What Is the Papal Cross?

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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.

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. 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.

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.

The Papal cross has many interpretations, with no single significance considered more important than the others. The three bars of the Papal cross are believed to represent:

  • 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
statue with papal cross

Statue of Pope Innocent XI in Budapest

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.

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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