On Their Shoulders: The pallium in American Catholic history

SPECIAL DELIVERY. Boxes containing palliums ready in St. Peter’s Basilica for delivery to new metropolitan archbishops on June 29.

The news that Pope Francis has changed the procedure for the reception and imposition of the pallium probably struck most Catholics as a relatively insignificant alteration in a ceremony restricted to very high members of the hierarchy, archbishops with metropolitan provinces—and therefore virtually unknown to most of the faithful. The change in the ceremony means that although each year the newly named metropolitans will go to Rome to receive the pallium from the pope on June 29, the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, as they have done in the past, the pallium will actually be imposed on them only later, in the cathedral of their home diocese.

The pallium, made of wool and worn around the neck, was originally used only by popes, symbolizing that the pope was a good shepherd carrying a lamb on his shoulders. By about the sixth century, the pallium was granted also to metropolitan archbishops to indicate their ties to the see of Rome and their jurisdiction over a metropolitan province, which consists in a major diocese or metropolitan see and several suffragan dioceses. (It should be noted that prelates may have the rank of archbishop without being metropolitans, like nuncios to governments or apostolic delegates to national hierarchies or secretaries to Roman curial congregations.)


As the practice of conferring the pallium on a metropolitan developed, it came to symbolize his full metropolitan authority. Citing earlier legislation, the Code of Canon Law of 1917 specified that a new archbishop had three months after being consecrated or taking possession of his see to seek the pallium from the pope either personally or through a representative. Only after the pallium was imposed could he exercise his authority in the province. This canon was repeated in the revised code of 1983.

In the United States, getting the pallium was sometimes difficult. In 1808 Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore was named the first archbishop in the United States, with the suffragan sees of Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Bardstown. But the official bulls and pallium had been entrusted to Bishop Richard Luke Concannen, O.P., who was consecrated in Rome as the first bishop of New York. Unfortunately, he was unable to obtain passage on a ship to the United States because of the Napoleonic wars and died in Naples. Only on Aug. 18, 1811, did Archbishop Carroll receive the pallium, delivered by the British minister to the United States and imposed on him by Bishop Leonard Neale, the coadjutor bishop who would succeed him as archbishop.

Immigration was the single greatest cause for the increase of the Catholic population and, therefore, for the increase of archdioceses. In 1846 St. Louis was elevated to metropolitan status, as was Oregon City, which was in the Oregon territory, then disputed between the United States and Britain. Three years later, the bishops of the province of Baltimore, which included all the United States except for St. Louis, which did not yet have suffragan sees, met for the Seventh Provincial Council. Independent of the conciliar legislation, the bishops, who included Archbishop Peter R. Kenrick of St. Louis, met to petition the Holy See to elevate to metropolitan sees the dioceses of New York, Cincinnati and New Orleans. When Pius IX received the petition, he must have seen a glimmer of hope in the expansion of the church across the Atlantic, for in Europe the church seemed shrouded in darkness. At the time, he had been exiled from Rome by the forces of the Risorgimento, which would finally end papal temporal power, and was living in Gaeta, near Naples. From there, he sent the necessary bulls and palliums to establish the new archdioceses.

A Growing Church

But the American church continued to expand. In 1875 Pius IX, nearing the end of what remains the longest pontificate in church history, named the first American cardinal, John McCloskey, archbishop of New York, and established the four new provinces with a metropolitan and suffragan sees: Boston, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Santa Fe. The Holy See appointed Msgr. Cesare Roncetti to bring the red biretta to Archbishop McCloskey and the palliums for the new metropolitans. Boston was separated from the Province of New York, Philadelphia from the Province of Baltimore, and Milwaukee and Santa Fe from the Province of St. Louis. The growing metropolis of Chicago was temporarily bypassed because the bishop, James Duggan, had gone insane and was in a mental hospital in Hanover, Mo.; so for the time Chicago remained part of the Province of St. Louis. Duggan had a coadjutor, Thomas Foley, who died in 1880, at which time Chicago also become an archdiocese. Santa Fe was elevated to the status of archdiocese, but its suffragan sees were not canonically dioceses but vicariates apostolic, missionary territories under the jurisdiction of bishops with delegated authority from the Congregation of Propaganda Fide, the missionary arm of the Holy See, in Rome.

