Pope Benedict XVI - Essays and Reflections on His Papacy

Don Clemmer

Don Clemmer

“Sometimes common ground has whiskers and a tail. The Pope’s ministry is after all about unifying, as well as shepherding. But then the leader of the world’s billion Catholics probably knows all about the challenges of shepherding cats.” —from the essay “Shepherding Cats” by Don Clemmer

A Talk with Don Clemmer, author of the essays “The Teachable Garment” and “Shepherding Cats” from Benedict XVI: Essays and Reflections on His Papacy

Q. Pope Benedict XVI was teasingly named “Accessorizer of the Year” by Esquire magazine. Yet there’s a deeper catechetical purpose to the papal wardrobe. Please explain.

A. The Catholic Church has always used symbols to teach about itself, and Pope Benedict has embraced this right down to his personal attire. He’s worn vestments decorated with seashells, an ancient symbol for the Church’s pursuit of the truth. He redesigned the papal pallium—the wool band worn over the shoulders of an archbishop at Mass—to resemble the straps of a shepherd’s feedbag, a nod both to the ancient origin of the pallium and to Benedict’s ministry as chief shepherd of the Church.

Q. Why did the Pope bring back into service some items of the Papal wardrobe that hadn’t been used in a while, such as the red shoes and the “Santa” cap?

A. Pope Benedict believes in a Church firmly rooted in its tradition. We see this in his approach to the Second Vatican Council, which he embraces unflinchingly and yet interprets in the context of all that has come before it. Similarly, in wearing traditional papal attire, Benedict is living out his role as a pope for the 21st Century with a visible sign of continuity with those who came before him.

Q. Is Pope Benedict as fond of cats as has been reported?

A. The tricky part of writing about Pope Benedict’s love of cats is that the Vatican is not in the habit of reporting on the pope’s private life. But just piecing together accounts of those who’ve been close to him over the years, it’s clear that a love of cats is part of Joseph Ratzinger the man.

Q. Why do you think people are so tickled to think that the Pope likes cats?

A. It’s funny to think of all the pomp and pageantry that surrounds the pope and juxtapose it with a warm, fluffy kitten. The pope’s loving cats is a humanizing detail in a world that’s often short on empathy and appreciation of shared humanity. It provides a connection, like finding out a celebrity or personal hero enjoys the same music you do, or roots for the same sports team.

Don Clemmer is assistant director of media relations for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.


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“Pope Benedict believes that peace can only come when we respect the fundamental human rights of all people.”

Virginia Farris