The value of receiving the pallium publicly from the hands of the Successor of Peter will be lost

This year Pope Francis changed the way the pallium will be distributed to new metropolitan archbishops. The pallium is a liturgical vestment comprised of strips of white wool embroidered with black crosses, held together with pins, worn over the shoulders at solemn events.

Since the Second Vatican Council, new archbishops have travelled to Rome to receive the pallium from the hands of the Roman Pontiff in St Peter’s Basilica on June 29, the feast of Ss Peter and Paul. When worn by the Pope, the pallium signifies the fullness of his office and authority. When worn by archbishops, it symbolises their unity with the Pope and their delegated authority in their region.

Speaking of unity, before they receive the pallium, new archbishops make a public oath in Latin: “I, ___ Archbishop of ___, will always be faithful and obedient to St Peter the Apostle, the Holy Roman Church, and to you, the Supreme Pontiff and to your legitimate Successors. So help me God Almighty.” For decades this has been done collectively before the Pope at St Peter’s Basilica. Then they receive the pallium. No longer.

Although pallia will still probably be blessed by Pope Francis on June 29, and although they still symbolise the union of the archbishops with the Bishop of Rome, and although the archbishops will eventually, probably, make the same oath (no doubt in the vernacular since, after all, who uses Latin?), the sign value of receiving it publicly from the hands of the Successor of Peter will be lost.

It seems that the Pope will now give the archbishops the pallium, but out of the limelight. Then the archbishops take their pallium back home. They’ll arrange to have it imposed by the papal nuncio. There will probably be a Mass and a “Here’s this thing” moment. I suppose this change gives bishops of suffragan dioceses a chance to be present, as well as more people from the region.

There is nothing new here, historically speaking. Before the Council, the pallium was simply sent out to those who were to receive it. Also, there is nothing magical about the pallium: it doesn’t make an archbishop more of an archbishop. It could be that these changes are part of
Pope Francis’s project to diminish the Roman Curia’s importance and decentralise the Church. Just as the pallium has varied in its form over centuries, so do customs surrounding it.

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (26/6/15).

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