In April 1875 Monsignor Roncetti presented the red biretta to Archbishop McCloskey in Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. The new cardinal-elect still had to go to Rome to receive the official red hat from the pope at a consistory. Monsignor Roncetti then undertook a tour of the United States to attend the celebrations of the imposition of the pallium in Boston, Philadelphia and Milwaukee. He described the ceremonies and the Gregorian chant in Boston and Philadelphia as equal to anything in Europe. He then took a train to Pittsburgh and then to Chicago, where he boarded a steamboat to go up Lake Michigan to Milwaukee. There he reflected on the ethnic pluralism of the American church, as he described the reading of the bulls in Latin, English and German.

He then told his Roman superiors that he abandoned his original intention to proceed to Santa Fe to confer the pallium on Archbishop John Baptist Lamy. He had learned from Cardinal McCloskey and others that the distance from New York to Santa Fe was almost equal to that of an ocean-crossing to Italy, with about 400 miles of the journey by stage coach or on horseback, with “the danger of encountering the Indians, who entertain themselves by taking from the foreigners they encounter the hair on top of the cranium.” The monsignor commented that “although because of my baldness I would not have to fear becoming the victim of this act, nevertheless I think it well not to venture on this journey,” so he entrusted the brief and the pallium to Bishop John Baptist Salpointe, the vicar apostolic of Arizona, who was passing through New York on his way to his post.

The Imposition of the Pallium

Monsignor Roncetti’s account of the conferral of four palliums in four widely separated new metropolitan sees is one of the most colorful, but it also indicates the importance that the conferral had for the local church over which the new archbishop would exercise his authority. Not every such ceremony, however, was a sign of harmony. On April 12, 1939, Francis Spellman, then auxiliary bishop of Boston, received a telegram informing him that he was named the archbishop of New York. He had been ordained a priest for Boston but had several conflicts with the diocesan bishop, Cardinal William Henry O’Connell. He managed to get a position at the Vatican, where he was the first American to work permanently in the Secretariat of State.

In 1929 he befriended the newly appointed secretary of state, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli. In 1932 he was named auxiliary bishop to Cardinal O’Connell, who had not asked for an auxiliary, much less for Bishop Spellman. Cardinal O’Connell had risen to his position through his friendship with Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val, the secretary of state under Pius X. Now, his auxiliary of seven years had a yet more powerful patron in Rome, for Cardinal Pacelli was the new pope. Bishop Spellman was installed as archbishop at a Mass in New York on May 23, 1939, but he had to wait until the following March for the imposition of the pallium. In an effort to overcome past enmity and display some sense of unity, he had succeeded in having Cardinal O’Connell agree to impose the pallium, only to have the cardinal notify him less than a week before the ceremony that he had a sore throat. Cardinal Spellman then had to phone Cardinal Dennis Dougherty in Philadelphia, who had earlier declined an invitation to attend, to take the train to New York to preside over the ceremony in which the symbol of metropolitan authority would be conferred on him.

The wool for the pallium is taken, at least in part, from two lambs blessed by the pope on the feast of St. Agnes, Jan. 21. During the summer, the lambs are shorn, and religious sisters then use the wool to weave the palliums, which are then stored in an urn close to the spot thought to be the tomb of St. Peter. In times past, the presentation of the pallium was frequently informal, especially when a delegate of the archbishop was dispatched to fetch the garment. Sometimes, even if the new archbishop actually visited the pope, an assistant would simply take him to the urn containing the palliums and hand him one of them to take back to his archdiocese.

The change made by Pope Francis in the way the pallium is presented and imposed is a minor one, but it does reintroduce the time-honored involvement of the local church without surrendering the special relationship to the Holy See represented by the pallium. The former imposition by the pope of the pallium on newly named metropolitans presented the danger of deepening the erroneous belief of too many Catholics that archbishops and bishops are delegates of the pope.

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Charles Erlinger
3 years 6 months ago
Very interesting, and thanks.


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