On Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022, Archbishop Christophe Pierre will travel to Louisville with a special mission on behalf of Pope Francis. Archbishop Pierre is Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, the Holy Father’s official representative to our country, and he comes to invest me with a vestment called the pallium. What is a pallium, where does it come from and what does it mean?
The pallium is a circular, somewhat “Y” shaped vestment of wool given to metropolitan archbishops by the pope as a sign of their union with him and the assistance that the archbishop gives to the pope in pastoring the flock of Jesus Christ throughout the world. The pallium is filled with symbolism and meaning, even down to the wool from which it is made. Each year on Jan. 21, the feast of St. Agnes (whose name is like the Latin word Agnus which means lamb), two lambs are brought from the site of St. Paul’s martyrdom on the outskirts of Rome to the Basilica of St. Agnes Outside the Walls. At the beginning of Mass, they are blessed with holy water and incense, then taken to the pope, who also blesses them. After being blessed by the pope, the lambs are given into the care of the nuns at the Basilica of St. Cecilia, where they live near the home of the great saint upon which the Basilica is built until they are shorn of their wool shortly before Easter.
Between Easter and the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul on June 29, the wool of these twice-blessed lambs is incorporated into a pallium for each man who has been named by the pope as an archbishop during the past year. These pallia, plural, are together laid near the bones of St. Peter under the high altar of the basilica in the Vatican where the pope again blesses them on the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul before sending them throughout the world to each new archbishop. The people of God pray that the archbishop might live every moment with the faith, conviction and courage of Sts. Peter, Paul, Cecilia and Agnes, the great saints through whose shrines the lambs and the pallia have passed. I ask that you, the faithful here in the Archdiocese of Louisville, please pray for me in this way.
The pallium also symbolizes two lambs: Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away our sins, and the lost sheep whom the archbishop, in the person of Christ, carries on his shoulders back to the Father’s house. Adding to the symbolic nature of the wool itself, which reminds us of a lamb, an archbishop’s pallium has six black crosses, reminding us of the love which our Lord Jesus shows for us as he hangs upon the cross. Three of these crosses contain metal pins, which remind us of the nails that pierced our Lord’s hands and feet. The pallium reminds me that, as the one who serves you as archbishop, I am meant to imitate Christ for you. As I strive, in communion and cooperation with the grace of God, to “comfort my people,” I am meant to lead you to the comfort of the cross, laying down my life for you and empowering you to lay down your lives for others. “No one has greater love than this,” says our Lord, “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). I beg that in this regard, too, you will pray for me to fulfill this duty to the very best of my ability.
Finally, the black pieces on the front and the back of the pallium remind us of the hooves of the lamb — the sheep who had been lost but whom the Shepherd has now found. “What man among you,” says Jesus, “having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it? And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy” (Luke 15:4-5). Like the lost sheep, the pallium is placed on the shoulders of the archbishop.
My sisters and brothers, we must seek out the lost. We must serve the weak, the poor, the sick and those among us who are unjustly oppressed. As Pope Benedict XVI said when he received his own pallium as Bishop of Rome, “What the pallium indicates first and foremost is that we are all carried by Christ. But at the same time, it invites us to carry one another.”
As the one who serves you as archbishop, I will wear this pallium on very important days in the life of the church, often when we gather as the people of the Archdiocese of Louisville. Each time you see it, please remember to pray for me. Each time you see it, please remember the love our Lord Jesus, the Lamb of God, has for you. Each time you see it, please make a new effort, in communion and cooperation with the grace of God, to seek out the lost sheep in your own lives. Finally, please consider this a personal invitation and sincere request that you join us at the Cathedral of the Assumption in Louisville at 6 p.m. on Sept. 20 for Mass and the imposition of the pallium. Your presence will enhance our prayer together.