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 as basilicas in the Catholic Church. Being a basilica denotes that this particular church building has special privileges that have been granted by the pope. There are both “major” and “minor” basilicas. There are only four major basilicas, all of them 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 called “minor basilicas.”
As the Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga, Tenn., explains on their 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 one minor basilica: 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 two special items — and one privilege — that it received when the pope designated it as a basilica. Pope Benedict XVI did for in 2006. (Only the pope can designate a basilica.)
One of these items is a bell called the tintinnabulum. This bell, adorned in the colors of red and yellow, can be carried in special processions at the basilica.
The other item is the umbrella, known as the ombrellino (little umbrella). It is also red and yellow and made of silk. It is 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 (which existed from 756 to 1870) and still can be found on the papal coat of arms. In the Middle Ages, when coats of arms for rulers first became popular, red and yellow were known by their Latin names: gules (red) and or (gold).
Ties to pope
These two items — the bell and umbrella — indicate any 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 — to alert the faithful to his coming.
Today’s omabrellinos are meant to remind people of those times and to be prepared to greet the pope, should he arrive. This is why the ombrellino in a basilica is always kept slightly open, as if ready to shield a quickly-arriving pope.
(There is another type of ombrellino which you might see used on Holy Thursday in the procession of the Holy Eucharist. However, this umbrella is usually white in color.)
Besides these two papal items which a basilica possesses, it also receives a special privilege. It is allowed to use the papal symbol of the crossed keys on its banners, furnishings and the seal of the basilica (if it 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 there is an ombrellino is to recall how it stands ready to welcome a pope. At the times there is no pope ruling — as happened after the resignation of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI — the coat of arms of the Holy See changes. Instead of being topped with the papal tiara, its image of the crossed keys of Peter are shown shielded by a red and yellow umbrella. This indicates that there is no pope and his seat stands empty (sede vacante) while the church awaits the coming of the next pope, chosen by the Holy Spirit.
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