The most famous cufflink wearer in the world

Today’s blog post is about Pope Benedict XVI, arguably the world’s best-known cufflink wearer. Today has been an incredibly sad day for me, since I have long been an admirer of Dr Joseph Ratzinger, beginning with his period as cardinal and continuing throughout his pontificate. Indeed, I feel somewhat of a special bond with him. Firstly, this hails back to 2005 following the death of John Paul II. I was at a seventeenth-century French literature conference in South Carolina – more fun that you might imagine -and I had a wager with a friend from Cambridge. The bet concerned the cardinal who would be elected pope and the name he would assume for his reign. The winner would be the one who correctly guessed both, so it was not certain that either of us would win. My friend opted for Cardinal Scola, then patriarch of Venice, and predicted he would take the name of Paul VII. The prize was a no-holds barred, lavish meal, and I enjoyed some magnificent fare at Loch Fyne in Cambridge in May of 2005. I chose Cardinal Ratzinger and speculated that he would take the regnal name of Benedict XVI. I felt that Ratzinger would be disposed towards Benedict XV (1914-1922), a largely forgotten pontiff who followed in the footsteps of a very charismatic and popular pope. I suspected that this would appeal to Ratzinger, particularly since the name had not been used for almost a century. Benedict XV was a diminutive figure as can be seen in the photograph below.

ImageIt is not very clear, but the papal feet are propped up with a cushion. I hope my British readers will forgive my observation that he very much looks like the comic actor Charles Hawtrey. A few months before his election as pope, Cardinal della Chiesa, as he was, made a visit to the French shrine of Lourdes for an international celebration. Owing to his short stature, he was largely ignored since he didn’t exude the air of someone of any importance (a very foolish assumption, given that Louis XIV, Queen Victoria, and Napoléon were all under 5′ 3″ in height).  The bishop of Grenoble, Louis-Joseph Marin, warmed to the Italian and spent several days with him. This act of hospitality was not forgotten; Benedict XV created Mons. Marin a cardinal several months after his election and transferred him to the important archdiocese of Lyon, despite the prelate being in his mid-50s, a relatively young age for such ecclesiastical advancement.

Another reason for which I am quite bereft today is that I feel that Benedict XVI has been like a father to me. The title of pope comes from a Greek word meaning daddy or pappa. While I have been blessed in my life with an amazing mother, I cannot, unfortunately, say the same about my father. He made little effort to keep in touch with me, his eldest child, when my parents divorced when I was 5 years old (a split entirely caused by his behaviour) and I sought him out when aged 21. When my beloved mother passed away in July, I contacted my father to let him know and give him details of the funeral. This was the woman to whom he was married for 8 years and I was his son. I did not receive one word of a reply. If ever I have the blessing to have children, I will count myself fortunate not to emulate my own father. So, Benedict XVI is the father who has never let me down, even if I feel very upset by his decision to renounce the papacy later this month. I suspect there is a serious reason for doing so and that he has received a diagnosis of dementia or terminal illness. In any case, since Benedict has a very acute sense of history, this must have been a very painful decision for him to make.

ImageI am gratified that Benedict has been a loyal cufflink wearer, with one very famous lapse: the day of his election. Not expecting to be elected pope and certainly not on the second day of the conclave, Benedict was caught wearing a more comfortable black shirt underneath his cassock (above), which demonstrates how much a white French-cuffed shirt is particularly apt for a cleric. I always wore one during my time in seminary. On that day, Benedict gave a simple impromptu speech declaring that “The cardinals have elected me, a simple and humble worker in the Lord’s vineyard”. The BBC correspondant remarked that no one would accuse Ratzinger of being simple.

The tradition of giving a speech on election is a relatively new one. Until John Paul II was elected on 16 October, 1978, popes had simply imparted their blessing to the assembled faithful after the famous “Habemus papam” declaration. John Paul I had wanted to say a few words but was told that he couldn’t. John Paul II didn’t ask; he informed his assistants that he would address the crowd. This ex-temporized discourse is absolutely incredible and can be seen here. Faced with a somewhat lukewarm reception from the largely Italian crowd – he was the first non-Italian pope in 455 years and wasn’t widely well-known to the general public – he succeeds in a few minutes in having the audience eat out of his hand and rapturously cheer him by the end. He was a hugely charismatic man; I had the great privilege of having a private audience with him at Castel Gandolfo in 1985 and being photographed with him. I should scan the picture, but here’s the meta-picture, located in my office, of me meeting Blessed John Paul II.

ImageHow did John Paul II win over a crowd that wasn’t disposed to him? Clutching the balcony, almost as if suggesting he needed support, the Polish pontiff talked to the spectators in informal, intimate terms:

And now the most eminent cardinals have called a new bishop of Rome. They called him from a far-away country . . .  far, but always near in the communion of faith and the Christian tradition. I was afraid in receiving this nomination, but I did it in the spirit of obedience to Our Lord and with total trust in his Mother, the Most Holy Madonna.

In using the word for Mary, he used the idiomatic Italian term Madonna, an attention to linguistic detail that caused many to applaud. He went on, in his flawless Italian: “I don’t know if I can express myself well in your – in our – Italian language. But if I make a mistake, you will correct me.” The correction of your to our and the invitation to people to guide him endeared him to the crowd. He was a remarkable man and I can still vividly remember the hour I spent in his presence in the private audience as well as seeing him in a general audience within the context of a larger crowd in the Vatican.


After the sartorial faux pas of the black shirt worn on the balcony at his election, Benedict never made the same mistake again. The cufflinks he has worn throughout his reign are those seen in the close-up above. They contain amethysts indicating that they were most probably given as a gift when he was consecrated a bishop in 1977, since the amethyst, being purple, often features on episcopal rings. The Vicar of Christ will become simple Mons. Ratzinger at 8pm on 28 February 2013. The fact that he has continued to wear the same pair of cufflinks to fasten his shirts for over four decades is an eloquent sign of his humility. It is this same humble spirit that has undoubtedly led him to renounce the Petrine ministry later this month.

Holy Father, I may not understand why, but I thank you for your service and I love you, Papa.


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