When Rihanna dressed as the pope

Rihanna attends the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute benefit gala celebrating the opening of the "Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination" exhibition on May 7, 2018, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

(RNS) — Rihanna came as a burlesque pope. Cardi B was a vaguely medieval madonna. Madonna, meanwhile, as a queen draped in black, was strikingly sedate. At Monday’s (May 7) Met Gala, Catholicism was beyond chic.

The Met Gala — the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual fundraiser to benefit its Costume Institute — has become the New York fashion world’s high holiday, a contest of sorts in which movie stars, music idols, professional athletes and all manner of undefined celebrities try to outdo one another for the most over-the-top or dazzlingly elegant formal wear.

This year, the ball’s theme was “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” For practicing Roman Catholics, watching the red carpet coverage was at once thrilling and troubling.

On the one hand, a proud Catholic could see the festivities and the accompanying exhibit, which had the cooperation of the Vatican’s Department of Culture, as a welcome way for the church to engage with one of the most intensively followed and creative sectors of popular culture.

This would hardly be a breakthrough. As the haute couture Monday seemed to recognize, Catholicism has a deep design history that is all but inseparable from Western material culture. It’s easily forgotten today that Catholicism once reached into every sphere of life, including fashion, architecture, music. For one sequin-studded night (and for the duration of the exhibit), the general public had occasion to ponder the church’s long cultural treasury. It may even have led some to wonder, “Perhaps, there’s something for me in the church.”

Katy Perry attends the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute benefit gala celebrating the opening of the “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” exhibition on May 7, 2018, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

The eruption of enthusiasm on Twitter and Instagram on Monday night testifies to this possibility. It’s hard to imagine that those commenters, even those more interested in Versace than the Vatican, could fail to ponder the meaning of the processional crosses, reliquaries and vestments on display. Those who attend the exhibit may find their way down Fifth Avenue to the door of St. Patrick’s Cathedral some Sunday to see if this liturgical finery is still in use. (Spoiler alert: It’s no small part of what brings us Catholics back each week.)

Another view would caution, however, that the Met Gala linked the church to a cult radically different from the one honored in the daily Mass: the cult of celebrity.

Yes, for a hot second, everyone was focused on the church’s sartorial and perhaps even its spiritual legacy. But they were more likely thrilling to the sight of Rihanna strutting under a papal-white miter.

For those disposed to object to the Met’s Catholic moment, the primary critique is sacrilege. The gala and exhibit align the church’s treasury of beauty too closely with a trend-obsessed culture. For Catholics, images of the Blessed Virgin Mary are not merely objets d’art, and the sight of rosary beads adorning a bondage mask has a spiritual cost.

In reality, there is truth in both takeaways. No, this was not the most sacrilegious event in the church — there is a long history of carnival in the church. In the Middle Ages, a boy dressed up as bishop would lead the crowds in nonsense prayers on the feast of St. Nicholas. Such playful role reversals, besides being entertaining, were a healthy reminder that the church’s authority and power comes not from human leaders but from Christ alone.

Not long ago, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI offered a better definition of sacrilege than playing dress-up. On a trip to Portugal in 2010, he stated that the greatest danger to the church was not outside enemies but the sin of her members. Every time a Catholic receives the Eucharist and then enacts violence against God or neighbor, sacrilege unfolds.

Pope Francis arrives for his weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on April 25, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

At the same time, the church needs to take care not to affiliate too closely with celebrity in a world where what people crave most is an authentic encounter with other people. Celebrities cavorting in inordinately expensive gowns that riff on ecclesiastical dress has nothing to do with the margins, where Pope Francis has called disciples to go. As immigrants fearing deportation look to the church for help, we can’t be distracted by who wore it better: the pope or Rihanna.

My undergraduates, especially those suspicious of ecclesial power and authority, are not the kind of people who find such cultural excess attractive. They want an authentic encounter with truth, goodness and beauty.

Cultivating an interest in the Catholic imagination among an elite group of human beings residing in one of the most expensive cities in the world may well cause some to remember their faith or seek out the church for the first time. Then, the real work begins for those of us they find there: to show why these images are a source of  meaning, a source of beauty, a source of love.

