Pope Francis’ Cross

April 11 2014 | by

WHEN POPE Francis appeared on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica for the first time, it was immediately apparent to Vatican watchers that the 266th pontiff was different. He wore a simple cassock and was adorned only by a plain pectoral cross.

A year has now passed since that moment, and because so many people have written to me asking for information on that cross, I have finally decided to dedicate an article to the story behind this intriguing devotional object which the Holy Father always keeps close to his heart.


Golden articles


A pectoral cross (from the Latin pectoralis, ‘of the chest’) is a cross that is worn on the chest, usually suspended from the neck by a cord or a chain. One of the earliest mentions of a pectoral cross is that of Pope Hilarius in 461. A few centuries later, in 811, we hear that Nicephorus, the Patriarch of Constantinople, sent Pope Leo III a gold pectoral cross, and in the course of time it became customary for the Roman pontiff to wear this type of cross on the most solemn occasions.

The pectoral cross Pope Francis wears is not made from gold, but rather from silver. This much humbler emblem of spiritual authority has become symbolic of the Pope’s apostolic mission, which is inspired by the Franciscan ideal of evangelical poverty.

For centuries the pectoral cross worn by popes, cardinals and bishops has been the symbol of their prestige and temporal power. To highlight their high rank and prestige, crosses was made from gold and were sometimes embellished with gems and precious stones. We can still see some of these pectoral crosses in museums, and we certainly can admire them for their great beauty and fine craftsmanship.

However, on the day of his election, March 13, 2013, during his vesting prior to being presented to the world from the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope Francis decided to do without the gold pectoral cross. When Monsignor Guido Marini, Master of Ceremonies, presented him with the papal vestments, the Pope put on the simple traditional white attire, but refused the red velvet mozzetta trimmed with white ermine fur, a symbol of regality. In the same way, Francis turned down the gold pectoral cross, explaining that he wanted to keep the one he had always worn as a bishop and cardinal in his native Argentina.


Inseparable companion


Francis’ pectoral cross is made from silver; however, when he first spoke to the world from the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica it appeared dark, having an almost rusty hue, leading some journalists to the erroneous conclusion that it was made of iron. How did this come about?

When he became the Archbishop of Buenos Aires and later a cardinal and Primate of the Argentine Church, Archbishop Bergoglio continued to lead the lifestyle of a simple parish priest. He refused to reside at the Archbishop’s House, preferring instead to live in a small flat with a retired priest, and he cooked his own meals. Whenever he had any free time available from his numerous duties as Archbishop, he went to the slums of Buenos Aires (favelas). At that time Archbishop Bergoglio did not even have a car. He just used the buses or the subway. During the trip from the Archbishop’s House to the favelas, located on the outskirts of the city, he would often clutch his pectoral cross – the symbol of his desire to shepherd the poor. The cross had more than a sentimental value for the man who wore it; it also meant something for those he visited. The outcasts of society in the favelas touched it too; they kissed it and bathed it with their tears while the Archbishop listened to their stories.

Now it is well-known that silver turns dark when it comes into contact with humidity, and it is therefore little wonder if that cross, clenched by so many hands, kissed by so many lips, and bathed by so many tears, would eventually become dark. It is as if the world’s suffering had been impressed on it, darkening it.

On his way home, the Archbishop would hold the cross tightly and ask God to lift all the enormous weight of suffering afflicting the people he had visited, and transfer it onto the cross in his hands, asking Christ for help and solace.

The pectoral cross we see on the Pope, therefore, gradually became his inseparable companion during these journeys of his into the hell and suffering of the favelas. We need not be surprised, therefore, that he was determined to keep it, against tradition and protocol, once he became Pope.


An Italian craftsman


Among the many millions of people throughout the world who saw the election of Pope Francis on TV on that 13 March 2013, there was also one Giuseppe Albrizzi, an Italian craftsman who lives in Vidigulfo, a small town of 6,000 souls near Pavia in northern Italy. This craftsman is the artist who forged and crafted Archbishop Bergoglio’ pectoral cross, the same cross Pope Francis was wearing when he addressed the world on the day of his election, and the same cross the Pope continues to wear today.

I could not let the opportunity of interviewing this craftsman slip by, so I hopped into my car and, in the company of Emanuela Gambazza, a talented professional photographer who works for a number of popular magazines in Italy, made the 100 mile trip from my home to Albrizzi’s workshop.

Albrizzi owns a small, family run business consisting of himself, his brother Giampaolo, and a young assistant called Hosny. The business is called Arredi Sacri di Giuseppe Albrizzi (Giuseppe Albrizzi’s Religious Articles), and it is located in an old house on the outskirts of the town. The workshop, on the ground floor, consists of a large hall and some smaller rooms. The large iron tables are strewn with various religious objects, as are the shelves on the walls: chalices, patens, ciboria, rings, pastoral staffs, monstrances, tabernacles and, of course, crosses.

