I was just reading some of the responses to Elizabeth Lev's excellent piece on Obama's meeting with the pope, Barry and Benedict Meet in the Land of Caesars and Martyrs, and one of them made me laugh out loud: "Roman Catholics,'' it said, "I wish would just get over themselves and their church.'' We love our own faex, it's true – and whether Tridentine traditionalists or Pax Christi progressives, are attached beyond reason to our candles and prayer cards and incense -- visual, tactile, olfactory little trails of bread crumbs that make it easier for us to find the sacramental in the everyday world, as we think God intended. (Unlike some birthday boys we could name. And as for you oh gentle commenter, nobody threw you on the ground and made you click.)
Not all of us, it must be said, have similarly warm feelings about the full Queen Isabel-style mantilla Michelle Obama wore for her meeting with the pope, in keeping with protocol and tradition. Though I ask you, did she not rock that sheer, hip-length headpiece, with just a hint of Spanish upsweep? Even Sister Theodosia would have approved, not to mention Rafael.
Why the full Monty-a? Well first, because though not every woman has followed this tradition – Angela Merkel met the pontiff bare-headed, and Hillary Clinton has done it both ways -- meeting Benedict without a mantilla would have been seen as disrespectful, so there was no chance Michelle Obama would do that.
The first lady went well beyond what was required, though; her veil was more Latin than those worn by the wives of the Salvadoran and Colombian presidents for their recent audienze. And in comparison, the short, simple bits of lace Laura Bush and Margaret Thatcher wore to meet Benedict were closer to the Kleenex we used to have to bobby-pin to our heads when we forgot our little doilies for daily Mass than they were to the practically Goya-level head-covering Michelle chose. She seems to have been surpassed only by the Catholic Jackie Kennedy, who arrived at the Vatican in a floor-length gown, with Nancy Reagan, in her veiled pillbox, coming in third.
Critics see Michelle's extravagant gesture as so much empty posturing; in the Catholic blogosphere today, the FLOTUS was facing multiple counts of hypocrisy by over-the-top headwear. (Even her fully covered arms were seen as evidence that she was trying to put one over on Benedict, though she would have been stopped at the door in a sleeveless dress.)
But what I liked even more than the look of her mantilla was the look on her face, which can only be described as childlike. If I showed you the photo of my 80-year-old dad meeting John Paul II, you'd see the same thing in his expression; he looks 10 years old in that picture, and that is a grace that cannot be faked.
When it comes to bowing to traditions that aren't our own, isn't that posture a good thing in and of itself? Back when we lived in Texas, my New Yorker husband and I had a running argument about what he saw as the "phony politeness'' of Southern manners –manners that I, much preferring insincere courtesy to heartfelt rudeness, saw as a hallmark of civilization. Can you ever overdo a sign of respect? To me, no.
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