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I noticed what looked like oversized red hats hanging from the ceiling on the cathedral of St. Louis. Can you tell me what they are?
I thought no one would ever ask. Those are indeed hats. They are called galeros, or cardinal hats, and they are threatened with extinction.
Galeros have been part of a cardinal’s official attire since they were first given out by Pope Innocent IV in 1245. It is a low-top wide-brimmed hat made out of red velvet lined with watered silk and adorned with thirty red tassels, fifteen on each side, though the tassels have varied in number over the years. The galero was used during the creation of cardinals until it was abolished by decree of Pope Paul VI in 1969, together with some other clerical garb that was deemed “over-the-top.” With the tassels rolled up or dangling, they were worn by cardinals attending non-eucharistic papal ceremonies.
The galero is also featured crowning the coat of arms of cardinals, even until today when the galero itself has been abolished. The galero replaces the customary heraldic crown or helmet in coats of arms, those being thought too militaristic for ecclesiastics.
Similar hats were worn and used for the coats of arms by lower-ranking clerics as well. They differed in color and the number of tassels, the rule being the lower the rank, the lower the number of tassels.
Now back to St. Louis. It was customary to suspend a galero over a deceased cardinal’s tomb. It was left there until it disintegrated, symbolizing the passing nature of all worldly things. In dioceses where cardinals are not buried in the cathedral, their galeros are suspended from the cathedral ceiling. In addition to the cathedral in St. Louis, many other cathedrals in the United States follow the same custom.
Though they are no longer handed out by the pope and though they have been abolished, an occasional galero has been spotted on more recently created cardinals. Maybe the galero is about to make a comeback?
© 2015 Order of Saint Benedict, Collegeville, Minnesota. Excerpted from What’s the Smoke For? And Other Burning Questions about the Liturgy by Johan van Parys © 2014 Order of Saint Benedict, published by Liturgical Press, www.litpress.org. Used by permission.
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