Bring Back the Sedia Gestatoria!

Pope Pius VIII (1761-1830) being transported via the sedia gestatoria at Saint Peter’s in Rome.

Incidentally, Pius VIII was Pope during the American Revolution.

Prior to the pontificate of Pope John-Paul II the Pope was carried in procession into Saint Peters and papal audiences on the sedia gestatoria. Perhaps after the mishap experienced on Christmas Eve (a woman jumping over barricades and lunging at the Pope) the return sedia should seriously be considered as part of additional security measure for Pope Benedict XVI. In addition to offering another level of increased protection for the Holy Father, it would also provide a more visible platform on which the Pope is seen while in procession.
Of course there are those that will complain of a return of the “Old Triumphalism,” which was suppressed by the curial reforms of Pope Paul VI in 1970. Others will claim that the restored use of the sedia will again highlight Pope Benedict’s return to pre-Vatican II traditions and still others will just maintain it is not appropriate for whatever reason they choose to be contrarians. The reality here is simple. It protects the Pope, provides a safer course of transportation for an octogenarian Pontiff, increases visibility and restores a traditional image of our ancient Catholic faith.
The Holy Father is approaching his mid-eighties. That in itself should indicate the need for some sort of ambulatory assistance when entering and leaving Saint Peters. The use of the sedia does not imply any sort of incapacitation on the part of the Pope, but rather a practical method that conveys the Holy Father to and from papal events. Additionally, the use of an elevated sedia allows the faithful opportunities to see the Pope, otherwise obscured by crowds and other prelates.
Finally, it is the restoration of a practice that was common to the Roman emperors and the newly elected consuls of Rome, when they were taken through the city of Rome on the sedia curulis after their assent or election to their positions. Historically, references to the sedia for papal usage have been noted since the fifth century. The discontinuation of the use of the sedia was under the papacy of John-Paul I in 1978. Pope Paul VI used the sedia as a form of transportation throughout his papacy. It should be especially noted that Paul VI did not abolish its usage in the reforms of the Roman curia of 1970.
From a practical point of view it makes sense to restore the sedia gestatoria not because it is indicative of a restoration of old practices, but because it makes pragmatic sense from a security perspective, a papal convenience perspective finally from the perspective of an inclusive tradition that is part of the Roman Church. If the usage has been documented in Rome since the Roman Empire, consistently with Popes until John-Paul I…why not indulge Catholics with a bit of pragmatic, practical and historically notable custom from Church antiquity.
We see all types of antiquated traditions everyday from military guards of honor(at White House, Buckingham Palace), ceremonies of the opening of a congressional session, the State of the Union Address, the British Opening of Parliament and so on that recall our most sacred traditions and historical memories. In the United States, every year George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River is reenacted just before the Battle of Trenton. The battle marked the turning point in the American Revolution, after which the Americans gained decisive victories.
The use of the sedia gestatoria by Pope Benedict XVI is not something that is radically going to transport him and the entire Church back into some sort of chronological and liturgical time machine that leads us to the Council of Trent. On the contrary, it offers once again an opportunity to appreciate the Catholic Church for its many centuries of customs and traditions that have at times been disregarded in favor of modern improvements that have not always been positive.
Signs and symbols of our Catholic faith are all around us in our Catholic Churches. Some symbols are unknown to generations born post Vatican II. It is time that we not only understand, but appreciate the continuity of Catholic traditions in light of historical, theological and pastorally practical usages. The garment of the Catholic Church indeed comes in many fabrics, forms and colors. Modern Catholics need to bring all of those aspects alive in our living and vibrant Church of the 21st century and appreciate the entire deposit of faith that has been passed down from ancient times.
Bring back the sedia gestatoria because it is more than a symbol of triumphalism, it’s a practical and pragmatic component of our Catholic heritage.

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