Roses in Church Liturgy and Papal Ceremonies
In medieval times the fourth Sunday of Lent came to be associated with roses. This Sunday became known as Rose Sunday, or Laetare (rejoice) Sunday and the Church took a break from the somber purple vestments of Lent to rose-colored vestments.
The blessing of a handcrafted golden rose came to be associated with Laetare Sunday. The origin of the golden rose blessing ceremony is not known, but Pope Leo IX referred to it as an “ancient practice” in his remarks in the year 1048. The golden rose was sculpted from gold precious metal by the finest artisans and then blessed by the Pope on Laetare Sunday. Chronicles give evidence from as far back as 1130 that the pope blessed the golden rose and then carried it in procession before Mass. Pope Innocent III (papacy from 1198-1216) was said to carry the blessed golden rose through the streets exhibiting it to the people before celebrating Mass. He spoke about the significance of the rose in terms of the joy of that is celebrated on Rose Sunday. Pope Innocent III said, “On Laetare Sunday, the day set apart for joy after the long fast, three feelings belong to this day: Charity after fasting, joy after sorrow, and fullness after hunger, so does the rose designate by its color, odor, and taste, the feelings of charity, joy, and satiety, respectively.”
The pope customarily gave these blessed golden roses, a valuable sacramental, to dignitaries such as mayors, kings or queens, princes or princesses, or other heads of state in appreciation for their Catholic zeal and loyalty to the Holy See. More recently the papal golden rose has been conferred upon distinguished churches and shrines as a sign of affection. Pope John Paul II bestowed a golden rose on the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City in 1979 during his first papal visit there. Later in the same year he bestowed the golden rose to the Marian shrine in Knock, Ireland in celebration of the centenary anniversary of a heavenly apparition there. Most recently Pope Benedict XVI honored the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception with a golden rose when he visited in April 2008 and is on display at the Shrine.
The design of the Golden Rose changed throughout the ages. Initially, it was a single rose sculpted out of gold. Later the gold was tinted with red to more closely resemble a real rose. In time gemstones were added to embellish the gift. In some designs a ruby adorned the center of the golden rose, in subsequent papacies other precious gems like sapphires were inserted into the petals of the rose.
During the pontificate of Sixtus IV (1471-1484) the design of the golden rose “grew” to a thorny branch with several roses springing from the stem and a prominent rose at the top. The primary rose had an orifice in it in which they placed balsam and musk to simulate the perfume of a rose.
Pope Leo XIII (papacy from 1878-1903) spoke about the spiritual meaning of the golden rose. He wrote about the golden rose with reference to the Song of Songs flower scripture passage. His words are, “The beautiful golden flower signifies Christ in His majesty, spoken of by the prophet as ‘the flower of the field and the lily of the valleys’; the flower’s fragrance shows the sweet odor of Christ which should be diffused through the whole world by His faithful followers. The thorns and red color symbolize His Passion, harkening to both the real event of the Crucifixion and its foretelling by the prophet Isaiah 43:2”
The other liturgical celebration that became associated with roses was the Sunday following Ascension Thursday. A priest, Benedict, the Canon of Saint Peter’s during the papacy of Innocent II wrote of a miracle that had long been associated with the Sunday after Ascension Thursday. A Pope, whose identity is unspecified, was celebrating Mass in the Santa Maria Rotunda Church in Rome. While he was giving a homily about the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles during the first Pentecost, a miraculous shower of red rose petals descended from the oculus in the roof! They resembled the tongues of flame of the Holy Spirit. Benedict wrote that in thanksgiving for this grand miracle, the Sunday before Pentecost was known as Dominica Rosis or Sunday of the Roses. The Church where the miracle occurred is none other than the architectural wonder known as the Pantheon from ancient Rome (circa 125) which still stands today. Originally built as a “temple to all the gods,” the temple was given to the Catholic Church in 609 and was the first pagan temple in Rome to be Christianized. It is dedicated to Saint Mary of the Martyrs. Due to the rounded dome, the Church is also known as Santa Maria Rotunda. The whole structure is an architectural marvel because the height of the dome matches the diameter of the dome at 142 feet. At the very top of the dome is an open aperture called an oculus, which permits abundant sunlight into the church.
The miraculous rose shower is still celebrated today throughout Italy and beyond. The Church in Italy refers to Pentecost Sunday as Pascha rosatum or Pascha rossa referring to the red vestments worn by the clergy and recalling the miraculous shower of roses symbolizing the fiery tongues of the Holy Spirit. Even today the tradition of scattering rose petals continues at some Italian churches but especially at Santa Maria Rotunda. To accomplish this, about a half dozen Roman firemen use a fire truck ladder to access and then scale the outside of the huge dome carrying bags of rose petals. They lie down around the circumference of the oculus and gently shake rose petals over the edge into the church during the Pentecost liturgy. The sight of raining rose petals delights and is rich in symbolic and historical meaning.
Another ancient Roman church, Saint Mary Major, uses flowers in a liturgical celebration to celebrate the anniversary of its miraculous origin. During the papacy of Liberius (352 to 366 A.D.) a childless Roman couple wondered what to do with their wealth after they died. In separate dreams to Pope Liberius and the couple, the Virgin Mary appealed to ask that a Church be built in her honor at a place that would be indicated the next day. During a hot August night, an improbable snowfall occurred on one of the seven hills surrounding Rome, the Esquiline hill. Marveling at the occurrence, Pope Liberius traced out the perimeter for a proposed Church according to the length and breadth of the fallen snow. A foundation was then laid in about the year 360 and later the Liberian Basilica was completed. In time the original structure fell to ruin.
The Basilica was reconstructed and enlarged during the pontificate of Sixtus III (papacy from 432 to 440). The church became known as The Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore (Saint Mary Major) which stresses the great importance and the size of the Church (Major), the largest dedicated to the Virgin Mary in Rome. It is the home to a precious icon of the Virgin Mary that Pope St. Gregory the Great processed through the streets of Rome in 594 to pray for an end to an epidemic. Those prayers were instrumental in putting an abrupt end to the pestilence.
Since Mary asked for the Church to be built with the associated snowy miracle, her title is known as Our Lady of the Snows for this occasion. It was snow that marked the miracle of how the Church came to be, but these days white rose petals and jasmine are used to simulate the snow that fell during that hot summer night of August 4th to 5th in the fourth century. The Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore celebrates the miraculous snowfall every year on August 5th by shaking white rose petals and jasmine from the dome of the Basilica.