The Pallium

Author: Father Gerard Skinner

The Pallium

Father Gerard Skinner*

Christian heritage

Every year on the Solemnity of Sts Peter and Paul, newly appointed Archbishops from throughout the world converge on the great Basilica of St Peter's in Rome to gather around the Holy Father and receive from him the Pallium, the insignia of office of a Metropolitan Archbishop — an Archbishop who has been appointed to "preside" over an ecclesiastical province that includes his own archdiocese in which is located the metropolis (city), the word from which the title Metropolitan is derived.

The word Pallium derives from Latin signifying a coverlet, a mantle or a small cloak. In the Western Church, the Pallium has been for centuries a circular band of finely woven white wool about two inches wide, worn around the neck, having two pendants, one hanging down in front and the other behind. The pendants are approximately two inches wide and twelve inches long, and are weighted with small pieces of lead covered with black silk. On the Pallium are woven six small black crosses — one on the front and back, one on each shoulder, and one on each pendant. The crosses on the front, back, and left shoulder are provided with two small loops, to hold in place three pins — spinulae — often set with precious stones.

There is very little agreement about either the origins of the Pallium or its introduction into rites of the Catholic Church before the reign of Pope St Gregory the Great (590-604). Some scholars have argued that the Pallium is of Roman origin. Others contend that the Pallium is derived from the Greek himation, a long rectangular piece of cloth that was draped over the left shoulder, around the back and under the right arm finally being passed over the left shoulder. Further theories as to the origin of the Pallium include the suggestion that the trimmings on a garment known as the Pallium became detached and thus the name of the original garment was transposed to the new ornamental one.

By the sixth century more is known about the development and usage of the Pallium. Pope St Symmachus (498-514) is recorded as having sent a Pallium to St Caesarius, the Bishop of Arles, in 513. Pope St Felix (526-530) attempted to designate Boniface II (530-532) as his successor by pre-empting an election and conferring on him his own Pallium — on condition that it should be returned if he were to recover! Pope Vigilius (537-555) granted the Pallium to Auxanius and Aurelian, the successors of Caesarius. A mosaic of Archbishop Maximian at the church of Santa Vitale in Ravenna, dating from the sixth century, clearly depicts the use of the Pallium as episcopal insignia. Bishop Ecclesius is portrayed in a similar manner in the apse of the same church.

During the Pontificate of Pope St Gregory the Great, the Pallium was granted to other Bishops whom he chose to honour, such as Augustine of Canterbury, John of Palermo, Donus of Messina, Constatius of Milan and Virgilius of Arles.

From the time of Pope St Gregory until about the eighth century the Pallium was worn in much the same way as the himation had been worn. But at some point during the eighth century an important change regarding the manner in which the Pallium was worn began to occur: one end of the Pallium did not fall freely over the left shoulder, but rather it met in a V on the breast and from this point the band descended down the middle of the Archbishop's vestments.

The length of the Pallium's pendants have varied through the centuries. Monuments and manuscripts from between the 11th and the 14th century usually show the pendants as being extremely long. After the 14th century they were shortened, and at present the pendants of all Pallia are not more than a foot long.

Even though simple in appearance, the Pallium is rich in significance. Each year, on the Feast of the Virgin-Martyr St Agnes (January 21), the Lateran Canons Regular present the Chapter of the Lateran Basilica in Rome with two lambs. Originally this was payment of a tax by the Basilica of Sant'Agnese to the Lateran Basilica. The lambs are brought to the ancient basilica of the 3rd-4th century virgin-martyr, St Agnes, on the via Nomentana.

Before the celebration of Mass on the Feast of St Agnes the lambs are presented to the faithful for viewing. The lambs rest in two separate baskets, one decorated with red flowers signifying martyrdom, the other with white flowers representing virginity, the former carries the letters 'SAM' (St Agnes Martyr), the latter is designated 'SAV' (St Agnes Virgin). They are carried to the altar at the beginning of Mass, after the principal liturgical procession, and blessed with Holy Water and incense by the Abbot General of the Lateran Canons Regular.

Immediately after the blessing, the lambs are taken to the Pope at the Apostolic Palace for him also to bless them. After the lambs have been presented to the Holy Father, they are entrusted to the care of the Benedictine nuns of the Convent of Santa Caecilia in Trastevere. The Basilica of Santa Caecilia, which is in the nuns' care, is built upon the site of St Cecilia's house, and in the garden of the convent the lambs are cared for until a week or so before Easter when they are shorn of their wool. Every Pallium is woven so as to include at least some of the wool of the two lambs blessed by the Pope.

The Pallium signifies the communion between the Bishop of Rome and the Metropolitan Archbishops whom he has appointed to oversee the Church. One of the most famous mediaeval liturgists of the Eastern Church, Simon of Thessalonica, further declared, "The Pallium signifies the Saviour who finding us like the lost sheep puts us on His shoulders, and taking on our own human likeness in the Incarnation He glorified it, and with His death on the cross He offered us to the Father, and with the resurrection He exulted us."

The plain white wool of the Pallium also serves to remind the wearer that all power and authority comes from the Lamb of God. The lamb is often held as a symbol of peace —the Pallium too is a symbol of the mission to uphold the peace and unity of the Church and to be an apostle of the Prince of Peace.

The Pope's Pallium is slightly different from those that he confers on other Metropolitans and thus signifies the unique quality of the jurisdiction of St Peter's Successor. It is embroidered with red silk crosses instead of the black ones that usually adorn an Archbishop's Pallium. These crosses are to remind the wearer of the five wounds of Christ crucified for us. Three pins are inserted into three of the crosses to remind him of the three nails that caused these wounds in each of the hands and the feet of Christ. Like all other Pallia, the end tips of the garment are embroidered with black silk, reminiscent of the feet of the lambs the Good Shepherd laid down his life for so that they may walk safely on the path of life.

Once made, the Pallia are placed in a small silver gilt casket in the Confessio of the Vatican Basilica, which is the space directly below the High Altar of St Peter's. The Confessio is the area where St Peter's bones rest. Having being placed so close to the tomb of St Peter, the Pallium becomes a relic of the Apostle — relics not only being from the physical body of a saint but also items that have touched such bodies or rested in such sacred places. On the Solemnity of the Apostles Peter and Paul it is from there that the Pallia are taken to the Holy Father for him to confer this ancient and highly symbolic vestment on the newly appointed Metropolitan Archbishops.

*Priest of the Archdiocese of Westminster

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
6 July 2011, page 4

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