The Biretta Today
There are two principal types of biretta worn in the Western Church: the Roman, distinguished by its blades on the top, and the Spanish, distinguished by its four corner curved points. The latter is strictly speaking for use in Spain and Latin-American countries, wherever the Spanish Church had an influence, but it is also worn traditionally in other parts of the Church to celebrate the feasts of Spanish saints. In most cases the colours, fabrics and pompoms or tassels of the Spanish biretta are identical to those of the Roman biretta, except that the Spanish cardinal’s biretta often has a scarlet tassel.
THE BLACK BIRETTA
The fabric used for these is traditionally worsted wool, although cotton drill, polycotton, and gabardine are also used. Silk is normally used, whether plain or watered, for priests serving a special function, such as canons, monsignori, archdeacons and deans. The lining is black silk, except that red silk is used for deans and for priests in the household of a cardinal. Purple silk is used for monsignori and canons. Sky-blue silk is used for priests of the ICK.
The pompom or tassel is black for a priest, deacon and subdeacon, purple for monsignori, and red for deans canons and archdeacons. Priests of the ICK have a sky-blue pompom or tassel. Some Cistercian abbots have a white tassel. Vicars General and Vicars Capitular have black piping.
The number of blades is normally three, though canons regular and academic doctors have four, and subdeacons traditionally have one. Academic birettas without any blades are used in Poland. Some German dioceses (such as Munster) traditionally have four blades.
Imperial Abbots used to have a gold-coloured pompom, and the canons of many Spanish cathedrals have a green pompom.
Academic birettas have pompoms or tassels in a wide variety of colours representing the different faculties. These usually have piping in the same colour too.
THE WHITE BIRETTA
This is worn by priests serving in tropical countries and traditionally by the Superior of the Cistercian Order. Priests have a black pompom, and the Cistercian has a white pompom.
Canons Regular, such as the Canons of St John Lateran and the Premonstratensians, have a white biretta with four blades. Some have no pompom, whilst others can have a white or a black one.
The ‘pope’ of the Spanish Palmarian Church wears a white watered silk biretta with a white tassel.
THE PURPLE BIRETTA
The purple biretta is worn by bishops, archbishops and patriarchs. Its lining is traditionally of green silk, and the pompom or tassel is also purple.
The fabric is either cotton, wool or silk, but Papal Nuncios have watered silk. Some Chinese bishops wear a violet biretta. Traditionally some north Italian bishops had a green tassel, and there are some African bishops who wear a black pompom with their purple biretta.
THE RED BIRETTA
Cardinals wear a scarlet biretta with no pompom or tassel, but if the Spanish variety is worn it often has a scarlet pompom.
The fabric is watered silk, though the scarlet biretta presented to new cardinals by the pope is traditionally of wool.
The lining is scarlet silk.
Anglican priests serving in Royal Peculiars would wear a scarlet wool or cotton biretta with a scarlet pompom.
The Archbishop of Salzburg wears a ruby-red biretta instead of a purple one.
The Superior of the Institute of Christ the King wears a sky-blue biretta.
In the Chinese Catholic Church the prelates wear a violet biretta rather than a Roman purple one.
Green birettas have traditionally been worn by priests who are also Doctors of Canon Law.
Some bishops have shown a preference for a green tassel on the purple biretta.
Brocade birettas in various colours are worn by the priests of some autocephalous Catholic Churches. The colours vary according to the colour of their vestments.