Without this work, the church’s experiment with evangelization through high fashion may be chic. But, it will also be forgotten.

(Timothy P. O’Malley is director of education in the McGrath Institute for Church Life and a professor of in the department of theology at the University of Notre Dame. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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  • Looks like Rihanna raided the wardrobe of Cardinal Raymond Burke – probably one of his outfits for an ordinary Sunday service. The fancy stuff gets reserved for high holy days.

  • The important question to ask is, who are they glorifying by wearing those clothes? Did anyone mention God or Jesus? Did anyone show their faith for Him? Or was this just another self glorification through the co-opting of religious garments? Who are these people that are wearing those clothes too? Do they sing about things that are far from God? Do their behaviors even come close to being Christ-like? Think Madonna.

    Now let’s talk about Dolan and his cadre that felt this was even a good idea to use sacred images, garments that only those who take vows and “commit” their one and only life to God/Jesus. This whole spectacle was an abomination and those mocking God for fashion have some serious repenting to do. Including Dolan and the rest who should know better.

  • Doesn’t this sort of play into the hands of those who consider the Church the Whore of Babylon? Odd that Dolan and the Vatican would be so supportive. Then again, perhaps Dolan and the Vatican are overly attracted to celebrity. Francis (the original, not the current), not so much.

  • Actually, His Eminence, Cardinal Dolan said that he loaned her one of his mitres for the production of her outfit.

    There isn’t anything papal about the mitre, as the author should well know. Ordinary bishops in Roman Catholic, Anglican, Old Catholic, Lutheran and other denominations with bishops in the Apostolic Succession wear those same mitres, whether white or any other color. They can be bought from any clerical haberdashery, such as C M Almy.

    Even in it’s level of ostentation, the mitre is beautiful in simple black & white.

  • His Enemance Raymond Cardinal Burke, had he been present at this spectacle, would have wowed the audience with his ecclesiastical granny dress, glitter, etc. He would have lent authenticity to this event.

    See “The Cost of Looking Good in the Magic Kingdom” at http://www.awrsipe.com/Burke/TheCostofLookingGood2007.pdf. (No doubt, prices have gone up since this article was posted several years ago.)

  • I doubt if any who believe the RCC is “the whore of Babylon” are smart enough to make the connection.

  • I have to wonder exactly what is being taught in the hallowed halls of ND when one of its faculty claim that the church’s approval of the Catholic theme is simply an experiment of evangelization through high fashion. Really??! This is what Pope Francis means to serve the poor?
    For those of us less educated and enlightened, we spend every waking moment trying to shield our kids from the very people and values that Cardinal Dolan shared the stage with.
    On Sunday, we leave the outside world and enter the physical church to be one step closer to God. The vestments, symbols, icons and sounds of the Mass are integral parts of how we worship. They should be considered sacred and respected; not worn mockingly by unbelievers whose values are diametrically opposed to the teachings of the church.
    Mother of our Savior, Pray for us…

  • Of course it was not a “pope outfit”, as the picture of an actual pope illustrated.

  • It certainly says something about Timothy P. O’Malley and The Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.

    At the very least one might expect him to not make howlers like the phrase “papal-white miter”, when in fact in Christian liturgy and practice white is associated with grace – feasts, baptisms, weddings, and funerals.

  • What you call “fish head miter” is actually a mitre, the traditional ceremonial head-wear of bishops and abbots in parts of the Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion, some Lutheran churches, and certain Oriental Orthodox Churches.

    The Catholic pope only wears one because he is the bishop of Rome, and then only ceremonially.

  • Since St. Paul was never pope, no I can’t.
    But the earliest written histories of genuine Christianity (as opposed to false, heretical beliefs such as, say, the Jehovah’s Witnesses) all prove beyond doubt that the early Church was highly liturgical, patterned after the rituals of the Jewish temple, which did indeed include vestments.

