Why a bishop always wears a cross

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | August 27, 2020

Popes, bishops, abbots and abbesses wear pectoral crosses

Anyone who has met a bishop dressed in his black suit (called “clericals”) will have noticed the cross he wears, sometimes tucked into his breast pocket. This is called the pectoral (pectorale or crux pectoralis) cross, named for the fact that it is worn on the chest (pectoralis, Latin for “of the chest”).

This pectoral cross belonged to Bishop Joseph Fox, fifth bishop of Green Bay. It now resides in the Green Bay Diocese Museum in St. Francis Xavier Cathedral. Sam Lucero | The Compass

A bishop always wears a pectoral in public. Sometimes it is worn over his vestments at Mass or under the chasuble (the main vestment), but it is always there, worn on a chain or a cord made of silk.

Pectoral crosses are also worn by abbots and abbesses as a sign of their authority and responsibility.

Pope’s cross

The pope wears a pectoral cross — and this is why other bishops wear one. (The pope is the bishop of Rome.) There was a time when priests and even lay people wore pectoral crosses.

While pectoral crosses are an ancient tradition, they were not common in the first millennium. We do know that, by the ninth century, they came to be worn by popes because of a golden pectoral cross given by Patriarch Nicephorus of Constantinople to Pope Leo III in 811. Use of such crosses by the laity as well as clergy continued for centuries, but became less common among the laity.

Gifts or inheritance

Yes, people still wear crosses for jewelry or as an expression of faith, but pectoral crosses are generally gifted or inherited for the purpose of one’s specific role in the church.

For example, the pectoral cross Norbertine Abbot Dane Radecki wears was worn by Abbot Sylvester Killeen, who served as abbot at St. Norbert Abbey in De Pere from 1955 to 1970. According to Michael Poradek, assistant to Abbot Radecki, this gold cross adorned with an amethyst, has been worn by each De Pere abbot except Abbot Bernard Pennings (abbey founder) and Abbot Jerome Tremel.

Bishop David Ricken — whose 12th anniversary of installation as bishop of Green Bay is Aug. 28, has two pectoral crosses. One was a gift from his family. He calls this cross, with amethysts, “more ornamental. I use that for special occasions: ordinations, Christmas, Easter. The other (cross) that I wear every day was given to me at ordination by Cardinal (James) Harvey as an ordination gift.” (Bishop Ricken was ordained a bishop by St. John Paul II on Jan. 6, 2000.)

St. John Paul himself had a pectoral cross that was a duplicate of the one worn by Archbishop Adam Stefan Sapieha of Krakow who ordained the former Karol Wojtlya (John Paul) to the priesthood. Archbishop Sapieha had received his cross from St. Pius X, whom he had served as papal secretary.


Many pectoral crosses were constructed so that they had a compartment to contain a relic. This was either a relic of a saint or even of the True Cross. For example, according to Fr. Richard Kunst, who maintains the papalartifacts.com site, one of the pectoral crosses belonging to Pope John Paul I contained a relic of St. Francis de Sales.

In the Diocese of Green Bay, several pectoral crosses of past bishops are kept in the museum located in St. Francis Xavier Cathedral. According to Sherry Stoeffel, president of the Green Bay Diocese Museum’s board, the museum has these crosses:

  • Bishop Joseph Melcher (first bishop of Green Bay): his silver cross contains a relic of St. Boniface;
  • Bishop Joseph Fox (fifth bishop of Green Bay and a Green Bay native): his gold, diamond and amethyst cross does not contain a reliquary;
  • Bishop Paul Rhode (sixth bishop of Green Bay): one of his crosses — made of gold and amethyst — has two reliquary compartments, but no relic inside; a second pectoral cross of Bishop Rhode’s, made of gold, diamonds and amethyst, contains a relic of the True Cross;
  • Bishop Mark Schmidt (second auxiliary bishop of Green Bay and bishop of Marquette): his gold and emerald cross contains a reliquary, but it has no relic in it;
  • Bishop Aloysius Wycislo (eighth bishop of Green Bay) also has two gold pectoral crosses in the museum. One contains a relic of St. Aloysius Gonzaga and the other contains a relic of St. Cecilia.

Cross prayer

Whatever the origin of a pectoral cross, whenever a bishop, abbot or abbess puts it on, they kiss the cross and say this prayer: “Deign, Lord Jesus Christ, to guard me, from all the snares of every enemy, by the sign of your most holy cross: and deign to grant to me, your unworthy servant, that as I hold before my breast this cross (with the relics of your saints within it), so may I ever keep in mind the memory of the Passion, and the victories of the holy martyrs.”

The prayer serves as a reminder to all Christians who hold the cross in their hearts or their hands, that the Lord asks us to take up our own cross and follow him.

As Bishop Ricken told The Compass: “When you wake up in the morning and put on the cross, right away, you remember who you are and what you’re about.”


Sources: St. Norbert Abbey; Green Bay Diocese Museum; ziegler.com; lasallete.org; angelusnews.com; the Catholic Encyclopedia; catholicstraightanswers.com; papalartifacts.com; History.catholic.sg; Ethics and Public Policy Center at eppc.org; and aleteia.org

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