Lost Romanitas: The Virgula Poenitentiaria -- Or Penitential Wand / Rod

Recently one of our readers contacted LAJ with a question. They had come across a reference to a "penitential wand" that was ceremonially used in Rome. Naturally mentions of a "wand" beget notions of the occult in our modern understanding and use of that word, but in this instance it is merely a descriptor that would be better understood in the sense of it being a "rod" or "staff." In short, it describes a long staff or rod which was used within a penitential context. So what then does this refer to and where did it come from?

To understand this question better we must look to the probable origins of such rods. The practice in question seems to derive from an ancient Roman practice set within the context of Roman law; here a ceremonial rod/staff was used as a means of transmitting judgements of punishment, vengeance or also freedom from slavery ("manumisso vindicta"). In this latter instance the former slave was tapped with the rod before the praetor and the slave was thereby freed.

Left: An image of a praetor on his seat of authority. Right: An ancient Roman coin showing the two "lictores" that accompanied the praetor, carrying the ceremonial rods (i.e "wand") that were used in praetorian proceedings.

It is here within this latter usage denoting freedom from slavery that we can begin to better gain an insight into the practice of the use of the "virgula poenitentiara" or penitential wand, in the Roman Christian tradition. 

This penitential rod was use in a similar way by select ecclesiastical "penitentiaries" who were seated much like a Roman praetor on a seat of honour, given authority by proxy (which the rod represented) to absolve sins usually reserved to the pope or other members of the hierarchy, or (in more recent centuries) to grant indulgences on behalf of that authority. That practice is shown here in this rare photo taken during the Holy Year in 1950; the virgula wielded by the Major Penitentiary. Nicola Cardinal Canali, in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome where he is about to tap one of the pilgrims on the head with the 'wand' thereby granting the indulgence:

The chair from which the virgula poenitentiara was used, sat upon by the Major Penitentiary in St. Peter's Basilica

Aside from the throne itself, one can still find an example of the rod itself in Santa Maria Maggiore:

One can see in all of this the echo of the historical Roman usage of the rod for dispensing justice and freedom -- in this ecclesiastical instance, freedom from metaphorical slavery to sin, freedom through the granting of an indulgence.  

Two further illustrations of this custom in practice elsewhere in the Roman church:

If all of this seems foreign, one need only think of the continued practice of monarchs tapping the shoulders of a new knight as part of the ceremony whereby knighthood is conferred to find a more familiar parallel, or for that matter, the bishop tapping the cheek of the confirmands. Catholicism is an incarnate faith, rooted in external gestures that symbolize interior, spiritual realities -- and that the Roman church should preserve this bit of 'Romanitas' should come as little surprise given how often it can be found to do so.

Regrettably this practice, despite its deep roots in Roman antiquity, was abolished in 1967 under Pope Paul VI. 

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