison and sought to convert them through reason and his example of charity.  A famous story told of him at this time concerns Sixtus of Sienna.  Sixtus was a Jewish convert who had entered the Franciscans.  He became a professor of theology but fell into heresy and was subsequently convicted and imprisoned.  He eventually retracted and was released, but again he strayed from orthodoxy.  He was convicted a second time and condemned to death by fire.  Friar Michele visited him and eventually converted him with his persuasion, charity and prayers.  Michele was able to use his influence to arrange for Papal pardon for Sixtus.  He then received Sixtus into the Dominican Order.

When Paul IV became pope in 1555, he made Ghislieri bishop and eventually Cardinal, much to his reluctance and opposition.  Pope Paul also made Ghislieri Grand Inquisitor.  He adopted the religious name Alexandrine, and as Cardinal took as his titular church the Dominican church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva.  He continued to wear his habit and tried to keep to the observances of the Order as much as possible.

In 1565 Michele, or Cardinal Alexandrine, was elected pope mostly due to the influence of St. Charles Borromeo.  He protested his election with many tears, but the conclave finally prevailed upon him to accept.  As pope he faced one of the most troubled times in the history of the Church: in Rome and the Papal States there was widespread corruption and disorder, in America to the West there were problems with the missions and colonists, the Church was in a state of decline and badly needed reform, in the North there was the Reformation and the persecution of Catholics in England, and finally to East there was the threat of a European invasion by the Ottoman Empire.

Pope Pius V had to deal with the problems over which he had direct temporal control and those in the New World.  He set about to reform the decadent lives of the Roman citizens and the rampant banditry in the Papal states.  Within a year of his accession, he had purged his domains of the worst of its vices.  In America, the Spanish colonists were treating the natives with severe cruelty and injustice.  He appealed to temporal leaders to correct these crimes for the sake of sheer human dignity and proper Christian conduct and because of the problems they were creating in missionizing efforts.

In religious matters he had to contend with both Protestantism and Church reform.  In regards to the Protestants, he is best remembered for having excommunicated Elizabeth I of England with the Papal bull Regnans in Excelsis in 1570.  Remembering the compassion and mercy he showed as Commissary General, it seems likely he was driven to this extreme action as remedy to call her and her subjects to repentance, not as a punishment.  He issued the bull only after the persecutions in England reached unprecedented cruelty.  It unfortunately had the effect of causing resentment among the British rather than resulting in Elizabeth’s reconciliation.

Pius also implemented the sweeping reforms mandated by the Council of Trent.  He promoted seminaries for the education of priests.  He published a universal Roman rite of the Breviary (in 1568) and Missal (Tridentine rite in 1570) while preserving those rites with a 200 or more year history. (Notable among such is the Dominican rite, still sometimes celebrated by priests of the Order).  He also fought vehemently among ecclesial circles against Nepotism and Absenteeism. In 1567, he declared his Dominican brother, Saint Thomas Aquinas a Doctor of the Church and established his feast day as equal to those of the four great Latin Fathers of the Church: Sts. Ambrose, Augustine of Hippo, Jerome and Gregory.

His greatest contribution to Western civilization, however, was the halting of the invasion of Europe by the Ottoman Empire.  Seeing the threat posed by the Turks, Pius sought to unite the Catholics nations in an alliance named the Holy League.  He was only able to unite Venice, Rome and Spain against the Eastern menace.  These three powers assembled a fleet of about 200 ships to meet Turkish fleet of 300 ships.  Supported by a rosary crusade as well as other spiritual aids, the Christian fleet met the Turks at Leponto on October 7, 1571 under the command of Don Juan of Austria.  The Christian fleet won the battle, which began the slow decline of the Ottoman Empire. 

The pope was given a vision of the victory the exact hour that it occurred.  As a result, he instituted the feast of Our Lady of Victories that was ultimately changed to Our Lady of the Rosary (October 7th) or Rosary Sunday (the first Sunday in October).

Pope Saint Pius V died a few months after the victory at Leponto, on May 1, 1572.  His feast day is April 30.  His undying fidelity to the Church and her faith and his constant zeal are certainly inspirational.  Despite al

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