Military chaplain has unique papal zucchetto collection

By Veronica Ambuul

Colorado Springs, Colo., Sep 4, 2011 / 01:11 pm (CNA).- Anyone who is planning a trip to Rome and wants to bring back a unique papal souvenir may want to consider stopping at Gammarelli’s tailor shop before attending an audience with the Holy Father.

With an investment of about $50 and a little opportunism, visitors to the Eternal City could come back with a zucchetto worn by the Pope himself, even if only for a few minutes. A zucchetto is a skull cap worn by Catholic clergy; the Pope’s are always white.

“There’s a very old tradition in which, if you purchase a white zucchetto at the Pope’s tailor shop, you can hold it up during a papal audience and the Swiss Guards will swap yours for the one the Pope is wearing,” said Father Kevin Peek.

Gammarelli’s, established in 1798,  has served five Popes, including John Paul II. It carries a wide variety of religious apparel, including chasubles and miters, stoles, and even cardinal red socks.

Fr. Peek, a priest of the Archdiocese of Atlanta who most recently served as an Army chaplain in Afghanistan and was stationed at Fort Carson, has over the past 16 years obtained three zucchettos worn by three different popes. He proudly displays them in a custom-made glass case.

He snagged his first zucchetto while still a seminarian in December 1996. His class traveled to Rome and was granted a private Mass and audience with Blessed John Paul II. Earlier in the day, while his class was on a walking tour of Rome, he managed to duck into Gammarelli’s, which is located behind the Pantheon, and purchase a zucchetto. He was the only one in his group of seminarians to do so.

During the Mass in the Pope’s private chapel, Fr. Peek was seated toward the back. He was one of the last ones to exit the chapel, so he ended up in the front of the line of seminarians waiting to meet the Pope. After the Pope greeted him and gave him a rosary, Fr. Kevin pulled out the zucchetto and showed it to Blessed John Paul II’s secretary.

The papal secretary rolled his eyes, fearing that every seminarian had come armed with a zucchetto, Fr. Kevin recalled. But he cooperated nonetheless, and removed the zucchetto the Pope was currently wearing, replacing it with the new one.

At the end of the audience, the secretary returned the zucchetto Fr. Peek had purchased, so the exchange was not permanent. Nonetheless, Fr. Peek treasures the zucchetto that the now-beatified Pope wore for about 40 minutes.

Ten years later, Fr. Peek’s zucchetto quest continued, this time during a pilgrimage to Rome that included a Wednesday audience with Pope Benedict XVI. As the audience was ending, Fr. Peek desperately tried to get the attention of the Swiss Guards, but they brushed him off.

Fearing that his opportunity was slipping away, Fr. Peek jumped over the barricades separating the general public from the area where Pope Benedict was meeting with a private group. Again the Swiss Guards ignored him, but as the Holy Father got into the popemobile and started driving away, Fr. Kevin managed to get his attention. Pope Benedict himself, who “loves traditions like this,” Fr. Peek said, reached down and grabbed the new zucchetto, handing the priest the one he had been wearing. The crowd around him was stunned, and everyone wanted to know just what had happened, he recalled.

The third of Fr. Peek’s prized zucchettos came to him by a different route. An elderly priest in the archdiocese of Atlanta owned a zucchetto worn by Pope Pius XII and worried that, once he died, no one would appreciate the item enough to take care of it. When he heard of Fr. Peek’s interest in zucchettos, the elderly priest mailed it to him in a manila envelope.

“I was just floored,” Fr. Peek said. He added that it is interesting to view the three side-by-side because it is evident that they are three different sizes.

Printed with permission from the Colorado Catholic Herald, newspaper for the Diocese of Colorado Springs.