The tradition of popes wearing a pectoral cross has a fascinating history and deep spiritual symbolism.
Pope Francis, along with other bishops and cardinals, wears every day a “pectoral cross” on a chain that hangs over his chest. It is a tradition that is centuries old and has deep spiritual symbolism.
According to James-Charles Noonan, Jr. in his book The Church Visible, the cross “served originally as a reliquary of the True Cross, which, due to the singular import of this relic, encouraged the practice of wearing the relic close to the heart by the highest Church officials.”
For many centuries each pectoral cross contained a small piece of the True Cross, but this tradition was not practiced in every part of the world and the relics were not always traceable.
The pectoral cross also carries much symbolism, which is revealed in the vesting prayers of the bishop when he puts on the cross, reminding him of the Passion of Jesus and the sacrifice of the martyrs.
Deign Thou, Lord Jesus Christ, to guard me, from all the snares of every enemy, by the sign of Thy most holy Cross: and deign Thou to grant to me, Thy unworthy servant, that as I hold before my breast this Cross with the relics of Thy Saints within it, so may I ever keep in mind the memory of the Passion, and the victories of the Holy Martyrs.
This tradition also reminds bishops of Jesus’ words to his disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).
When Pope Francis was elected, he chose to keep the pectoral cross that he wore while a bishop in Argentina.
According to F.C. Ziegler Co., Pope Francis’ cross was designed by Antonio Vedele and made by craftsman Guiseppe Albrizzi of Pavia, Italy. The cross is full of symbolism, as it is explained on their website.
The details of the cross are rooted in the Gospel of Luke. That is, the parable of the good shepherd and the lost sheep. Luke 15:4-7 says, “What man among you 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?”
In the center is the figure of a man who represents Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who has found one of his sheep and carries it while the other sheep follow closely. At the top of the cross, the dove representing the Holy Spirit descends from God the Father to God the Son, helping those who are lost and in darkness, and bringing them new life! The linear style is intended to be a symbol for a new ecclesiastical era, a poor Church among the poor, as Pope Francis has indicated.
So while it may seem like a simple piece of jewelry, the cross Pope Francis and other bishops wear is a daily reminder that keeps them focused on their special task of leading souls closer to Jesus Christ.