On June 29, the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul, Pope Francis blessed the palliums for the new archbishops around the world. Yet, Vatican observers are commenting that a change in the manner in which they are conferred offers an important insight into the pope’s ecclesiology.
First, a bit about the items themselves. Every diocese has its own bishop, but dioceses themselves are arranged into ecclesiastical provinces which are overseen by an archbishop. In the early church, and even in the United States during the 18th and 19th centuries, provinces which include the “suffragan” dioceses of a given region in communion with the metropolitan archdiocese as its coordinating center, played a critical role in the nomination process of bishops. Thus, the local church had a larger impact on the terna (or list of candidates) proposed to the pope for potential bishops than has been the case in recent decades. Though this practice has largely fallen into desuetude, Vatican II called for such synods and councils “to flourish with renewed vigor” (Christus Dominus 36).
Despite the lack of councils surrounding bishops’ appointments, provinces still play an important role in church governance and structure. In our case, the five dioceses in New Jersey are part of the Newark province.
Each archbishop, as head of a province, receives a woolen vestment with oversized pins in it, made from lambs presented to the pope on the feast of St. Agnes. It’s a sign of the metropolitan’s union with Rome and is usually draped on the recipient in liturgical ceremonies and for his burial. (See for instance the funeral pictures of St. John Paul II, where it is prominently displayed.)
Archbishop Blase Cupich, the metropolitan of the Illinois dioceses recently received his pallium, and John Wester of Santa Fe will soon receive his. Most noteworthy about all of this is a drastic shift in the location of its conferral.
In recent years, Francis’ predecessors insisted the archbishops fly to Rome to receive their palliums in St. Peter’s. However, while Francis blessed them as usual in the presence of the fisherman’s relics, he made clear that they were to be officially presented to each recipient at the site of his local church. So, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, conferred Cupich’s pallium on him in his own Cathedral of the Holy Name here in Chicago. Thus, for the first time in decades, the pallium symbolically united not only the archbishop with the pope, but in a direct and unambiguous way, with both of them to the local flock at home as well.
Ecclesiologically, Pope Francis has often emphasized the importance of the local church, especially through his sincere appreciation for popular piety and what in Argentina is called la teologia del pueblo (a difficult-to-translate concept meaning more than simply “of the people,” with connotations of “place” that are lost in English). His choice to have the ceremonies take place in this way is seen as a nod toward greater “collegiality” between the bishops, where they are not envisioned as mere branch-managers or dutiful foot-soldiers of the Roman church, but collaborators and fraternal networks of support and communion for the pope and one another. It’s less a pyramidal vision, and more a centripetal one, with the pope in the center of the wheel, and the local churches existing on their own around the circumference (on the “peripheries” as he so often puts it).
That’s not to say the pope disregards the universal church, for his Ignatian background heavily emphasizes “sentire cum ecclesia,” thinking with the church, usually understood here to refer to a more global and transcendent vision of it. It’s merely a shift in emphasis and balance, and one which continues to provide a healthy dialectical tension that in some ways mirrors our own faith lives that are always rooted in an individual (localized) personal response to Christ’s offer of grace and Good News, and a communal (universalizing) one rooted in the assembly, the reception of the tradition, and the communion of saints existing across the globe and down through the generations.
Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., Loyola University Chicago.