The Pontifical Orders
The Papal Orders are of comparatively recent origin. That said, membership of such an Order represents one of the highest and most prestigious distinctions which the Pope, as Supreme Pontiff and Head of the Catholic Church and as Sovereign of the Vatican State, can bestow on an individual. Such awards are usually made to lay men and women of the Roman Catholic faith but not exclusively so: they may be awarded to those of other Christian denominations and other faiths in recognition of their pre-eminent service to the work of the Holy See on a national and international level. The Pontifical Orders of Knighthood of the Holy See, in order of seniority, as shown above, are the following (The detailed information and specific quotations herein are taken from H. E. Cardinale, ‘Orders of Knighthood, Awards and the Holy See’, Van Duren, Gerrards Cross, England (1983)):
- The Supreme Order of Christ
- The Pontifical Order of the Golden Spur
- The Pontifical Order of Blessed Pius IX (the Pian Order)
- The Pontifical Order of Saint Gregory the Great
- The Pontifical Order of Pope St. Sylvester, Pope and Martyr
These five Orders are termed ‘Pontifical’ because they are the only Orders founded and awarded by the Sovereign Pontiff either directly, motu proprio (of one’s own will), or indirectly, following a request submitted to the Papal Secretary of State. The awards are given by His Holiness as Head of the Catholic Church and as Head of State of the Holy See. Admission to the Supreme Order of Christ, the Pontifical Order of the Golden Spur and the higher ranks of the Pian Order is reserved for reigning Sovereigns and Heads of State. The middle ranks of the Pian Order are generally awarded to senior politicians, to ambassadors accredited to the Holy See, and to leading Catholics in the wider world for exceptional services to the Church and to society. Although civil and military divisions exist within some Orders, awards have been almost exclusively civilian. While the Pontifical Orders of Knighthood were initially founded for, and remained the prerogative of gentlemen, instructions were issued in November 1993 by the Secretariat of State that ladies were henceforth eligible for admission to the Pian Order, to the Order of Saint Gregory the Great and to the Order of Pope St. Sylvester.
Awards no longer confer titles of nobility on the recipients. The majority of recipients are Christians although awards may be bestowed on non-Christians and, indeed, on non-believers in the latter three categories listed above. Members of the clergy are excluded. Promotion to a higher rank within a Papal Order may be recommended by the Ordinary of a diocese where merited.
Knights are entitled to wear a uniform appropriate to the Order to which they belong. Dames may wear the appropriate cape. The uniform is generally worn on special occasions including Pontifical masses, Pilgrimages and during events held by the Association of Papal Orders. They also have a special place in papal cortèges. The wearing of a uniform is not compulsory.
In Ireland there are a small number of members in the Pian Order: the majority of members of the Association of Papal Orders are Knights and Dames of the Order of Saint Gregory the Great and, increasingly, the Order of Pope St. Sylvester.