Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul and the Tradition of the Pallium 9

Today in the city of Rome, 43 Archbishops, including 2 cardinals, received the pallium from Pope Benedict XVI during a ceremony at Saint Peter’s Basilica. Two other prelates, who were absent will receive the their palliums in their own dioceses.

Among the recipients the following were from dioceses in North America:

  • Archbishop Charles Joseph Chaput O.F.M. Cap. of Philadelphia, U.S.A.
  • Archbishop Luc Cyr of Sherbrooke, Canada
  • Archbishop Paul-Andre Durocher of Gatineau, Canada
  • Archbishop William Charles Skurla of Pittsburgh of the Byzantines, U.S.A.
  • Archbishop Christian Lepine of Montreal, Canada
  • Archbishop William Edward Lori of Baltimore, U.S.A.
  • Archbishop Samuel Joseph Aquila of Denver, U.S.A.
  • Archbishop Valery Vienneau of Moncton, Canada

Follow this link for a full list of the archbishops who received the pallium today.

This brief video from Rome Reports highlights the ceremony:

The Tradition of the Pallium

The Pallium

The pallium is a Y-shaped liturgical vestment worn around the collar by Metropolitan Archbishops only during special liturgical celebrations.

St Gregory the Great wearing a white omophor

The word “pallium” means a “covering” in Latin, because the pallium is worn over the other vestments and it covers the shoulders. The equivalent vestment in Eastern Orthodox churches is called the omophor, from omos (shoulder) and pherein (to bear). This Greek title indicates the role of the Metropolitan, who as a bishop is a shepherd of his local flock. The word omophor, then, hearkens the significance of Christ, the Good Shepherd, bearing the lost sheep on his shoulders.

The allusion to the Good Shepherd is deeply rooted in the pallium’s tradition. The palliums worn by Metropolitan Archbishops are made of pure white wool from two very special lambs.

Every year on January 21, the Feast of St Agnes (agnus in Latin means lamb), two white lambs are presented for blessing at the Lateran Basilica (traditionally, this is the Pope’s Basilica in the city of Rome). The lambs were once considered a tribute tax from the Basilica of St Agnes to the Lateran Basilica.

Before the ceremony, the lambs are presented to the faithful in two separate baskets, one decorated with red flowers, signifying martyrdom; the other with white flowers, signifying virginity — St Agnes was a virgin-martyr. One basket bears the letters SAM (St Agnes Martyr); the other, SAV (St Agnes Virgin).

After the blessing ceremony at the Lateran Basilica, the lambs are brought to the apostolic palace at the Vatican for the Pope to bless them.

Afterward, the lambs are delivered to the Benedictine Nuns at the Basilica of St Cecilia in Trastevere, Rome, to be tenderly loved and cared for in the basilica garden over the next few months. A week before Easter, the lambs are shorn, so that their wool may be used for the weaving of the pallia. Every pallium contains some strands of wool from these two brave young lambs.

Once the pallia are sewn, they are placed in a silver casket, which is reserved in the Confessio — a special place beneath the altar of St Peter’s Basilica where St Peter’s bones are laid to rest (contrary to some accounts that I’ve been told, the pallia do not actually touch the bones of St Peter). Due to their proximity to the Saint’s bones, the pallia become first class relics.

On the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul — that is today — the Holy Father places a pallium on the shoulders each new Metropolitan Archbishop during a ceremony at the Vatican.

The Significance of the Pallium

The pallium, made of pure white wool, represents the Lamb of God who shed his blood for our sins. It’s being reserved in the tomb of St. Peter and conferred by the Pope, stresses the significance of the unity of the Church, especially regarding that among the bishops of the Church with the Bishop of Rome: primum inter pares — first among equals. The pallium’s Y-shaped form, can be understood to signify a yoke: For my yoke is easy and my burden light (Matt 11:30). There are 5 black crosses embedded on the pallium (red crosses on the Pope’s pallium) signifying the 5 wounds of Christ. Three of the crosses have three pins inserted in them to remind the bearer of the nails driven into our Lord’s hands and feet. Finally, the tip of the pallium is embroidered in black, like the lamb’s feet. For Christ the good shepherd laid down his life for his sheep that they may walk the path of life.



  1. Wow, great post. I didn’t know any of this (except for the Eastern Omophor part). Thank you for such an illuminating post, which will be a definite help in understanding, designing, and writing icons. Plus being fascinating on its own. There are so many symbols and traditions that I just do not know about.
    What happens to the lambs after shearing? I am almost afraid to ask, domestic livestock having such a short future as a rule. Are these special lambs spared?

    • Thanks! I am glad you found this useful, especially if it helps to understand, design, and write icons (I just picked up a helpful little book, by the way: Praying with Icons — I forget the author’s name — very helpful so far!).

      There were a couple of details that I left out, because they are not clearly expressed in any of the sources that I found. I knew about these traditions from conversations in Rome, but I needed the internet to fact-check as much as I could and piece the whole tradition together. There’s only so much you can do with the internet, still.

      First, according to one source that I did not site (information was scant), 12 pallia are made from the wool — for the 12 apostles, I suppose. I am not sure how it all works out exactly, because there are more than 12 recipients of the pallium each year. However, the EWTN account taken from L’Osservatore Romano said that every pallium contains some strands of the two lambs’ wool. I guess that 12 pallia are made completely out of the wool from the two St Agnus lambs, and the rest contain at least a few strands of their wool.

      As for the fate of the lambs, I understand that they are symbolically “sacrificed” on Good Friday. Don’t worry! I am told that they are not slaughtered during this ceremony and am assured that that the ceremony is not a liturgical function. Their not being actually slaughtered during this symbolic “sacrifice” is for very good reasons. (1) Christ is the sacrifice. Period. His sacrifice on Good Friday took the place of the Passover sacrifice, definitively. (2) We don’t do animal sacrifices. (3) None of the rituals involving these lambs are considered liturgical, not even the conferring of the pallium, which took place outside of the Eucharistic Celebration this year. All of these traditions involving the lambs are symbolic functions that refer to Christ as Shepherd and Sacrificial Lamb, ultimately, the Paschal Mystery. Like many elements of our Christian heritage, they serve as useful reminders of the mysteries of faith.

      The non-slaughtering of the lambs is like the presidential pardoning of the turkey on Thanksgiving day, by weak analogy. As for what happens to the lambs after Good Friday, I’m afraid I do not know, except I’ve been told that they do make a final reappearance at the St Peter’s Basilica on Easter Sunday and you can see them on TV. How’s that?

      • Thanks. I like it.
        So many fascinating traditions. thanks for the additional information. I am glad for the lambs, hope they are living out their natural lives in some idyllic pasture in Italy.
        As for that book you picked up, it’s probably the one by Jim Forrest, and it is wonderful. One of my favorites, which I read and re-read, and always pick up something new that I failed to notice before.

    • Thanks! The Catholic tradition is rich with meaning. Christian symbols are like living windows. They give us a unique, personal experience of the living mysteries of faith. It is truly beautiful!

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