For tailor to popes and cardinals, a consistory is ‘fashion week’

|Crux
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ROME — In the land of Prada and Dolce & Gabbana, fashion houses are associated with the runway.

Yet on Saturday, when the Vatican hosts its own kind of dazzling show, a consistory of  20 new cardinals – still the most exclusive club of the Catholic Church – there is only one answer to the quintessential red-carpet question, “Who are you wearing?”

Mancinelli.

Even if the garments are hand-me-downs, like the one Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires wore when Pope John Paul II made him a cardinal, the label is almost always the same.

The reason lies in the quality. That’s according to half a dozen clerics – from priests to cardinals – who spoke to Crux at the door of this small, unassuming shop in Borgo Pio, the narrow, restaurant-filled street that leads to the Vatican’s Sant’Anna gate, where the entrance to the world’s smallest state is located.

Raniero Mancinelli, head tailor, has been dressing popes, cardinals, bishops, and priests for the past six decades, with a pair of scissors as his hands and a measuring tape as a scarf.

“My first conclave was the one that elected Pope John XXIII, in 1958, but I was just a young boy at the time, helping out,” he said.

His nephew, who is now still “just a boy” is helping out in the store these days, and the tailor doesn’t hide his hope that, between his daughter and nephew, the tradition of dressing clerics will remain in the family.

Mancinelli slices away at fabric on the counter, cardinal red and black scraps falling to the ground with every cut of his scissors. Over his head, etched in wood, is his name and the date the shop was opened under its current title: 1962. He has been in the business of dressing popes since that year, and therefore has had a front-row seat to the changes that occurred in the Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).

The Council, he told Crux Thursday, “shook the church,” and the tremors “continue to this day.”

Having dressed six popes, Mancinelli guesses he has provided the garments for at least 30 classes of cardinals. Though he refuses to say how many from the class of ’22 have been to his shop, he acknowledges being moved by two in particular: Anthony Poola of Hyderabad, India, who on Saturday will become the first cardinal who is also a Dalit – the name for the marginalized group formerly called  “untouchables” in the Hindu caste system – and Peter Obere Okpaleke, from Nigeria.

“When [Okpaleke] first came in, I was a bit shocked, if not even afraid, as he has a very imposing figure. Yet, having gotten to know him, today I would say he is the papabile of the class of 2022. He went from imposing to amicable very quickly, and seems both approachable and very eloquent – all traits a future pope will need,” the tailor said.

Though understandably frustrated at the loss of revenue generated by the changes in church fashion, Mancinelli does not hide that he likes the fact that the cardinals of late are “very modest” in the way they dress, and more often than not pick up their own tab, that can go from “1 to 1,000 Euro.”

“Not so long ago, there was always a foundation or an association paying for the cardinals. Today, they open their own wallets,” he said. “Though in some cases, I don’t let them pay. And this is not because I am trying to butter them up, make sure they remain faithful customers, but because there is something in them that impresses me. And as a Catholic myself, I don’t mind picking up their tab from time to time!”

Having had a front-row seat for the past six conclaves, the tailor said there was only one time when it was obvious who would be elected: Cardinal Giovanni Montini, who chose the name of Paul VI in 1963.

“Every cardinal who came to the store those days – and they are many during the days leading up to the conclave – all of them talked to me about Montini,” he said. “Other times, it was one in two, one in three who brought up a cardinal. But in 1963, every single one of them.”

When it comes to dressing Pope Francis, Mancinelli said he hadn’t tailored the cardinal’s clothes worn by Bergoglio, then archbishop of Buenos Aires, in the 2001 consistory. They were clearly too big for the shy-looking prelate. However, he had, in fact made them, but for his predecessor, Cardinal Antonio Quarracino, who had passed away three years earlier, in 1998.

“With Quarracino I had a true friendship,” Mancinelli said. “It wasn’t the relationship between a cardinal and his tailor, but a real friendship. He would often eat at my house when he was visiting Rome. In fact, there is something I have always felt guilty about: He once had a heart attack when he was here, the day before he was set to fly back to Argentina. Earlier that day, he had been at my house, eating – and drinking! – at lunch.”

Bergoglio did, however, visit the store from time to time, and the tailor remembers once in particular, when he came in looking for a red fascia, something cardinals wear over their cassock, and upon hearing the cost, called Mancinelli “a good thief.”

The tailor says he forgets if the transaction took place in the end.

With its perfect location a stone’s throw away from the Vatican entrance, the tailor often receives walk-ins who, upon opening their luggage, realize they have forgotten one piece or the other of clothing. Yet consistories – along with the retreats held for newly appointed bishops – often signify the busiest period for the store.

“The fact that the consistory this month was in August has meant no vacation time for us,” he said. “Even though I highly appreciate the work, especially after the two years of slow business due to the pandemic, the date was not the best.”

It is a concern shared by many, from Vatican employees to journalists working this beat. August is the hottest month of the year, and traditionally the people of Rome flee the city on holiday. However, after Pope Francis’s surprise announcement of a consistory in late June, many had to change their vacation plans.

To make matters worse for Mancinelli, the bishops created by the pontiff during the past 12 months will be coming to Rome in early September for their in-person training – colloquially called “baby bishop school” – and soon after, Pope John Paul I will be beatified.

“But work is work, and it sure beats the alternative!” he said with a laugh, wrapping up the interview to take care of the incoming customer, Cardinal Luis Hector Villalba Cardinal of Tucuman, in northern Argentina.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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