Giuseppe Albrizzi, a simple and kindly man, was waiting for us at the door of his workshop, and welcomed both of us with open arms.


Utter disbelief


Mr Albrizzi, when did you realise that the Pope’s pectoral cross was actually the one you made?

Right from the first moment I saw Pope Francis on TV addressing the crowd from the balcony. When my eyes rested on the Pope’s cross, my heart skipped a beat; I uttered to myself “I made that cross!” and, shaking with emotion, I kept staring at it in complete disbelief.


But how can you be so sure that it was the actual cross you made?

I recognised it for the scene it represents. It portrays the Good Shepherd. Jesus is in the foreground, a lamb on his shoulders; behind, and following him, there is the herd of sheep. A dove flies above, recalling the presence of the Holy Spirit. It is the spitting image of a cross I had made years earlier.


Are all your pieces handmade?

We still follow the old traditions. Everything here is strictly handmade, and we ourselves follow the entire production process from beginning to end, that is, from conception to the final product ready for shipping. We reject any prefabricated components.


Household image


Can you describe some of the religious objects here around us?

 The two objects here, for instance, are two monstrances which are now completed and which we will ship to Medjugorje within days; that other monstrance on the shelf is heading to Lourdes; the ciborium, instead, should be going to Padre Pio’s Shrine in San Giovanni Rotondo. Of those sixteen crosiers (pastoral staffs) leaning on the wall, eight are ready to be sent to Poland, and the other eight are bound for France. Our products are sold throughout the world and are highly appreciated.


Was Archbishop Bergoglio’s pectoral cross actually conceived and forged here, on these iron tables?

Indeed it was. This was way back in 1998. It was then a simple silver cross like many others, and now it has become a household image commented upon by journalists from all over the world.


How did you decide to become a craftsman of religious articles?

When I was 15 I learned that a factory in Milan was looking for young people willing to become lathe turners. So I applied and was hired. That firm belonged to one Antonio Vedele, a craftsman specialised in religious articles. His firm was rather large, with 43 workers. It was Mr Vedele who taught me the ropes of the trade. At a certain point, after working for him for 15 years, I realised that I had learned every aspect and secret of this craft. In fact, Vedele himself often turned to me for advice. So at that stage I decided to become my own boss, and Antonio Vedele encouraged me in this direction.

At first it was hard going, especially because I had to do everything myself. I even had to act as a salesman of my own products, but eventually my business started to grow.


The Good Shepherd Cross


Is Antonio Vedele’s firm still in active business?

In 1996 my former boss decided to shut down his firm because of ill-health, and at that stage he gave me some of his equipment which would otherwise have been dumped. He actually liked my workshop which is located in the country far from the traffic and noise of Milan. He often came here to relax, and he used to sit under a tree drawing objects of various kinds.

One day he showed me one of his drawings, and said, “This is a pectoral cross. I have called it, ‘The Good Shepherd Cross’. Here, you can have it. Give it flesh and you’ll see that people will like it!”

A few months later Vedele died. He was only 67, and his loss was a great grief for me. I decided to produce that cross in memory of my old friend and to place his name on it. I then put it up for sale.


Did it sell quickly?

I did not want to create a very expensive article. Thinking that it might appeal to some bishop or abbot, I made the cross of silver in order to sell it at a reasonable price. It was eventually bought by Raniero Mancinelli, a retailer who owns an important shop of religious articles in Borgo Pio, a few steps away from St. Peter’s Square in Rome.

One day, in the Spring of 1998, a South-American priest walked into that shop, saw that pectoral cross, and decided to buy it. The priest told Mancinelli that he needed a present for a friend of his that had just been nominated Archbishop of Buenos Aires. This was, in fact, the then-Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio.


Deep meaning


How did you react when you heard journalists, on the evening of 13 March last year, say that the cross was made from iron?

I wrote a letter to L’Osservatore Romano, the daily newspaper of Vatican City State, explaining that I was the artisan who had forged that cross, and that it was not made from iron but from silver. I also wrote this to other newspapers. In the meantime the Pope’s collaborators had polished it and discovered that it really was made from silver.


Why do you think that cross appealed so much to Archbishop Bergoglio?

The image of the ‘Good Shepherd’ must have struck a chord in his heart. It corresponded perfectly to his pastoral ideals, and he never stopped wearing it, not even when, a few years later, he was nominated a cardinal, not even when, a few years later still, he became Pope.


Do you think this cross has a symbolic meaning?

Of course. All unique pieces have great symbolic significance. The objects should be understood not only by the wearer, but also by those who see them. Unfortunately many people today no longer understand religious symbols. The Good Shepherd is a good image for Pope Francis because he is a model of joy, forgiveness and the love that Jesus has for the entire Church and the world.


Updated on October 06 2016