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What is the Papal Cross and Why Is It So Important?

The Papal cross, sometimes called the Papal Staff, is the official symbol for the office of the Pope, the highest authority of the Roman Catholic Church. As the official emblem of the papacy, the use of the Papal cross by any other entity is forbidden.

What Is the Papal Cross?

The design of the papal cross features three horizontal bars, with each subsequent bar being shorter than the one before it and the topmost bar being the shortest of the three. Some variations feature three horizontal bars of equal length.

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statue with papal cross
Statue of Pope Innocent XI in Budapest featuring the Papal Cross

While the most popular version is that of the cross with three bars of diminishing lengths, different Popes have used other types of crosses during their papacy, as per their choice. However, the three-bar Papal cross is the most ceremonious and easily recognizable as representative of the Pope’s authority and office.

Papal Cross vs. Patriarchal Cross

The Papal cross is similar to the two-barred archiepiscopal cross, called the Patriarchal Cross, which is used as the emblem of an archbishop. However, the additional bar of the Papal cross indicates an ecclesiastical rank higher than that of an archbishop.

Symbolism of the Papal Cross

The Papal cross has many interpretations, with no single significance considered more important than the other. The three bars of the Papal cross represent several triads, integral to the Catholic belief.

  • The Holy Trinity – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit
  • The three roles of the pope as community leader, teacher and worship leader
  • The three powers and responsibilities of the pope in the temporal, material and spiritual realms
  • The three theological virtues of Hope, Love and Faith

But in addition to these meanings, the Papal cross also represents the following concepts:

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  • Papal Authority: This cross represents the authority, power, and leadership of the Pope, considered to be the successor of St. Peter and therefore the head of the Catholic Church.
  • Papal Office: As the cross representing the position of the Pope, the Papal cross is an emblem of the Papal office, representing the Pope’s spiritual and temporal authority.
  • Papal Blessings: Sometimes, the Pope uses the Papal cross to confer blessings on believers. In this sense, it represents his authority to give blessings.
  • Papal Ceremonies: The Papal cross is featured in many Papal processions and ceremonies.
  • The Catholic Faith: Because the Papal cross represents the Pope, by extension it also represents the core tenets of the Catholic faith. It’s a visual symbol of the Papacy and the Catholic faith.

There are some instances of other types of crosses being called a Papal cross simply because of an association with the Pope. For example, a large white single-bar cross in Ireland is known as the Papal Cross as it was erected to commemorate the first visit of Pope John Paul II to Ireland. In reality, it’s a regular Latin cross and not a true Papal cross.

Wrapping Up

The Papal Cross is an important symbol in the Catholic Church and holds significance specifically in relation to the Pope. If you would like to learn more about different types of crosses, check out our in-depth article detailing the many variations of crosses.

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Dani Rhys
Dani Rhys

Dani Rhys has worked as a writer and editor for over 15 years. She holds a Masters degree in Linguistics and Education, and has also studied Political Science, Ancient History and Literature. She has a wide range of interests ranging from ancient cultures and mythology to Harry Potter and gardening. She works as the chief editor of Symbol Sage but also takes the time to write on topics that interest her.