by Carol Glatz
The “zucchetto switcheroo” is a long-held tradition for popes and pilgrims.
A guest presents the pope with a brand new white skullcap, and the pope is expected to take it and swap it with the one he’s wearing on his head.
While many pilgrims are familiar with the practice, a newly elected pope usually needs a quick explanation from an aide or security guard when someone suddenly presents him with a fresh new cap purchased from the papal tailors at the Rome-based Gammarelli shop.
Souvenir of a Lifetime
But once they know the drill, popes such as Blessed John Paul II, Benedict and Francis happily have engaged in the tradition, letting the lucky pilgrim get a souvenir of a lifetime.
While the start of the skullcap swap tradition is unknown, it was an already well-established pilgrim practice with St. Pius X in the earlier 1900s.
One lucky pilgrim at the general audience in St. Peter’s Square Oct. 16 was a junior from Providence College, R.I., who is spending the fall semester studying in Rome.
When Pope Francis went through the crowds in his open popemobile, Joseph Day, a native of Rehoboth, Mass., stood on a chair and stretched his arm out over the heads of his classmates to give the pope a zucchetto with a hot pink sticky note stuck inside, attached with a safety pin for added adhesion.
Lauren McNulty from Randolph, N.J., told Catholic News Service that the group of seven students wrote, “Providence College LOVES Papa Francesco!” and signed all of their names underneath.
She said the pope stopped in front of the group, took off his own cap and tried on Day’s gift. After reading the note, he gave the zucchetto back and said in Italian that it was “too big.”
While sometimes Pope Francis does trade in his old skullcap, more often than not he has been choosing to keep his own zucchetto after he places the gifted one briefly on his head and then returns it to the giver.