Catholics fond of statues and pictures of medieval male saints like Francis of Assisi and Anthony of Padua and Thomas Aquinas and Bernard of Clairvaux can easily conclude that all men of that era were bald. The tops of their heads are always bare. A mere ring of brief locks circles the crown of their head, exposing their skull to sun in the summer and cold in the winter. Of course baldness was not the problem. Until recently all candidates for the clerical state, the diaconate and priesthood, experienced a clipping of the hair known as the tonsure. The Roman Catholic tonsure consisted of shaving only the top of the head, so as to allow the hair to grow in the form of a circular crown. This practice was claimed to have originated with Saint Peter (!), and was the practice of the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church until suppressed by Pope Paul VI in 1972. A very few traditional priestly communities do however legitimately maintain the practice.
A good head of hair might have been seen as an occasion of vanity and trimming the hair was a sign of commitment to God over self. Although secular priests in the United States never wore the full tonsure, a few tuffs of hair were ceremoniously cut off in the form of a cross by the local bishop about half-way through the seminary years. Religious women often experienced a similar ritual in entering the sisterhood. Priests of this diocese ordained before the mid-1970s would all have received the tonsure.
Moving ahead a few centuries, depictions of male saints like Vincent de Paul and Philip Neri and Edmund Campion would all be viewed with small “beanies” on their heads. These skull caps were a prudent response to the shaved clerical head. Hot sunlight in the summer and cold draughts in the winter could be quite annoying. A bit of stitched material was just enough protection to ward off the sun’s burns and the winter’s chill. This brief covering was called a zucchetto and is still worn by bishops and higher ecclesiastics. The pope’s white zucchetto is often proffered to a fortunate tourist. (Zuchetto the cap and zucchini the vegetable have the same verbal root: zucca indicates a pumpkin or gourd in Italian. Cut two inches off the bottom of a zucchini, turn it upside down, and you have a zucchetto!)
Now why is Father Kiley introducing all this ecclesiastical esoterica into his Quiet Corner essay? The psalm response to the Scripture readings in this coming Sunday’s liturgy is Psalm 16, the psalm traditionally recited or sung while the local bishop clipped hair off an eager priestly candidate. Often this ceremony occurred at the end of a seminarian’s college years and at the start of his major seminary experience. The practice was significantly Biblical.
When the Jews finally entered into the Promised Land after their forty-year trek in the wilderness, 11 of the tribes were given land, acreage, territory to settle, develop and cultivate. The tribe of Levi received no land, no territory, no property. Levi’s inheritance was the Lord! As Psalm 16 happily reads: “You are my inheritance, O Lord! O Lord, you are my allotted portion and my cup, you it is who hold fast my lot.” Like Levi, whose only treasure was the Lord, so the priestly candidate forsook the pleasures and treasures of this world to dedicate himself fully to the service and benefit of the Lord. The Lord was truly to be the young aspirant’s “lot in life,” his “portion” of the “inheritance” which God was apportioning to his people. The hopeful novice would find assurance not in acreage but in the Lord: “I set the LORD ever before me; with him at my right hand I shall not be disturbed. Therefore my heart is glad and my soul rejoices, my body, too, abides in confidence.” The tonsured youth is supremely confident that God will be ever at his side as his guide and support: “You will show me the path to life, fullness of joys in your presence, the delights at your right hand forever.”
Although liturgically low-key, compared to ordinations ahead, the tonsure ceremony was a marvelous opportunity for a young man to profess confidence in God’s paternal fatherhood (“I shall not be disturbed”) but it was also a time for the young man to acknowledge that, from now on, the Lord would be his “lot,” his “inheritance,” his treasure. The material comforts of the world would hold little attraction for the newly dedicated cleric. The Lord was his “allotted portion.” As a clergyman, he would be content, indeed fully satisfied, only with the Lord!
No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here