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The King of France, and the French Presidents after them, had been given by the Pope, the privilege to impose to the nuncio, the ambassador of Vatican, in France to wear the biretta.

What are the meaning and consequences of the use of this privilege? The last President that has used this privilege is Vincent Auriol, from the Socialist Party.


Edit: this question isn't popular at all. Please help to improve it! For example, do you think moving it to History.SE (though I am more interested in the politics and symbolic aspects of the question) would help?

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According to catholicherald.co.uk, it's a token of gratitude. From their article titled 'Analysis: Why Macron accepted a title from the Pope' (emphasis is mine):

The title is offered to every President of the French Republic and predates the modern presidency, originally going back to 1482 and King Louis XI. The tradition was renewed in 1604 when King Henry IV, having renounced Protestantism, donated the Benedictine Abbey in Clairac along with its income to the basilica. The title was created as a token of gratitude. Each December 13, Henry IV’s birthday, the honour is marked by a Mass celebrated at the basilica for the “happiness and prosperity of France.”

I think this quote (followed directly after part above) describes more clearly what the privilege actually entails:

The honorary title gave the French president the right to give the apostolic nuncio in Paris his biretta when he is made a cardinal, though this tradition was discontinued when the Pope began conferring the honour himself.

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  • From your answer, I feel that I confuse the meaning "to put, to place" of "to impose" with the more common meaning "to force".
    – Taladris
    Apr 25 '19 at 22:54
  • @Taladris I'm not sure where they used the word impose, I can't find it on the linked Wikipedia page (now or in the history at the time of your question).
    – JJJ
    Apr 25 '19 at 23:01
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First some terminology.

A cardinal is a priest or bishop (these days nearly always a bishop) who is entitled to vote in the election of a new Pope.

A nuncio is an ambassador (nearly always a bishop) appointed by the Pope to represent the Pope to the secular authorities of a country (King, President etc.)

There is an elaborate ceremony when a bishop is made a cardinal. Part of this ceremony involves placing ("imposing") a biretta on the head on the new cardinal This article describes the procedure:

We shall see now the following step: the imposition of the biretta.

This ceremony hasn't a very solemn character, and may take place either in a room of the Apostolic Palace, or in the Consistorial Hall.

In the afternoon of the day before the day chosen for the Public Consistory, the new Cardinals -not wearing the cappa, but the mantelletta, because this ceremony doesn't take place during a proper Consistory- reach the apartments of the Secretary of State and, leaded by the same Eminentissimo and escorted by their private court and by the Swiss Guards, go to the Cappella Matilde where they wait for the formal notice to go up to the hall where the ceremony is about to take place.

The Sovereign Pontiff, escorted by his Noble Secret Antechamber, wearing the mozzetta and the red Papal stole -but not the falda- reaches the hall were the ceremony will take place and sits on the throne. The new Cardinals are then allowed to step in.

One by one, after the usual triple genuflection, they kneel in front of the throne and kiss the Pope's foot.

The Pontiff clothes them with the red mozzetta (Cardinals in Rome wore the mozzetta on the top of the mantelletta) and the red wool (not the silk) biretta; then they stand up, take off the biretta, kiss the Pope's hand and receive his embrace.

After the imposition of the birettas, the first of the appointed Cardinals addresses to His Holiness a short discourse of thankgiving.

The Pontiff answers to it with a short allocution, and gives his Apostolical Blessing. Then he departs.

After the ceremony, one of the Papal Masters of Ceremony gives the red silk zucchetto to each of the new Cardinals.

If the new Cardinal is an Apostolic Nuncio to a Catholic country (in most recent times: Italy, France, Spain and Portugal), things -until 1969- worked differently.

Only in this case - here a small correction to my previous post is in order- the red silk calotte, or zucchetto, is carried to the newly appointed Cardinal by a noble guard of His Holiness.

It is then a privilege of the Head of the State to impose the biretta on the head of the new Cardinal.

In the article at this point there is a photograph captioned:

(Below: French President Vincent Auriol imposes the biretta on Angelo Giuseppe Card. Roncalli's head)

So normally the Pope places the biretta on the new cardinal's head but if the new cardinal happens to be the nuncio to France, Spain etc. then up until 1969 the head of state of France, Spain etc. had the privilege of placing the biretta on the new cardinal's head.

In the Middle Ages there was no strict separation of church and state. For example the King's courts had no jurisdiction over clerics (monks, priests and bishop) - if a cleric committed a crime they would be tried in special church courts with appeals to the Pope. And the King and his lords had certain privileges in church appointments - the lord of the manor chose the priest for the parish church and some Kings even had the power of veto in the choice of a new Pope.

The privilege of a head of state imposing the biretta on the nuncio, if the nuncio was made a cardinal, was one of the "left overs" from the Middles Ages - no power as such but a privilege of being involved in the ceremony.

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