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A precious and sacred ornament made of pure gold by skilled artificers, which the popes have been accustomed for centuries to bless each year, and occasionally confer upon illustrious churches and sanctuaries as a token of special reverence and devotion, upon Catholic kings or queens, princes or princesses, renowned generals or other distinguished personages, upon governments or cities conspicuous for their Catholic spirit and loyalty to the Holy See, as a mark of esteem and paternal affection.
The significations of the rose and Lætare Sunday (fourth of Lent), the day on which it is blessed, so blend that the Sunday is oftentimes called Rose Sunday, and rose-coloured vestments, altar and throne and chapel draperies (signs of hope and joy) are substituted for the penitential purple during the solemn function. The Church on this Sunday bids her children who have been so far engaged in prayer, fasting and other penitential works, as also in serious meditation upon the malice of sin and the terrible punishment exacted on account of it, to look up and beyond Calvary and see in the first rays of the Easter sun, the risen Christ, Who brings them redemption, and "Rejoice". The golden flower and its shining splendour show forth Christ and His Kingly Majesty, Who is heralded by the prophet as "the flower of the field and the lily of the valleys"; its fragrance shows the sweet odour of Christ which should be widely diffused by His faithful followers (Pope Leo XIII, Acta, vol. VI, 104); and the thorns and red tint tell of His Passion according to Isaias (lxiii, 2): "Why then is thy apparel red, and thy garments like theirs that tread in the winepress?"
Among the many mystical significations, as set forth in the papal diplomas accompanying the gift, as also in sermons of the popes in conferring it, the following of Innocent III is worthy of note: As Lætare Sunday, the day set apart for the function, represents love after hate, joy after sorrow, and fullness after hunger, so does the rose designate by its colour, odour, and taste, love, joy, and satiety respectively. Adverting to the spiritual resemblance, he continues that the rose is the flower spoken of by Isaias (xi, 1), "there shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse, and a flower shall rise up out of his root". Prior to the pontificate of Sixtus IV (1471-84) it consisted of a simple and single rose made of pure gold and slightly tinted with red. For greater embellishment, yet still retaining the mystical meaning, a ruby placed in the heart of the rose, and afterwards many precious gems set in the petals, were used instead of the red colouring of the gold. Pope Sixtus IV substituted in place of the single rose a thorny branch with leaves and many roses (a half-score and sometimes more), the largest of which sprang from the top of the branch and the smaller ones clustered naturally around it. In the centre of the principal rose was a tiny cup with a perforated cover, into which the pope, when he blessed the rose, poured the musk and balsam. The whole ornament was of pure gold. The Sixtine design has been maintained; but it has varied as to decoration, size, weight, and value. Originally it was little over six inches in height, and was easily carried in the left hand of the pope, whilst with his right he blessed the multitude through which he passed in procession from the church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (in Rome) to the Lateran Palace. Afterwards, and especially when a vase and large pedestal became part of the ornament, it required a robust cleric to carry it, who preceded the papal cross in the procession. The rose sent to Amelia of Brunswick, wife of Joseph I, afterwards emperor, by Innocent XI, weighed twenty pounds of gold. In height it was almost eighteen inches, and in form a bouquet; from the stem sprang three different branches which after many natural windings came together at the top, and supported the largest and principal rose in the midst of a beautiful cluster of leaves. The vase whence rises the shapely and elegant flower, as also the pedestal supporting the vase, varied as to material, weight, and form. In the beginning they were made of gold; but afterward of silver heavily gilt with gold. The pedestal was either triangular, quadrangular, or octangular, and was richly ornamented with various decorations and bassorilievos. In addition to the customary inscription, the coat of arms of the pope who had the ornament made, and that of him who blessed and conferred it, were engraved on the pedestal. Their value varied according to the munificence of the pontiffs or the economical circumstances of the times. Father Baldassari, S.J. (De Rosa Mediana, p. 190) says that the rose conferred about the year 1650 cost five hundred dollars. The two roses sent by Alexander VII were valued at eight and twelve hundred dollars respectively. Clement IX sent the Queen of France one costing twelve hundred dollars, the gold alone used weighing eight pounds. The workmanship on this rose was exceedingly fine, for which the artificer received three hundred dollars. Innocent IX caused eight and one-half pounds of gold to be formed into a rose, which was further embellished with many sapphires, costing in all fourteen hundred dollars. In the nineteenth century not a few of the roses cost two thousand dollars and more. The skill and workmanship of the papal artificers are something truly wonderful.
The custom of giving the rose supplanted the ancient practice of sending to Catholic rulers the Golden Keys from St. Peter's Confessional, a custom introduced either by St. Gregory II (716) or St. Gregory III (740). A certain analogy exists between the rose and the keys, inasmuch as both are of pure gold blessed and bestowed by the Vicar of Christ upon illustrious children of the Church, and further, both partake somewhat of the nature of a reliquary — the rose containing musk and balsam, the keys filings from the Chair of St. Peter.
