Papal Ceremonial: The Sedia Gestatoria

Traditions from the East such as the sedia gestatoria or "triumphal chair," stir the human spirit and speak a language of oriental beauty and refinement.  And they reflect something rare today - the common sense acquisition of a special kind of otherworldliness.  This unique portable chair of gold with red velvet was used as a liturgical and para-liturgical chair to carry popes for centuries.  In fact, several versions existed and are still kept in the Vatican in storage (a couple are on display for visitors to see at the Pontifical Villa of Castel Gandolfo).  Over the growth of centuries papal liturgies were developed into a complex ritual and embellished over time with the majestic sedia gestatoria, a grand and harmonious manifestation of man's homage to the Church (Christ) and His vicar on earth, the office of the Blessed Apostle Peter the Roman.  The pope is supreme ruler of the Church on earth and he has authority over all Catholics.  

It is my hope that the sedia will one day make a comeback.  The last time it was used was by Pope John Paul I in 1978, the year of three popes.  When John Paul II was elected he was a robust 58-year-old who preferred to walk amongst the people (while this has its obvious benefits, alas, not everyone is able to see the pope).  Below is an image of the last time the sedia was used -- the pope is clearly visible to all.  Reverence was in the air, which is, by the way, a constitutive element of the capacity to "wonder."    

The last occasion the sedia gestatoria was used during the pontificate of John Paul I.

Respect for the sedia came from a culture of reverence, a virtue of capital importance to the fundamental domains of the Christian life because it is the mother of all virtues, for it is the basic attitude that all virtues suppose.  In the words of Dietrich von Hildebrand, "Only the reverent man who is ready to admit the existence of something greater than himself, who is willing to be silent and let the object speak to him - who opens himself - is capable of entering the sublime world of values."   

The sediari, wearing their distinctive ceremonial red dress, who carried the sedia gestatoria

I remember once speaking with one of the old sediari at a papal general audience in St. Peter's Square.  The sediari were the chosen men who carried the sedia, selected from the Venerable Archconfraternity of the Parafrenieri (sediari pontifici), a revered institution created by Pope Urban VI in 1378.  This Archconfraternity, since the year 1929, is attached to the small church of Santa Caterina della Rota in Via Monserrato, near Campo de' Fiori.  The man's name was Massimo.  He told me of how he carried John Paul I in life in the sedia one day and the next carried him on a funeral bier, relating the anguish of the experience of the untimely death of his boss, the man who was pope for 33 days.  By his words and emotions, I could see Massimo missed those days and the deceased Pope, but was also rather embarrassed to admit he was still fond of the sedia and longed for its return.  Indeed, the sedia went quickly and quietly into the night, not because of any law, but because it was the casualty of shifting public opinion.  Many hearts still pine for it in Rome and the Vatican.  The secular press at the time in 1978 idolized the modern epoch and celebrated the demise of the sedia, declaring that the days of pharaoh popes and "pomp for show" were over.  Under the pretext of progress, men did away with the sedia among other symbols of pietas.  As Socrates put it, "I am the victim not of law but of men."  Meanwhile, it was never about "show," as Cardinal Newman wrote, "the Church aims, not at making a show, but at doing a work," he continues, "She regards this world, and all that is in it, as a mere shadow, as dust and ashes, compared with the value of one single soul."    

The surprising rout of the sedia was the result of new cultural norms and expectations of a "humble" and "poor" church that sought more of a profane, merely natural atmosphere for papal audiences.  Also, came the notion that change is virtue.  This, of course, is problematic because from it follows that the new must therefore be good and necessarily better and subversive and contrary to the old.  "The important thing about history," Marx wrote, "is not to understand it but to change it."  History according to this doctrine is nothing but an instrument in the hands of the party to be changed and twisted on a whim. The heresy of heresies became tradition, common sense and beauty.  People were tired of greatness, they wanted change.  Old traditions became too much for the modernist aesthetic.  

Since the Reformation and Enlightenment, after five centuries of unthinkable criticism and doubt and suspicion, came the 1960's when our traditions suddenly went on trial -- with everything coming into question -- and many worthwhile traditions abandoned as untenable.  To me the sedia is like a poem, the expression of ideas as the classicist would put it, the expression of emotions as the romanticist would have it.  It is my hope and prayer the Catholic world will reconsider the importance of this lost tradition and call for it to be reinstated, reflecting what our ideas project and our hearts think. 

The sedia is a pedagogue par excellence.  It points not to the person of the pope, but to his office and further to God, the one who created the Church and the human soul and determined the laws according to which the mind assimilates and attains truth through an encounter with beauty, tradition, faith, and hierarchy.    

To conclude, I include a quote from Monsignor J.D. Conway from The Catholic Digest: "The glorious ceremony of the Pope, his being carried into St. Peter's on his golden chair (which is really not gold at all), is reminiscent and strongly symbolic of the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, and the response of the crowds is in many ways similar.  The great difference is that the tribute to the Pope, while aroused by his gracious personality and encouraged by his personal virtues, does not end with him but is paid through him to the One whom he represents.  On his triumphal day in Jerusalem, Jesus accepted the humble homage of His enthusiastic people, and was pleased with it.  When some of the Pharisees told Him to quiet his disciples, His reply was, "I tell you that if these keep silence, the stones will cry out."  In the triumphal ceremony of His Vicar in St. Peter's, He accepts similar homage through His representative, and is pleased with it.  He accepted the homage at Jerusalem because it was rightly due the Messias; because it proclaimed His mission to the world; because it was a lesson and inspiration to men and served the plans of God" (What the Church Teaches, p. 140).  He continues, "When a good and saintly Pope is carried down the marble aisle of St. Peter's in all the color and splendor of a pontifical procession and receives the enthusiastic acclaim of his people, it may well make him the humblest man alive, deeply aware by painful contrast of his own personal unworthiness" (What the Church Teaches, p. 141).   

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