A Few Minutes with the Popes: The Story of the Pope John Paul II Zucchetto
Fr. Richard Kunst, Curator
There are not many priests who have the privilege of concelebrating Mass at the private chapel of the Pope exactly one week from their first Mass, but the newly ordained Father Richard Kunst received that honor.
It is an anniversary he still holds dear. And it contains one of the best stories of his Collection: The procurement of Pope John Paul II’s zucchetto.
7 Rosaries Gifted to Father Richard Kunst from Pope Saint John Paul II
The items are seven rosaries, all gifts to Father Richard Kunst from Pope John Paul II. The Holy Father directly gave all but one to him.
The first was a gift from Bishop Robert Brom, former bishop of Duluth, who was given the rosary by Pope John Paul II on the occasion of his ad limina visit.
NOTE: In the photo above, you see Pope John Paul II handing Fr. Kunst one of the rosaries in the green cases.
Note: In addition to these three privileged occasions, Father Kunst con-celebrated with Pope St. John Paul II numerous other times as well.
Father Kunst has many interesting stories to tell regarding his collection and this one is incomparable:
In June of 1998, within twenty-four hours of being ordained, I went to Rome with (then) Bishop of Duluth, Minnesota, Roger Schweitz who is now the archbishop of Anchorage, Alaska. He was there for his ad limina visit with the Holy Father. I was there, newly ordained, hoping to have a chance to meet John Paul II.
I was able to meet him within forty-eight hours at a private audience. Additionally, I learned later in the week I’d have a chance to concelebrate with the Holy Father and the bishops of our region in a private Mass in his chapel.
Being the popeaholic that I am I knew the obscure detail of ‘swapping zucchettos’ with the pope. A long tradition had developed of buying a white zucchetto at Gamarelli’s, the papal clothing store in Rome and upon meeting the pope, trading the one you’d purchased with the one on his head. For whatever reason, John Paul II rarely observed that tradition.
Even though I knew I was taking my chances, I purchased the zucchetto. After Mass with the Holy Father, when it was my turn in line to greet him, I went up to him and said, Your Holiness, would you please trade zucchettos with me?
He took his off his head, took a hold of mine, put his own back on his head, handed mine back to me and said, I already have one, thank you.
I was completely crushed. But it was a great experience.
I returned to Minnesota, my unused zucchetto packed in my bag. About a year later I returned to Rome knowing I had a fairly good chance of having another private Mass with the Holy Father. So I brought the zucchetto with me and, sure enough, I was able to attend another private Mass with the Pope.
This time, instead of attempting to trade directly with him, since I had already failed and since I knew he didn’t like the tradition, I actually went to his private secretary, (then) Msgr. Stanislaus Dziwisz. Right before Mass, I said to him, Msgr. Dziwisz, would you please trade zucchettos with the Holy Father?
The zucchetto came in a box from Gammarelli’s, identifying its authenticity. Msgr. Dziwisz tapped loudly on the box and in his low voice he said, No, no, no, no.
This was very embarrassing for me because there were probably twenty-five other people in the room. I had asked Msgr. Dziwisz because he was the person who removed the Pope’s zucchetto at the consecration of the Mass. This would have allowed him to trade zucchettos.
After this embarrassment, since I was concelebrating this Mass, I went to vest for it and Msgr. Dziwisz came over to me, put his fingers together, rubbing them and said, Zucchetto. He wanted to see it to make sure it was from Gammarelli’s. He looked it over and took it with him.
During that Mass he exchanged the zucchettos at the point of consecration.
After Mass, the pope remained in his private chapel and everyone present went into his adjoining office. Since I had concelebrated the Mass, I was divesting when Msgr. Dziwisz found me, handed me the zucchetto and said, Make sure he doesn’t see this.
So I put the zucchetto in my inside lapel pocket. Later when it was my turn to greet John Paul, I knelt down and kissed his ring. A photo taken of that moment clearly shows his zucchetto inside my coat pocket and the zucchetto that I had tried to trade with him a year earlier was now sitting on his head.
And that’s the story of how I was able to get the zucchetto of Pope John Paul II.
Upon returning to Minnesota and being tremendously happy about the zucchetto, I told this story at a weekday Mass in Brainered, Minnesota where I was serving at the time. Someone from the local newspaper was at that Mass and asked to interview me about the story.
Eventually, the AP picked it up and this story was published in newspapers all over the country. —Father Richard Kunst
A zucchetto is a small skullcap worn by clerics of the church. It consists of eight panels sewn together with a stem on top.
It was first adopted to keep the tonsured (shaved heads) of clergy warm in damp, cold churches but it has survived to the present day.
All ordained clergy are entitled to wear a zucchetto. The color denotes the wearer’s rank: the pope’s is white; cardinals’ are scarlet and bishops’ are a shade of purple. Priests’ are black. Deacons are also entitled to wear zucchettos.
The zucchetto comes from the Italian word, zucchetti, meaning a small gourd or zucchini and is indicative of its shape.
Bishops wear the zucchetto throughout the Mass, removing it at designated times.
The Collection has a zucchetto from every pope from as far back as Pius IX, who reigned from 1846 – 1878.