Why the pope doesn’t have a crosier

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | August 24, 2018

While he is the bishop of Rome, the pope’s power is worldwide

Why doesn’t the pope carry a crosier Bishop David Ricken and other bishops, do?

The pope does carry a papal staff, but it is not technically a crosier.

Pope Francis arrives to lead a prayer service New Year’s Eve 2014 in St. Peter’s Basilica. He is carrying Pope Benedict XVI’s papal cross. It was given to Pope emeritus Benedict in 2009 by the Circolo San Pietro. CNS photo | Paul Haring)

According to the Vatican’s Office of Liturgical Celebrations, the pope does not use a crosier because it is “a symbol of investiture of a newly-elected bishop given to him by the metropolitan archbishop or by another bishop.” The pope does not receive investiture from another bishop. Additionally, there is a tradition that the curved top of a bishop’s crosier is meant to remind us of a shepherd’s staff. However, the curve is also said to be a sign of limited authority. The pope’s authority on earth is not so limited, the Vatican added.

(Of course, the derivation of the word “crosier” comes from “cross,” something the pope does indeed carry.)

However, while not the case today, in the earliest days of the papacy, popes do seem to have carried staffs. Certainly St. Peter, like the other apostles, would have had a walking staff. In fact, there is a legend that the staff of St. Peter resides in the Diocese of Trier (Treves) in Germany. It is said that St. Peter himself gave the staff to Eucharius, the first bishop of that diocese.

Wide recognition

It is known that popes carried a shepherd’s staff from the fifth to the 11th centuries. Then the practice died out, perhaps because the pope was so widely recognized that he did not need a symbol of his regional authority as bishops did. The true papal staff — which most often resembles a cross or crucifix — did not return until the time of the Second Vatican Council.

The only time the papal cross/staff is really needed is for specific liturgical celebrations such as the dedication of a church or the opening of a Holy Door. For example, Pope Francis used a papal cross at the opening of the Holy Door at St. John Lateran Basilica on Dec. 13, 2015.

After that gap between the fifth and 11th centuries, when the papal staff showed up again in the Middle Ages, it was used more as a sign of temporal power similar to the scepter of a king or emperor. The papal staff was surmounted by a knob atop a cross and was sometimes called a “ferula.” That name comes from the Latin word for a fennel stalk. The ancient Romans sometimes used stalks of fennel to flog prisoners.

The papal staff (not to be confused with the pope’s pectoral cross, which he wears) has continued to resemble a cross, but gradually became more elaborate in style. Historians agree that there were three stages of the development of the papal crosses:

  • A cross with one crossbeam – resembling Christ’s cross;
  • A cross with two cross beams – in the heraldry of the later Middle Ages, a double-barred cross indicated the arms of an archbishop;
  • A cross with three crossbeams. The triple crossbeams — each of diminishing length — have been given various meanings/symbolism over the centuries: the Trinity; the theological virtues of faith, hope and love; the pope’s temporal powers (temporal, spiritual and material) and the papal responsibility to teach, govern and correct. This cross is sometimes called a “signum regiminis et correctionis” (a sign of power and correction).

Pope Paul VI cross

During the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI commissioned a new papal cross, designed by the Italian artist Lello Scorzelli. While most people will recognize this cross with its drooping crossbar and splayed body of Christ as the cross of St. John Paul II, it was first used by Blessed Paul VI. The cross — which has received mixed reviews for its distinctive design of the dying Christ — has also been used by St. John Paul I, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.

The popes often use a papal cross in liturgical processions, though it is not technically a processional cross. While the popes are allowed to design their own papal cross, they most often choose to use those of their predecessors.

Reused crosses

St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have all used papal crosses of previous popes, such as Pius IX and Pius XII. On March 25, 1983, St. John Paul II used the cross of Pope Leo XIII at the opening of the Holy Door of St. Peter’s for the Jubilee Year of the Redemption.

Pope Francis has also used a papal cross that is currently known as Pope Benedict XVI’s papal cross because it was given to the now-retired pope in 2009 by the Circolo San Pietro. This group dates to the 19th century, when it was formed to assist the papacy. Pope Benedict’s Cross is gold and adorned with symbols of the Paschal Lamb and the four evangelists on the front, and the monogram of Christ (the Chi-Rho) and faces of four church fathers (Ambrose, Augustine, Athanasius and John Chrysostom) on the back.


Sources: “The Church Visible: The Ceremonial Life and Protocol of the Roman Catholic Church”; the “Catholic Encyclopedia”; vatican.va/news_services; giovannipaolomagno.blogspot.com; taylormarshall.com; ancient-symbols.com; and seiyaku.com

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