Wearing slippers around God’s house

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | September 8, 2017

Thanks to Etruscan fashion, bishops can wear red slippers

Labor Day became a federal holiday in 1894, and has since become known as the unofficial end of summer. For the fashion-conscious, Labor Day used to be the day when summer sandals and summer white clothing were put away for another year.

a pair of episcopal sandals that were worn by Bishop Joseph J. Fox, the fifth bishop of Green Bay. Bishop Fox served from 1904 to 1914. He was the only Green Bay native to be named as the local ordinary. These sandals are now on display at the Green Bay Diocesan Museum. (The museum, located in St. Francis Xavier Cathedral, is currently closed until Dec. 2 for cathedral renovations.) (Patricia Kasten | The Compass)

Sandals are not uncommon footwear in church — especially during summer, for men, women and children. However, sandals were also once official footwear for bishops. In some cases, sandals may still be used by bishops who celebrate a pontifical Mass under the extraordinary form of the Mass. Cardinal Raymond Burke celebrated such a Mass on March 25 this year — the feast of the Annunciation — at St. Mary Church in Greenwich, Conn.

Sandals have been around a long time. Jesus and his followers probably wore sandals, since John the Baptist is quoted in all four Gospels as mentioning them. Sandals were part of the Middle Eastern attire of the day, as it also was around the Roman Empire.

Red sandals

The custom of wearing red sandals became the privilege of Roman senators just before the time of Christ’s birth. Red sandals were made with expensive dyes and thus pretty exclusive.

There is evidence that red sandals were worn by the Etruscans — who ruled Italy from the eighth to the third centuries B.C. — at least the well-to-do ones. The Kingdom of Rome and the Roman Republic followed the Etruscans. By the rise of the Roman Empire in the late first century B.C., Roman senators — who were also granted the privilege of wearing the toga — received the exclusive right to wear red sandals. Besides senators and the emperor, other members of the patrician class eventually received the right to wear red sandals.

After the Emperor Constantine granted Christianity the status of a state religion in 313 A.D., he soon extended this “red sandals right” to Christian bishops. These sandals were also worn with footless stockings that today are called “buskins.” Buskins were usually made of cloth and tied around the calves after the sandals were donned.

Comedy and tragedy

Buskins were originally meant to protect the leg and were worn by soldiers. In ancient Greece, actors in tragedies wore buskin sandals — that covered both the foot and leg. (Comedians wore sandals that more resembled socks.) It is said that Spartan warriors preferred to wear red buskins so that their blood didn’t show when they were wounded.

For bishops and popes, there is also a connection to blood and wearing red sandals — the original color of episcopal sandals. It is traditionally said that bishops should be prepared to shed their blood for their flock, just as Jesus bloodied his feet on the way to Calvary.

There was a time when not only the pope and bishops wore sandals at the Mass. Deacons also had this privilege in the early church at Rome. The “Catholic Encyclopedia” notes that it was not until the 10th century when wearing sandals during the Mass became restricted to bishops. Abbots can wear sandals at Mass, but only if they have been granted permission by the local bishop.

Indoor slippers

Over time, episcopal sandals changed from leather-soled shoes to something more like an indoor slipper, not suitable for outdoor walking. (More recently, episcopal sandals returned to having thin leather soles.)

While the first papal and episcopal sandals were red, their color later changed to match the vestments at Mass. So sandals were made in red, purple, green and white. While vestments of black were once used for requiem and funeral Masses, episcopal sandals were not worn at these Masses. Thus they were never made in black. Over time, red became the dominant color for the pope’s slippers.

Pope Paul VI’s changes

According to the Vatican’s web site, the pope’s indoor slippers were made of red velvet or silk and decorated with gold braid and a gold cross in the middle. In 1969, Pope Paul VI eliminated the use of indoor papal slippers, though he continued to wear red shoes, another hallmark of papal attire. (Pope Francis does not wear red shoes, but Pope Emeritus Benedict does.)

With the liturgical changes that followed Vatican II, the use of episcopal sandals declined rapidly. Today, few bishops even own a pair of episcopal sandals or their attendant buskins — neither Bishop David Ricken nor Bishop Emeritus Robert Banks own a pair.

In the Green Bay Diocesan Museum, a pair of red sandals belonging to Bishop Joseph Fox, who was the fifth bishop of Green Bay (1904 to 1914) are on display. Carol Joppe, diocesan museum expert, noted that there are several pairs of sandals — which look more like thin-soled shoes — in museum storage. These include green and white sandals.


Sources: catholicexchange.com; litsymbols.blogspot.com; the “Catholic Encyclopedia; vatican.va; byzbets.wordpress.com; “The Pope’s Shoemaker” at Gentleman’s Gazette; historyofsandals.blogspot.com; the “Encyclopedia Britannica”; shoehistoryfacts.com; cantius.org; biblicalcyclopedia.com; archives at the Green Bay Diocesan Museum; shoeguide.org; mentalfloss.com; anglicanpatrimony.blogspot.com; and sthughofcluny.org


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