  • The real abomination and sacrilege is when men who profess to worship a Savior who preached poverty and meekness and died in a loincloth on a cross strut about in worldly gold, glitter and arrogance. Nothing Rihanna does could be as blasphemous as that.

  • No need to go to YouTube, tons of nutcases have the same nonsense in easier to access text form, e.g.:


    The actual item descends from a cap used by officials of the Imperial Byzantine court, the Phrygian cap, or frigium, a conical cap worn in the Graeco-Roman world.


    Of course, were it not inspired by pagans, the hole would be on top, and the point on the bottom, and it would be worn while carefully balancing it point down.

  • True enough, but it’s not likely the early church could afford the rich excess we see here. Vestments are drawn from simpler forms.

  • Sorry. While, as a Catholic and a fashion-lover, I look forward to the Vatican exhibit at the Met, there is NO way the church, its “leaders” or its followers can defend the spectacle of Monday night.

    Those attending have NOTHING to do with the Catholic Church and in fact will be happy to poke fun at us, make us feel out of touch or prudes. The whole evening was highly hypocritical. I am embarrassed and ashamed that Cardinal Dolan loaned an actual Bishop’s miter to Rihanna (the classless, tasteless Rihanna). What next? “Step up and take a selfie with the Bishop’s miter worn by Rihanna!!!” Maybe, especially if it makes the church money.

    Dolan (that’s right, no title…he erased proper form and behavior with his own disgusting behavior..so back at ya Big D…) should be severely reprimanded for his actions. Highly unlikely, even the Pope (who we all thought would be a breath of fresh air) loves the lure of stars…meeting Katie Perry! Shaking her hand! Taking pictures with her! Of course she’s a star…can’t turn her down. Let’s ignore her disdain for religion. She can do whatever she wants, dress, act and sing like a whore all you want but don’t then meet the Pope like you’re some kind of angel…. Angels on high were disgusted with her outfit, I’m sure.

    Although, we shouldn’t be all that surprised. She just filled the coffers of the Los Angeles Diocese (ergo the Catholic Church and Rome) by purchasing the convent in CA. You know the one, the one the nuns were promised would not be sold. But hey! She made loads of money for the Church. Meanwhile you and me are not “worthy” of meeting the great Pope!

    I was going to close by asking “What would Jesus do?” But I’m sure the Pope and Dolan would come up with some self-serving answer. So I’m going to go to church on Sunday and I will know His answer. (And since they’ve made so much money from Katy Perry, I’ll save my $$ for the basket.)

  • Have to disagree with you about Pope Francis. He met and took pictures with Katy Perry in Rome. Of course she just loaded the coffers of the LA diocese buying the convent out from under the nuns. And Francis seemed all too happy to meet her.

    Let’s see you and me get an audience with him. Maybe I should undress, appear on stage, decry all religions (including her parents faith) and see if he meets me. Of, and fill their coffers….

    Unfortunately, the Pope is as common and star-struck as the common man. What a loss. Where’s Mother Teresa!!!!????

  • You are right of course. My wording was clumsy. I was trying to suggest a contrast between Francis of Assisi and the current Pope Francis.

  • Of course, as a heretic you completely ignored the content of my statement. No surprise there. Heretics have only insults to wield, not facts.
    For the record, those who wallow in false, man-made traditions are officially called ‘Protestants’, whose pseudo-Christianity was completely non-existent for over 1,500 years.

  • Since the Babylon religions extinguished centuries before Christianity began, trying to tie this hodgepodge together along the lines you apparently buy requires either ignorance or gullibility or both.

    However there are some comic books you might find useful:


    I have always found them helpful when I need a good laugh.

  • And specifically with the graces and virtues of purity and virginity, as in the bride’s white wedding dress at the wedding Mass.

  • Careful, Jeffrey…your Catechism has forbidden Roman Catholics to label your Protestant brothers and sisters “heretics” , so…unless you’re what is known as a cherry-picking Catholic, who picks and chooses what YOU regard as legitimate Catholic teaching, watch your words regarding who YOU regard as heretical. If our Savior relinquished HIS Title as the Judge of all to YOU, I missed that memo. I await your reply. ???