ROME – A veteran Vatican diplomat recently became a brief cause célèbre in Italy after images of him celebrating Mass in a leopard skin chasuble went viral on social media, generating an avalanche of largely derisive commentary and forcing the local cathedral to issue a clarification.
Archbishop Nicola Girasoli, 66, currently the papal ambassador to Slovakia, was in his hometown of Ruvo di Puglia in southern Italy on Sept. 4 to celebrate a Mass in honor of Father Salvatore Summo, who was marking his 40th anniversary as pastor of the local cathedral.
For the Mass, which was concelebrated with Bishop Domenico Cornacchia of Molfetta, Girasoli donned a billowy chasuble, the outermost garment worn by priests for liturgical celebrations, in a leopard skin pattern. Photos of the Mass were posted to the cathedral’s Facebook and quickly became an internet sensation in Italy.
Many comments were critical of the vestment, referring to it as “disgraceful,” “distressing,” and a “loss of style,” while others were more playful. One commentator suggested that perhaps Girasoli would run faster in the garment, like a leopard, while another suggested it may have been inspired by the Disney character Cruella de Vil.
One commentator came to Girasoli’s defense, noting that when Pope Francis celebrated Mass in Mozambique in September 2019, he wore a chasuble for the occasion dotted with brown orphreys intended to invoke images of leopard skin.
Despite the fact that Cathedral of the Assumption quickly removed the images from its page, they continued to make the rounds on social media and also drew wide coverage in the Italian media.
As the ferment built, the cathedral posted a new Facebook message explaining Girasoli’s choice.
“Given the particular and sui generis interpretations, it is specified that the chasuble worn for the celebration is part of the official liturgy of the poor African peoples in which the celebrant has always been interested during his pastoral mandate, and was worn for thank the Lord for the construction of a house for the most needy of those territories,” the message said.
“We realize that the disrespectful comments are due to lack of knowledge,” the message said, “and you’re asked to correct the inappropriate interpretations.”
Girasoli himself did not comment. The career diplomat served as the papal envoy to Zambia and Mali from 2006 to 2011, and to the Antilles and other Caribbean nations from 2011 to 2017. He then represented the Vatican in Peru before being transferred to his present assignment in 2022.
Occasionally mentioned as a candidate for the role of sostituto, or “substitute,” in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, effectively the pope’s chief of staff for day-to-day administration, Girasoli also has published books in political science on the subject of minority rights.