Only certain special churches are designated as basilicas, but if you have the chance to visit a basilica, you might see an umbrella at the right side of the altar.
If you’ve seen this, and wondered what it’s about, then you are not alone. I’ve had the same question for some time and decided to find out. As it turns out, it’s a classic case of a practical custom from the older days of the Church now becoming more symbolic in the modern era.
A priest friend of mine who serves at a basilica tells me that the red and yellow umbrella can be seen at basilicas around the world because it’s a symbol granted only to a special type of church — a basilica. In fact, this symbol is part of how one can recognize a church as a basilica.
What is the difference between a basilica and a cathedral?
The umbraculum (“big umbrella,” also known as a conopaeum) is a historic part of the papal regalia, once used on a daily basis to provide shade for the pope. It’s similar to the canopy held above the priest carrying the display case known as a monstrance in which the sacred Host is carried during Corpus Christi processions.
In modern usage the umbraculum is a symbol of the Roman Catholic Church and the authority of the pope. It is found in basilicas throughout the world, placed prominently at the right of their main altars. Whenever the pope visits a basilica, its umbraculum is opened.
The colours of this papal umbrella also help you to distinguish between a major basilica and a minor one. The umbraculum of a major basilica is made of cloth of gold and red velvet, while that of a minor basilica is made of yellow and red silk.
But since all the four major basilicas in the world are to be found in Rome, you are likely to see only a yellow and red one at basilicas in your country.
The umbrella is usually mounted on a staff with a small bell attached to it, which is rung when a pope visits the basilica. The umbraculum is also represented behind the shield in the coat of arms of a basilica.
In times past, the umbraculum was one of the symbols bestowed by the pope when he elevated a church to the rank of a minor basilica. However in the last directives issued by the Vatican in 1989, the umbraculum is no longer specified as a symbol of the designation, so you may not see one in the newest basilicas.
At present, only two special symbols are conferred when a church is elevated to the rank of a basilica:
— the papal symbol of the crossed keys on a basilica’s banners, furnishings and seal, — and the right of the rector of the basilica to wear a distinctive mozzetta (a short cape) over his surplice.
So the next time you see a red and yellow umbrella in a basilica, recall its special connection to the pope and that the church you’re visiting has a distinctive identity as a special church.