How often do you see an umbrella in church?
If it’s been particularly rainy, it may be pretty often.
But have you ever seen one, partially open, in the sanctuary by the altar? If so, chances are that you’ve been in a basilica.
Only certain churches can be designated basilicas in the Catholic Church. Being named a basilica means that a particular church has special privileges, granted by the pope. Both “major” and “minor” basilicas exist, but there are only four major basilicas. These are found in Rome: St. Peter, St. John Lateran, Mary Major and St. Paul Outside the Walls. All the other basilicas — a number around 1,800 worldwide — are “minor basilicas.”
As the Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga, Tenn., explains on its website: “Minor, or lesser, basilicas are significant churches in Rome and elsewhere in the world that meet certain criteria and are given special ecclesiastical privileges. Minor basilicas are traditionally named because of their antiquity, dignity, historical value, architectural and artistic worth and/or significance as centers of worship.”
In Wisconsin, we have two minor basilicas: the National Shrine of Mary, Help of Christians at Holy Hill, near Slinger, and the Basilica of St. Josaphat in Milwaukee.
Two special items
Like all basilicas, Holy Hill and St. Josaphat have two special items — and one privilege — received when the pope designated them as basilicas. (Pope Benedict XVI did this for Holy Hill for in 2006.) Only the pope can designate a basilica.
One of these items is a bell called the tintinnabulum. Adorned in red and yellow, it is carried in special processions.
The other item is an umbrella, known as the ombrellino (little umbrella). It is red and yellow and made of silk. You can find it, kept partially open in the church sanctuary. (The omabrellinos in the major basilicas are made of cloth of gold and red velvet.)
Red and yellow were the colors of the papal states. These existed from 756 to 1870. Red and yellow are still used on the papal coat of arms. It has existed since the Middle Ages, when coats of arms for rulers became popular.
Ties to pope
These two items — the bell and umbrella — indicate a basilica’s special tie to the pope. Also in the Middle Ages, when the pope made official processions around Rome, an umbrella was held over his head to shield him from the sun. And a bell was rung before him as he walked — or was carried in a chair. It alerted the faithful to his coming.
Today’s omabrellinos serve to remind people of those times and that they should always be ready to greet the pope – and Christ, should he arrive. This is why the ombrellino in a basilica is always kept slightly open. It is always ready.
(Another type of ombrellino might be used on Holy Thursday in the procession of the Holy Eucharist, but it is usually white in color.)
Besides these two items which a basilica possesses, it also receives a special papal privilege. It may use the papal symbol of the crossed keys on its banners, furnishings and its seal (if the basilica has one). Additionally, many basilicas have their own shields. If a basilica has a shield, it is allowed to place the image of the ombrellino above the shield.
One way to remember why you see an ombrellino is to remember how it stands ready. At times when no pope rules — as happened after the resignation of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI — the coat of arms of the Holy See changes. Instead of being topped with a papal tiara, the keys of Peter appear shielded by a red and yellow umbrella. This indicates that the pope’s chair stands empty (sede vacante) while the church awaits the coming of the next pope, chosen by the Holy Spirit. The church stands ready.
Sources: Encyclopedia Britannica; Stspeterandpaulbasilica.com; Catholic New York at cny.org; Heraldica.org; Aleteia.org; Catholic Encyclopedia; the Arlington Catholic Herald; catholicculture.org; and the Archdiocese of Manila, Philippines