Le Privilège du Blanc

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By Luci Lizares


Thursday, May 1, 2014

WE ARE still euphorically high with the canonization of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II—now officially saints in heaven.

If you watched the whole coverage of the event, you will see members of royalty and dignitaries falling in line to extend felicitations with Pope Francis.

The protocol of having an audience with the Pontiff is always defined by modesty and respect. Formal Vatican etiquette requires women wear a long black dress with a high collar and long sleeves, and a black mantilla or a veil.


However, we did see that some women did dispense with the veil but almost were in midnight black except for some who came in all white.
So who can come in white?

Only a privilege few are afforded this, and in French, it is called “Privilège du Blanc” or “Privilege of the White.” It is a solemn tradition extended to Catholic queens, princesses and duchesses who are allowed to wear a white attire and mantilla during an audience with the Pope.

If we are to go Romano, the Italian term would be Privilegio del Bianco. During the canonization still so fresh in our minds, we saw this privilege exercised. So who were the ladies in white?

There was Queen Sophia of Spain who wore a long immaculate white gown complete with peineta and white mantilla. Classic and elegant as befits a monarchy, she was donned in pearls. Flashy jewelry should be avoided in the presence of the Holy Father. But one can always still look regal with downplaying as did Queen Sophia.

Also in white was the Grand Duchess of Luxembourg, Maria Teresa. Pretty and pixie, the Duchess chose a white suit below the knee and a white veil. Queen Paola of Belgium was likewise pristine in a white dress with a long white veil.

Not all of monarchy’s wives are accorded the privilege of wearing white in a Papal Audience. Particular Catholic queens and princesses have traditionally been exempted from wearing black. In the past, the privilege was extended to the Empress of Austria-Hungary as well as the queens of France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Bavaria, Belgium and Poland.

It did not extend to Queen of Saxony, due to the family's non-Catholic faith. As the abolition of European monarchies continued, the privilege has remained to a select few. The Queens of Italy, Belgium, and Spain, the Grand Duchess of Luxembourg, and the Princesses of the House of Savoy have been permitted to wear a white dress and white mantilla for a Papal audience.

It is important to note that the privilege is not accorded to the wives of all Catholic monarchs or monarchs of other religious background. Even though they are Roman Catholics, it is not accorded to the wife of the King of Lesotho or the wife of the Prince of Liechtenstein, nor (until 2013) to the wife of the Prince of Monaco. So Princess Grace Rainier, Catholic as she is and Monaco as well, was in black when she visited the Pontiffs of her time.

Neither Queen Maxima of the Netherlands, who remained a Catholic after becoming Queen of the Netherlands has the “Privilege of White.”

The monarchs of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Tonga, and the United Kingdom are of the Protestant faith; and the remaining world monarchs in existence belong to other religions. Queen Elizabeth would wear black with tiara in place.

In the presence of the Pope, protocol dictates that you address him as His Holiness.

As noticeable in the canonization coverage, you can single out the Catholics because they would bow and kiss the ring of Pope Francis. Some women even did the curtsey. Others just had a firm handshake with Pope Francis.

Pope Francis sometimes breaks protocol. When Queen Rania of Jordon visited the Vatican with her husband King Abdulla II, Pope Francis bowed before them instead of them bowing to him. In another incident, just this March, Pope Francis kissed Argentina’s President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. They must have long time relationships with Pope Francis being an Argentine.

Wives of Heads of States and Lady Presidents are not granted the privilege of wearing white. Jackie Kennedy as well as all wives of American presidents wore black with veils during their Papal visits. The President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, (some of them refer to him as a dictator) was present during the canonization and his wife, Grace, was in a long mourning black dress with black headdress and champagne colored pearls.

That’s a brief study of Vatican protocol for women. So, if you ever have the blessing of a Papal Audience, never forget to address the Pope as Your Holiness, bow, kiss his ring, and even if you are the “Queen of your home,” never wear white but be as modest as you can be in mourning black with a veil if you have one.

Published in the Sun.Star Bacolod newspaper on May 01, 2014.


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