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Why do bishops wear certain regalia?

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Bishops wear certain regalia that are distinctive of the order of bishop, the fullness of the sacrament of holy orders— the pectoral cross, ring, miter, crosier (staff) and pallium.

The pectoral cross is worn by the Holy Father, cardinals, bishops and abbots. The word pectoral derives from the Latin pectus, meaning “breast.” This cross is attached to a chain (or cord) and is worn on the chest, near the heart. In the earliest times, the pectoral cross contained a relic of the true cross or even of a saint. While not all pectoral crosses today continue to contain a relic, the tradition remains.

Bishops also wear a ring. In the past, a distinction was made between the pontifical ring (which would have a gemstone, traditionally an amethyst) and the ordinary ring (which would have the bishop’s coat of arms or some other design engraved on it). The ring, like a wedding band, symbolizes that the bishop is “wedded” to his diocese. Also, the ring would be used, at least in days past, to make the imprint of the bishop’s seal in hot wax to authenticate documents. Moreover, in Catholic tradition, to reverence or kiss the ring of the bishop as a sign of respect for his authority is still proper; interestingly, a partial indulgence was attached to the reverencing of the bishop’s ring.

The other regalia — miter, crosier and pallium— are worn for liturgical functions. The miter is a “headdress.” The word miter derives from the Greek mitra, which signifies a headband or diadem. In the Old Testament, the high priest and other priests wore distinctive garb that included a miter: “For Aaron and his sons, there were also woven tunics of fine linen; the miter of fine linen; the ornate turbans of fine linen; drawers of linen (of fine linen twined); and sashes of variegated work made of fine linen twined and of violet, purple and scarlet yarn, as the Lord had commanded Moses. The plate of the sacred diadem was made of pure gold and inscribed, as on a seal engraving: ‘Sacred to the Lord.’ It was tied over the miter with the violet ribbon, as the Lord had commanded Moses” (Ex 39:27-31; cf. Lv 8:7-9).

Exactly when the church adopted the miter as part of the vesture of bishops is hard to pinpoint. One tradition holds that the miter’s usage dates to the time of the apostles; other traditions place its first usage about the eighth or ninth centuries. Of course artists have taken the liberty to depict the apostles and the earliest saints who were bishops as wearing miters. The first written mention of the miter is in a bull issued by Pope Leo IX in the year 1049, when he granted Bishop Eberhard of Trier “the Roman miter” as a sign of his authority and of the primacy of the Diocese of Trier. By 1100, a bishop customarily wore a miter.

In the Latin Rite, the miter originally was a headband with a veil, and eventually appeared more in its present triangular form pointing upward with two infulae or fans (two strips of cloth hanging from behind). Some suggest that the infulae originated from the sweatband that Greek athletes wore, which was wrapped around the forehead, tied behind the head in a knot with the two ends hanging down the back; since the victorious athlete was crowned with a laurel wreath, the whole headdress soon was seen as a sign of victory. The miter took on a similar symbolic meaning. Such symbolism arises from St. Paul’s analogy: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on a merited crown awaits me…” (2 Tm 4:7-8). Surely, the bishop should be leading his flock in the race to salvation to final victory in heaven.

Over the centuries, miters were elongated or embellished according to the times. For example, during the Baroque period, miters were very tall and were embellished with jewels. Also, in the Eastern rites, the bishops wear a miter that looks like an ornamented round hat with a cross on top.

The crosier or pastoral staff symbolizes the bishop’s role as the Good Shepherd. In the Gospel of St. John (10:1-21), our Lord identified Himself as the Good Shepherd. The word translated as “good” in the original Greek text is kalos, which also means “model.” Our Lord is the model shepherd for the apostles and their successors, the bishops, who are appointed as shepherds. The bishop, like a good shepherd, must lead his faithful flock along the path of salvation, disciplining and protecting them as needed.

The shepherd’s staff is therefore a most appropriate symbol for the office of bishop. St. Isidore explained that a newly consecrated bishop received the crosier so “that he may govern and correct those below him or to offer support to the weakest of the weak.” Since the time of Pope Paul VI, the Holy Father’s crosier has a curved cross at the top, which symbolizes his special office as not only bishop of Rome, but also the vicar of Christ who is entrusted with the leadership of the universal church.

Finally, the Holy Father, metropolitan archbishops and the patriarch of Jerusalem also wear a pallium. A metropolitan archbishop is one who governs an archdiocese and heads a province. The pallium is a strip of white wool worn around the neck like a collar, over the chasuble, with two strips, one hanging down the front and one hanging down the back.

Predating Christianity, the pallium was about 12 feet in length and worn for warmth. Christians adopted this garment and viewed it as a sign of their fidelity to Christ. The usage of the pallium evolved over time: By the third century, it was worn by both the laity and clergy; by the fourth century, by the pope and eventually exclusively by him alone; by the fifth century, by the pope and those important clergy who had received it as a gift from the pope; by the ninth century, exclusively by the pope, metropolitans, archbishops and bishops of special distinction; and by a decree of 1978, by metropolitan archbishops and the patriarch of Jerusalem as well as the pope.

Presently, the pallium is much shorter and is embroidered with six black crosses. The pallia are made each year from lamb’s wool freshly sheared on the feast of St. Agnes (Jan. 21), a tradition originating during the pontificate of Pope John XIII (965-972). The woven pallia are then kept in a small silver box in the crypt area under the high altar at the Basilica of St. Peter near St. Peter’s tomb. On the feast of St. Peter and St. Paul (June 29), the Holy Father blesses the pallia and presents them to metropolitan archbishops.

These different regalia all give a certain distinction to the order of bishop. They also inspire respect for the office and its authority. While “the clothes do not make the man,” the man must strive to fulfill what the clothes signify.

Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Church in Potomac Falls.




© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016