Like so many millions of Catholics around the world waiting for the traditional white smoke to begin to flow from the Sistine Chapel’s chimney, I can’t help but wonder who the next Pope will be to slip his feet into the traditional red shoes as successor of Saint Peter and leader of the Universal Church.
The wearing of red papal shoes (then “sandals”) dates back to the earliest times of the Church. However, in 1566 St. Pope Pius V, a White Dominican, decided to change the papal vestments from red to white leaving only the Pope’s cappello (a wide circular brimmed hat), cape and shoes the color red. Usually elaborate, the leather soled, less structured papal “slippers” of the time were made of red satin and silk along with gold thread and embroidered ruby encrusted crosses. Until the first half of the 20th century, it was customary for pilgrims having an audience with the Pope to kneel and kiss one of his slippers. Similar to many of noblemen of the time, the Pope also wore red slippers inside his residences and red Morocco leather shoes outside. Centuries later, Pope Paul VI decided to update his footwear and eventually discontinued the use of “slippers” altogether in favor of sturdy red shoes for both indoor and outdoor use.
Throughout Church history, the color red has been deliberately chosen to represent the blood of Catholic martyrs spilt through the centuries following in the footsteps of Christ. The red papal shoes are also linked to Christ’s own bloodied feet as he was prodded, whipped, and pushed along the Via Dolorosa on his way to his crucifixion, culminating in the piercing of his hands and feet on the cross. The red shoes also symbolize the submission of the Pope to the ultimate authority of Jesus Christ. Beyond this, it is said the red papal shoes also signify God’s burning love for humanity as exhibited during Pentecost when red vestments are worn to commemorate the decent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles as tongues of fire rest upon their heads.
Though the devil may wear Prada, most recent Popes have worn Stefanelli, a Novara based Italian shoemaker who, out of love for his church, reportedly made a pair of shoes for Blessed Pope John Paul II as a gift in 2002. After being deeply moved by the Popes declining health, Adriano Stefanelli, wondered how he could help alleviate some of the Holy Father’s suffering. “Since I can make shoes, I thought that the only thing I could do was to make a pair for him.” The Catholic cobbler continued making shoes throughout the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI and is now known as the official Papal shoemaker.
Now that Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI has slipped out of his trademark ruby red shoes to put on a pair of Mexico-made leather loafers and begin life as a simple pilgrim, we wait and ponder who will be the next to occupy the shoes of Saint Peter. After a Cardinal is chosen as Pope and Bishop of Rome, he will go alone into what is known as the Room of Tears, a tiny space located off the Sistine Chapel to the left of the altar and just below Michelangelo’s Last Judgment fresco. Once inside the dimly lit room with its red velvet wallpaper, whitewashed ceiling and small red couch, the former Cardinal will have a few silent moments to himself. It is named the Room of Tears because of the heavy emotion that accompanies the realization of the enormity of the sacred responsibilities the newly named Pontiff has just assumed. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to imagine that Popes have been moved to tears in the room because of the magnitude of their new duties as the apostolic authority on earth as established by Jesus Christ. Here a mixture of joy and sorrow takes place as the Vicar of Christ, the Successor of St. Peter, and Shepherd of the Universal Church realizes his life has now changed forever.