On the bright morning of April 24, in a packed St. Peter’s Square, Pope Benedict XVI solemnly inaugurated his ministry as universal shepherd in a ceremony filled with symbolic gestures. For hundreds of years, the centerpiece of papal installations had been a coronation, in which the pope was crowned with the triregnum, or three-tiered tiara. But Pope Paul VI laid his tiara on the altar of St. Peter’s Basilica during the Second Vatican Council. Renouncing human power and glory and endorsing the conciliar vision of a renewed church, he offered it as a gift to the poor. (It is now displayed at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.) The next pope, John Paul I, did away with the coronation ceremony altogether, and John Paul II followed suit.
The new rite of inauguration has restored to its rightful place the imposition of the pallium, a more ancient and pastoral symbol than the crown. After the proclamation of the Gospel, the senior cardinal deacon vests the new pope with this band of white wool, which encircles the shoulders and falls in two strips hanging down in front and back. Its yoke represents the lost sheep that the Good Shepherd seeks out and carries home on his shoulders. Five red crosses signify the wounds of Christ; and three jeweled pins, once used to hold the garment together and attach it to the chasuble beneath, symbolize the nails that fixed Jesus to the cross. Prior to the election of the new pope, the Office of Papal Liturgical Celebrations announced that the pallium would be redesigned to resemble more closely the garb’s ancient form—longer, broader, draped more loosely around the neck, its front and back pendants hanging on the left side. Vested in this emblem of pastoral service, Pope Benedict XVI looks more like his predecessors of old.
While originally a papal vestment, the pallium also has come to be worn by archbishops on certain solemn occasions and within their own jurisdictions. This pontifical garment, whose history reaches back 16 centuries, has played a larger role in the history of the church than one might expect of a simple strip of cloth.
Although its origin is shrouded in mystery, many scholars think that the pallium was derived from a sash granted to high-ranking imperial officials in the Christianized Roman Empire. The bishops of Rome appear to have used the pallium by the fourth or fifth century. Although its Eastern counterpart, the omophorion, was commonly worn by every bishop, in the West the pallium was at first exclusively an item of papal apparel.
By the sixth century, however, popes began bestowing it upon other Western bishops as a mark of distinction. Initially it was granted to papal vicars (like the bishop of Arles, who represented the pope in the regions of Gaul) and other bishops with special ties to the Apostolic See (such as the bishops of Sicily, who were immediately subject to the pope and administered large tracts of property for the Roman church). Missionaries sent with papal approval to organize the church among newly converted peoples, like St. Augustine of Canterbury in seventh-century England and St. Boniface in eighth-century Germany, were also in this category. Following these precedents, the pallium gradually became associated with metropolitans—archbishops who had authority over other bishops and jurisdiction over whole provinces. They were powerful linchpins in the ecclesiastical structure of the expanding Western church.
The pallium had been extended to all metropolitans by the ninth century. With it came deepening ties to the papacy. Pope John VIII (872-82) formally obliged metropolitans to submit a profession of faith and request the pallium from Rome within three months of their consecration. He further forbade them certain functions and prerogatives until they received it. Soon the pallium was considered to carry legal effects, including the right to consecrate bishops, hold synods and hear appeals from suffragan dioceses; without it a prelate could not be called an archbishop. In this way, an honorific privilege similar to the pope’s own insignia became a means of making metropolitans dependent on the Roman church. As popes in the 11th century sought to exercise a more centralized authority over the whole church in the interest of reform, the pallium’s role as an instrument of control grew. Pope Alexander II (1061-73) required an oath of allegiance to the Holy See before the vestment was bestowed, and Pope Gregory VII (1073-85) insisted that recipients come to Rome to receive it personally from the pontiff. In a culture that understood symbols as both signifying realities and bringing them about, the pallium also reflected and created status and authority for the chief shepherds of Christendom. It was a concrete expression of the way in which the bishop of Rome shared pastoral responsibility and power with other ecclesiastical potentates.
The physical form of the pallium, the regulation of its use and the meaning ascribed to it continued to evolve throughout the Middle Ages. It remained, however, unambiguously connected to the papacy. The pallium was a badge worn, interpreted and conferred by popes. It functioned effectively as a papal instrument, used to bind the far-flung provinces of the church to the Roman bishop and to promote the vision of a papally directed church.
So in our times, each year on the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul (June 29), the pope invests new archbishops from every land with the garment. New pallia are woven in part from the wool of lambs blessed every year on the feast of St. Agnes (Jan. 21) in the church of St. Agnes-Outside-the-Walls in Rome. On the evening before St. Peter’s Day, the pope places them overnight in an alcove below the high altar in St. Peter’s Basilica. This niche lies directly above the tomb of St. Peter himself, and so the pallia are thought to become contact relics, blessed by the apostle whom Jesus commanded to “tend his sheep” and “feed his lambs,” and offering a share in his authority. Reception of the pallium is thus a sign of a bond to the see of Peter and of participation in the pope’s universal solicitude as vicar of Christ, the Good Shepherd.
Since the late Middle Ages, the importance of metropolitans has steadily waned, and the position of provinces in the church has lost much relevance. In current canon law the pallium has been reduced to a simple symbol lacking any real juridical force.
Yet the pallium was one factor in the rise of the highly centralized, Rome-focused Catholic Church we know today. It also represents the pastoral authority of the pope shared with the archbishops. As the church continues to grapple with issues of collegiality and centralization, this vestment’s rich history reminds us that the two have long been held together in creative tension.