If you have ever been present to a confirmation or ordination (or any liturgy where the bishop is celebrating) you may have in anyway noticed the bishop putting on and taking off different hats throughout the Mass.
Anyways, it can look strange to many (especially (non-Catholics) and sometimes, it can also provide some comic relief in the midst of a very solemn ceremony which rarely does a master of ceremonies go through an entire liturgy without making some sort of mistake with the bishop’s hats.
What does the hat represent?
The first type of hat the bishop usually wear is called a zucchetto, simply known as a skull cap. This is a closely fitted cap which sits atop the head during official functions and liturgical events.
The Bishops, Cardinals and the Pope all wear one and each posses a distinctive color which indicates their particular rank (violet, red, and white, respectively).
They started using zucchetto for the initial purpose of covering the tonsure of a clergy member, therefore protecting the bald spot on his head from the elements. During the 15th century the zucchetto became more ceremonial in nature and denoted clergy of a specific rank.
However, the skull cap can be worn during ordinary functions outside the liturgy, but it’s always taken off in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.
In the same way with the Jewish kippah, one which is required for Jewish men to wear at all times, it is different in appearance and in function.
The more prominent hat that bishops wear is called the miter and it denotes the authority of the bishop.
Most historians believe the hat is derived from ancient Greece, as its often connected to the liturgical headgear of the Jewish High Priesthood. However, athletes competing in the Olympic games wore ribbons on their head, tied with a band and left to dangle down the back. And also, a cap was worn under the bands for further protection from the heat.
The victors were then, awarded a laurel wreath, which was then placed on top of the cap and ribbons.
The full headgear of the victorious athlete came into adoption by the priests of ancient Greece and was later adopted by the officials in the Byzantine Empire. These two particular associations became an inspiration for the miter later on.
The miter did not actually become a regular part of a bishop’s liturgical garb until the 11th century.
So, during the 12th century the miter developed into what we are most familiar with, a large hat with two peaks (one in front; one in back) and two flaps of cloth called lappets tailing from the back.
Exclusively, it is now used during certain liturgical functions of the bishop.
In view of the origin of the miter, the bishop is however, given the task of leading his flock to Heaven, running with them, and encouraging them to win the crown which is reserved for the victorious (1 Corinthians 9:24).
As the hats of the bishop can appear strange, the same way the historical origins of the headgear reveal a deeper meaning.