POPE FRANCIS WELCOMES BABY LAMBS BLESSED ON FEAST OF ST. AGNES
This morning, in keeping with the tradition for the January 21 liturgical memory of St. Agnes, two lambs, blessed earlier in the morning in the Roman basilica named for this saint, were presented to Pope Francis. The lambs are raised by the Trappist Fathers of the Abbey of the Three Fountains. When their wool is shorn, the Sisters of St. Cecelia weave it into the palliums that, on the June 29th feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, Apostles, are given to new metropolitan archbishops as signs of their office.
The pallium is a white woolen circular band embroidered with six black crosses which is worn over the shoulders and has two hanging pieces, one in front and another in back. Worn by the Pope and by metropolitan archbishops, it symbolizes authority and expresses the special bond between the bishops and the Roman Pontiff. In a 1978 document, “Inter Eximina Episcopalis,” Pope Paul VI restricted its use to the Pope and metropolitan archbishops. Six years later, Pope John Paul decreed that it would be conferred on the metropolitans by the Pope on the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul.
Usually in attendance at the January 21 ceremony in the Apostolic Palace are 21 people, including two Trappist fathers, several nuns, two canons of the Chapter of St. John, the dean of the Roman Rota, and two officials from the Office of the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff, and a number of other invited guests.
The baby lambs, under one year of age, are normally tucked into wicker baskets, and both lambs and baskets are adorned with red and white ribbons and flowers, white to symbolize purity and red to signify the blood of a martyr. In 2004 St. John Paul II blessed the lambs during a general audience in the Paul VI Hall as both the audience and St. Agnes’ feast day occurred on a Wednesday.
Agnes died about 305 and is buried in the basilica named for her on Rome’s Via Nomentana. Historical accounts vary about the birth, life and manner of death of Agnes but generally it isrecounted that, in order to preserve her virginity, she was martyred at a very young age, probably 12. She is usually depicted with a lamb because the Latin word so similar to her name, agnus, means “lamb.” The name Agnes is actually derived from the feminine Greek adjective hagné meaning “chaste, pure.”
A couple of years ago I was intrigued by the January 21 press office communiqué about this event. It had been slightly altered since the announcement the previous day that the Pope would bless “two live baby lambs.” Naturally it was the word “live” that intrigued me – as if he might bless lambs that were no longer alive. That word did not appear the day of the blessings!
In 2011, L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican paper, carried an interview with Sr. Hanna Pomniaowska, one of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth who prepares the lambs every year for their Vatican visit. This order of nuns has been preparing the baby lambs for over 130 years and it was their founder, Blessed Frances Siedliska, who started this custom in 1884. Up to that date another order of nuns had prepared the lambs but it became difficult when the nuns began to age. At that time the Sisters of the Holy Family took over the duties.
Two lambs are brought to the sisters on January 20 by the Trappist Fathers of Tre Fontane (Three Fountains). The nuns then bring the lambs to the top floor of their residence where there is a terrace with a laundry room where the lambs are washed with delicate soap usually used for children until their wool is white as the driven snow and they are dried with a hair dryer that, in recent years, has replaced the towels they once used.
The nuns are careful to completely dry the lambs so that, at their tender age, they do not fall sick. The room is well heated. After the lambs are dried they are placed in a tub that is covered with straw and closed with canvas so they don’t catch cold. A meal of straw is fed to the lambs who then spend the night in the laundry.
The morning of January 21, the nuns place two small capes on the lambs, one is red to indicate St. Agnes’ martyrdom and the other is white to indicate her virginity. There are also three letters on each mantle: S.A.V. (St. Agnes Virgin) and S.A.M. (St. Agnes Martyr). The sisters weave crowns of interlocking red and white flowers, place them on the baby lambs’ heads, and then put the lambs in a decorated basket. The lambs are tied so they don’t escape. In fact, one of them did escape a few years back, jumping up and running from the altar at St. Agnes basilica.
In the morning the lambs are brought to St. Agnes Basilica where they are placed on the altar and blessed. Following this ceremony, two papal sediari or chair bearers bring the lambs in a van to the Vatican where they are presented to the Holy Father. It is usually the sisters who are celebrating a jubilee of religious vows who are present in the papal residence.
POPE CHANGES HOLY THURSDAY RITE OF WASHING FEET
(VIS) – The Holy Father has written a letter, dated 20 December and published today, to Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, in which he decrees that from now on, the people chosen for the washing of the feet in the liturgy of Holy Thursday may be selected from all the People of God, and not only men and boys.
The Pope wrote that he has for some time reflected on the “rite of the washing of the feet contained in the Liturgy of the Mass in Coena Domini, with the intention of improving the way in which it is performed so that it might express more fully the meaning of Jesus’ gesture in the Cenacle, His giving of Himself unto the end for the salvation of the world, His limitless charity”.
“After careful consideration”, he continues, “I have decided to make a change to the Roman Missal. I therefore decree that the section according to which those persons chosen for the Washing of the feet must be men or boys, so that from now on the Pastors of the Church may choose the participants in the rite from among all the members of the People of God. I also recommend that an adequate explanation of the rite itself be provided to those who are chosen”.
The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments has today published a decree on the aforementioned rite, dated 6 January 2016, the full text of which is published below:
“The reform of the Holy Week, by the decree Maxima Redemptionis nostrae mysteria of November 1955, provides the faculty, where counselled by pastoral motives, to perform the washing of the feet of twelve men during the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, after the reading of the Gospel according to John, as if almost to represent Christ’s humility and love for His disciples.
In the Roman liturgy this rite was handed down with the name of the Mandatum of the Lord on brotherly charity in accordance with Jesus’ words, sung in the Antiphon during the celebration.
In performing this rite, bishops and priests are invited to conform intimately to Christ who ‘came not to be served but to serve’ and, driven by a love ‘to the end’, to give His life for the salvation of all humankind.
To manifest the full meaning of the rite to those who participate in it, the Holy Father Francis has seen fit to change the rule by in the Roman Missal (p.300, No. 11) according to which the chosen men are accompanied by the ministers, which must therefore be modified as follows: ‘Those chosen from among the People of God are accompanied by the ministers’ (and consequently in the Caeremoniale Episcoporum No. 301 and No. 299 b referring to the seats for the chosen men, so that pastors may choose a group of faithful representing the variety and unity of every part of the People of God. This group may consist of men and women, and ideally of the young and the old, healthy and sick, clerics, consecrated persons and laypeople.
This Congregation for Divine Worship and the Disipline of the Sacraments, by means of the faculties granted by the Supreme Pontiff, introduces this innovation in the liturgical books of the Roman Rite, recalling pastors of their duty to instruct adequately both the chosen faithful and others, so that they may participate in the rite consciously, actively and fruitfully”.