Golden Rose

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Golden Rose

For 1,000 years the Roman Catholic popes have carried or blessed a golden rose on the fourth Sunday in Lent, known as Laetare Sunday. The rose symbolizes Christ, whom Christians believe to be, in fulfillment of biblical prophecy, the flower that sprang from the root of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1). After its use on Laetare Sunday the pope may then bestow the bejeweled, golden ornament on an individual, church, shrine, or city as a token of esteem and affection. The golden rose, and other customs associated with Laetare Sunday, introduce a note of gladness into an otherwise somber Lenten season and hint at Easter joy to come.

No one knows exactly when the customs surrounding the golden rose began. In the mid-eleventh century Pope Leo IX referred to the carrying of the golden rose on Laetare Sunday as an "ancient custom." In that era the Pope presided over Sunday morning mass at Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, or the Church of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, on Laetare Sunday (for more on the Roman Catholic religious service called the mass, see also Eucharist). On his journey home to the Lateran Palace he held the golden rose in his right hand, while he blessed the crowd with his left. The fact that the first golden roses were not too heavy, being only a bit over six inches in length, made this custom possible. Over time the golden rose grew in size and became more elaborate in design. Instead of a single rose, the ornament grew to represent a bouquet of roses, along with a vase and a pedestal on which to place it. Craftsmen further embellished the golden rose by studding it with precious gems. Of course, after these developments occurred, the pope no longer carried it by himself in his left hand.

It is uncertain exactly when the popes began to lay a special blessing on the rose. At these ceremonies the pope offered prayers, sprinkled holy water, and burnt incense as means of conferring a holy blessing on the rose. In addition, some of these golden ornaments were made with tiny, hidden containers into which the pope poured musk and balsam. Scholars believe that the custom of bestowing the golden rose on churches, cities, shrines, or individuals as a token of the pope's esteem probably arose sometime after the establishment of the blessing ceremony. Records dating back to the twelfth century show that the most common recipients of the rose were kings and queens. In recent decades this precious token has often been awarded to Catholic queens.

The golden rose is blessed every year, whether it is given away or not. The pope exercises his own judgment in bestowing the golden rose. If he finds no one worthy of this special honor in any given year, then the golden rose is carefully stored for the pope's use the following year. If the pope gives the golden rose away, goldsmiths craft a new one for the following year.

Further Reading

"Golden Rose." In E. A. Livingstone, ed. The Oxford Dictionary of the Chris- tian Church. Third edition. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1997. Rock, P. M. J. "Golden Rose." In Charles G. Herbermann et al., eds. The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Appleton, 1913. Available online at: Weiser, Francis X. Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1952.