The exact date of the institution of the rose is unknown. According to some it is anterior to Charlemagne (742-814), according to others it had its origin at the end of the twelfth century. It is certain, however, that it antedates the year 1050, since Pope Leo IX (1051) speaks of the rose as of an ancient institution at his time. The blessing of the rose was not coeval with its institution. It was introduced to render the ceremony more solemn and induce greater reverence for it on the part of the recipient. According to Cardinal Petra (Comment. in Constit. Apostolicas, III, 2, col. 1), Pope Innocent IV (1245-54) was the first to bless it. Innocent III (1198-1216) and Alexander III (1159-81) and Leo IX (1049-55) have each strenuous defenders of their respective claims to the authorship of the ceremony. Of the last it is said that he (A. D. 1051) imposed upon the monastery (nuns) of Bamberg in Franconia, then subject to the pope, the obligation of furnishing each year the Golden Rose to be blessed and carried by the pope on Lætare Sunday (Theop. Raynaud, De rosa mediana a pontifice consecrata, IV, 413). Pope Benedict XIV attests that the ceremony of blessing had its origin in the beginning of the fifteen or at the end of the fourteenth century. Catalanus, papal master of ceremonies, is of opinion that the use of musk and balsam was coeval with the institution, but the blessing with prayers, incense, and holy water had its inception later on, yet earlier than the pontificate of Julius II (1503-13). The pope blesses the rose every year, but it is not always a new and different rose; the old one is used until it has been given away.
Originally the rose was blessed in the Hall of Vestments (sacristy) in the palace where the pope was; but the solemn Mass and the donation of the rose took place in the Church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (a figure, according to Pope Innocent III, of the heavenly Jerusalem), and this was the practice until the popes removed to Avignon. The blessing was followed by a solemn Mass sung either by the pope himself or the first cardinal-priest; in the former case the rose was placed on a veil of rose-coloured silk richly embroidered with gold; in the latter the pope held the rose in his hand, unless when he knelt, or at the Introit, Confiteor, Elevation, and the singing of "Laudemus in Domino". Returning processionally to the Lateran Palace, he carried the rose in his hand, and arriving at the door of the palace, he gave to the Prefect of Rome who had led his horse by the bridle and had aided him to dismount, the rose as a recompense for acts of respect and homage. Prior to 1305 the rose was given in Rome to no outsider, except the emperor and to him only on the day of his coronation. Whilst residing at Avignon (1305-1375) the popes, unable to make visits to Roman churches and basilicas, performed many of their sacred functions, among them the blessing of the rose, in the private chapel of their palace (whence the origin of the Cappella Pontificia). On their return to Rome they (Sixtus V excepted) retained the custom thus begun.
The blessing of the rose now takes place in the Hall of Vestments (camera dei parimenti) and the solemn Mass in the papal chapel. The rose is placed on a table with lighted candles, and the pope, vested in alb and rose-coloured stole and cope with precious mitre on his head, begins the ceremony with the usual versicles and the following beautiful and expressive prayer: "O God! by Whose word and power all things have been created, by Whose will all things are directed, we humbly beseech Thy Majesty, Who art the joy and gladness of all the faithful, that Thou wouldst deign in Thy fatherly love to bless and sanctify this rose, most delightful in odour and appearance, which we this day carry in sign of spiritual joy, in order that the people consecrated by Thee and delivered from the yoke of Babylonian slavery through the favour of Thine only-begotten Son, Who is the glory and exultation of the people of Israel and of that Jerusalem which is our Heavenly mother, may with sincere hearts show forth their joy. Wherefore, O Lord, on this day, when the Church exults in Thy name and manifests her joy by this sign [the rose], confer upon us through her true and perfect joy and accepting her devotion of today; do Thou remit sin, strengthen faith, increase piety, protect her in Thy mercy, drive away all things adverse to her and make her ways safe and prosperous, so that Thy Church, as the fruit of good works, may unite in giving forth the perfume of the ointment of that flower sprung from the root of Jesse and which is the mystical flower of the field and lily of the valleys, and remain happy without end in eternal glory together with all the saints." The prayer finished, the pope puts incense (handed by the cardinal-deacon) into the censer and incenses the balsam and then the musk, and afterwards puts the balsam and powdered musk into the tiny cup in the heart of the principal rose. He then incenses the rose and sprinkles it with holy water. It is then given to the youngest cleric of the Camera, who carries it in front of the pope to the chapel, where it is placed on the altar at the foot of the cross upon a richly embroidered silk veil, where it remains during the Mass sung by the first cardinal-priest. After the Mass, the rose is carried in procession before the pope to the sacristy, where it is carefully put away in a place set apart for it, until bestowed upon some worthy personage.
The custom initiated at Avignon of conferring the rose upon the most deserving prince present at the papal court was continued in Rome when the popes returned from Avignon. The recipient of the rose from the hands of the pope, after the solemn function, was accompanied by the College of Cardinals from the papal palace to his residence. From the beginning of the seventeenth century the rose was sent only to queens, princesses, and eminent noblemen; to emperors, kings, and princes were given a sword as a more suitable gift. It is true, however, that if a Catholic emperor, king, or some other great prince were present in Rome on Lætare Sunday, he would be presented with the rose if he were deserving. The office of carrying and conferring the rose upon those living outside of Rome was given by the pope to cardinal legates a latere, nuncios, inter-nuncios, and Apostolic ablegates. In 1895 a new office, called "Bearer of the Golden Rose", was instituted, and assigned to a secret chamberlain of sword and cloak participante.
Among the principal churches to which the rose has been presented are St. Peter's (five roses), St. John Lateran (four roses — according to some two of the four were given to the basilica proper and two to the chapel called Sancta Sanctorum), St. Mary Major (two roses), St. Mary sopra Minerva (one rose), and St. Anthony of the Portuguese (one rose). It was also presented to the Archconfraternity of the Gonfalone. All these roses have been lost.
Among the many recipients of the gift, the following are noteworthy:
GIOBBIO, Lezioni di Diplomazia Ecclesiastica (Rome, 1899), Pt. I. Lib. I, Cap. iv, Art. IV, n. 287 sqq; ANDRÉ-WAGNER, Dictionnaire de Droit Canonique, III, 370; BARRY, The Sacramentals (Cincinnati, 1858), 108 sqq.