Hark, the heraldry: cracking the coat-of-arms code

book cover coat of arms

Cover of a new book on the heraldic signs and symbols in the church. (CNS/Carol Glatz)

VATICAN CITY — Have you ever wanted to decipher the mysterious signs and symbols on a coat of arms?

An Italian cardinal has just published a book (alas, in Italiano) on cracking the code of heraldry in the church — the unique and personal crest every bishop, cardinal and pope adopts with their episcopal ordination, elevation to the College of Cardinals or election to the papacy.

The author, Cardinal Andrea Cordero Lanza di Montezemolo, is an expert on heraldry and created Benedict XVI’s blazon when he was elected pope in 2005.

It gives an in-depth look at the history and “grammar” of a properly designed coat of arms.


Under a large reproduction of his coat of arms, Pope Benedict XVI giving his homily during Mass at Yankee Stadium in New York in this April 20, 2008 file photo. (CNS/Nancy Wiechec)

Pope Benedict introduced a number of radical changes to the papal crest when he and the cardinal set about designing his papal shield.

The pope’s resignation then prompted Cardinal Cordero to think about how the now-retired pope’s coat of arms should be amended, given his change of status to “supreme pontiff emeritus.”

It was a tough question since there were no precedents to look at. Yes, there were popes who had stepped down, but it was not clear if or how their shields ever reflected that change, the cardinal said in the book.

The coat of arms of a retired pope should retain all the symbolic elements on the shield that reflect his personality and history, the cardinal said.

But, he said the external elements — like the two crossed keys, which symbolize the powers Christ gave to the Apostle Peter and his successors — should be abandoned or altered since they represent an office he no longer holds.

The cardinal includes two hypothetical designs of what he thought the new pope-emeritus shield should look like, replacing the bishop’s miter with a white “galero” with 15 tassels and returning the banner with his episcopal motto: “Cooperatores Veritatis” (“Cooperators of the truth”).


However, the retired pope passed on any changes. The cardinal said Pope Benedict thanked him for his “interesting study,” but preferred not to alter his papal shield.

Other bits of trivia are highlighted in the book such as the elements in Pope Francis’ coat of arms. It’s the first time the emblem of the Society of Jesus ever appears on a papal blazon, Cardinal Cordero said, and probably the first time the spikenard flower has ever appeared on a coat of arms.

But see if you can catch a very small, yet “inexplicable” detail in Francis’ papal coat of arms. I hadn’t noticed the mistake until the cardinal pointed it out in his book. Happy hunting!

Vatican updates coat of arms of Pope Francis

Pope Francis’ coat of arms. (CNS photo).

In Philippines, rubble disappearing, but challenges remain

By Dennis Sadowski

TACLOBAN, Philippines — The massive piles of rubble are disappearing from the streets of this city of 240,000, but plenty of evidence of destruction remains from November’s Typhoon Haiyan in every corner of town.

Devastation from November's Typhoon Haiyan still remains in Tacloban, Philippines. (CNS/Tyler Orsburn)

Devastation from November’s Typhoon Haiyan still remains in Tacloban, Philippines. (CNS/Tyler Orsburn)

On our arrival Feb. 4 people could be seen rebuilding homes in areas smashed by the storm, using what material they could scavenge from what rubble does remain. The combined force of wind and storm surge had leveled large areas of the city, and people were using just about anything that was usable to rebuild.

Children could be seen alongside adults cutting wood to size or digging through piles of rubble looking for just the right piece of material to use. Workers moved carefully on steep rooftops piecing together materials — some new and some recycled — to render a home or business more usable.

The most devastated areas were filled with tents clustered closely together. Clothing hung on lines drying in the hot sun. Women cooked dinner. Some families operated small businesses in a tiny shack, mostly offering snacks, drinks and light food.

An afternoon downpour demonstrated people’s vulnerability to the elements. Although brief, water quickly filled the streets, muddying pathways through the camps and neighborhoods. But people never flinched, knowing that rain like this is common. It’s the typhoons and tropical storms that worry them far more.

One scene was reminiscent of what I saw a half a world away in Haiti in 2010 following that country’s massive earthquake. On one corner, a work crew was shoveling debris into a wheelbarrow, then hoisting it onto a dump truck. In these dozen workers I saw another dozen or so men in Haiti clearing the concrete rubble of a bank building in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince. A dump truck was parked nearby.

Residents of Tacloban, Philippines, shoot some hoops. (CNS/Tyler Orsburn)

Residents of Tacloban, Philippines, shoot some hoops. (CNS/Tyler Orsburn)

Same work, same sounds of shovels against pavement, different workers.

Rebuilding poses a challenge in the typhoon zone, explained Elizabeth Tromans, regional technical adviser for emergency preparedness and response in East and South Asia for Catholic Relief Services. Few supplies are making their way to the city, and even fewer to rural communities, she said. What does get through is too costly for most people to afford.

Even the Catholic Church can ill afford supplies. At the city’s well known Santo Nino Church, where Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, celebrated Mass after the downpour, the floors were covered in water that had leaked into the building. Tarps cover almost the entire roof of the church and cannot hold out all of the rain. Worshippers sat in areas where water was not falling and walked carefully through slippery areas to receive Communion. For the 250 or so people at Mass, faith remained more important than the elements.

The archbishop, leading a delegation of U.S. church leaders observing the recovery efforts in typhoon zone, credited the Filipinos for their perseverance and fortitude in the face of disaster. He reiterated a common message expressed during the trip: that the church working together can help people in need overcome the difficulties posed by the storm.