One single act of a Pope in solidarity with the poor has apparently changed one of the unique elements of Church tradition around Papal coronations ceremonies forever. This is the story of the Papal Tiara. On November 13, 1964, when Pope Paul VI, donated his Papal tiara to the poor, at St. Peter’s Basilica, little did he know that he was perhaps setting the pace for a break with a long standing Church tradition around the ceremonial installation of new Popes.
The Papal Tiara or the Tri-regno, is a three-tiered conical crown of the Popes used especially during their installations. It is formed by three crowns, with two caudae or fans (two strips of cloth hanging from behind), and was ornately decorated with jewels, with the globe and the cross on its top. It was one of the key symbols of papal authority, symbolizing the triple powers of the Pope: the father of kings, governor of the world and Vicar of Christ. Other interpretations see the three crowns as representative of the successor of Peter’s authority over the Militant Church, the Suffering Church and the Triumphant Church. Yet another interpretation is that, as the Vicar of Christ, the Pope shares in the three-fold offices of Christ; Priest, Prophet and King, thereby having the duty to sanctify, teach and govern others in the faith.
The tiara has a rather interesting history. Beginning with Pope Constantine in the 8th century, the Tiara was worn by new popes on the occasion of their coronations and other solemn occasions. It was called the camelaucum, and was part of the Byzantine court dress. Though it begun as a “simple papal cap” made of white cloth, it later transitioned into a single decorated crown. Two crowns were later added between the time of Pope Boniface VIII and Pope Benedict XII (ca 1294 – 1342), perhaps in an attempt to re-assert papal authority over rising secular states. From then on, it became an essential part of the rites of installation for new Popes.
The last Pope to have used the Tiara was Pope Paul VI. In 1964, he auctioned it to raise money to feed the poor through the Catholic Relief Services, when he heard of the plight of many of the destitute who were going hungry at the time. Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York City arranged for the tiara to come to the United States. The Pope offered it as a gift acknowledging the generous contributions by American Catholics to helping feed the world’s destitute. Following an exhibition tour across the country, the crown finally went to its permanent place now, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC.
Since Paul VI gave up the tiara, none of his four successors have worn one. In 1978 Pope John Paul I replaced the coronation ceremony with a Mass for the inauguration of the pope, a tradition that Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis continued. This resulted in changes concerning the rites of installation of the newly elected Popes. Investiture with pallium, rather, has become the new norm, and the sign of installation. Pope Benedict XVI, in fact, had the image of the tiara removed from the papal coat of arms, substituting it with a more humble bishop’s miter.
In conclusion, whether it is the Tiara or the Pallium that represents the Popes’ office today, does not make so much of a difference. What is more important is that the Vicar of Christ truly lives and represents the service and fidelity of Christ. I agree with Rev. William Saunders when he says, “the tiara or the pallium is not made to fit the man, but the man must strive to fit them.”
Acknowledgement: “Tiara”, Holy See Press Office; “Papal Tiara”, Fr. William Saunders