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Rome Diaries - Week 78

April 25, 2009

Last night, during a tour of the Basilica of St. Agnes Outside the Walls, I noticed a long, thin strip of cloth, a pallium, on the two popes depicted in the ancient apse mosaic. The practice of wearing this woolen ceremonial garment goes back to the 4th century. It symbolized the role of “Good Shepherd” for popes and favored archbishops. The middle ages added an association with St. Agnes, the can mean not only “lamb” but “pure” and “holy.” On January 21, her feastday, two lambs from the Trappist Monastery at Tre Fontane (site of the martyrdom of St. Paul) were brought to the church of St. Agnes. The lambs were drugged, crowned with a garland of roses and put in a basket for their visit to the pope. At the Agnus Dei of the ensuing Mass, the lambs are blessed. The pictures I’ve seen of this year’s ceremonies show each creature sporting two sets of initials, SAM, for “St. Agnes, Martyr” and SAV, for “St. Agnes, Virgin.” They are an instant sensation, sweet and docile in themselves but also the perfect embodiment of the 12 year-old St. Agnes, who stood up to Roman authorities on principles of faith. After their blessing, the lambs are taken to the pastures of the pope’s farm at Castel Gondolfo. When shearing time comes, it is another ride, this time to the Trestevere neighborhood of Rome. They are shorn by the nuns who run the Basilica of St. Cecilia, another early Roman martyr who took a vow of virginity. The nuns will then card and spin the wool and, finally, weave the palliums for the pope to distribute. As the number of metropolitan archbishops has increased over the years, this special wool has to be augmented with wool from other sheep. But those who inquire about such things, are told, very clearly, that a “tiny bit” of the blessed wool gets into every new pallium. After all, that’s what this elaborate tradition is all about – reminding the “shepherds of the Church” they are to be like the Good Shepherd of scripture.

April 28, 2009

Rain forced the pope to drive, not fly, to the Abruzzo region, underscoring his effort to be with the people of this earthquake-devastated region. Benedict first went to a small village, hoping to demonstrate it was the whole region that was affected. He also visited the still-intact casket of Pope Celestine V in the damaged basilica of Collemaggio. But it was two other gestures that moved me more. In one of his talks, the pope declared that “more effective solutions” must be found. Many read this as call for earthquake reinforcement standards, something tremendously expensive and so avoided. This region was nearly leveled in a 1703 earthquake. The sensitive issue was just touched upon; it took courage to bring it up in the midst of relief efforts. Then, as he was departing Collemaggio, the pope left his pallium, the woolen emblem of his role as “Good Shepherd,” which he received when elected pope. What more dramatic way to say that the region would be in his heart after he returns to Rome?

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