After an unusual journey, a pair of lambs destined for great things were blessed by Pope Benedict XVI in a traditional ceremony at the Vatican on Jan. 21.
The soft, pure wool from the little lambs will be used to make a vestment, called a "pallium," which the Pope places on the shoulders of the world's newest metropolitan archbishops each summer.
The lambs have quite an adventure before they arrive in the Vatican.
Sister Hanna Pomnianowska of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth told the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano that the lambs come from a Trappist Monastery at Tre Fontane, just outside of Rome.
They are brought to the sisters the day before the ceremony, where they are the "joy" of the convent and the surrounding neighborhood. They are washed with soap to "bring out the shine" in their coats, blowdried, fed and generally "coddled" before the next day's festivities.
The sisters have had the responsibility since 1884, she said, but they carry on a tradition that was passed on to them by a neighboring convent before it closed.
The morning of the Feast of St. Agnes, the sisters adorn the two lambs with flowers, small roses and a mantle each, one white and one red. The initials S.A.V adorn the white one and stand for "St. Agnes Virgin," while S.A.M. is emblazoned on the red background for "St. Agnes Martyr."
At 9 a.m., a pair of representatives from the Basilica of St. John Lateran arrive to haul the lambs to the Basilica of St. Agnes Outside-the-walls in northern Rome.
The Order of Lateran Canons Regular run the parish dedicated to St. Agnes, which has more than 10,000 parishioners.
On this, one of the most special days of the year in parish life, the lambs are carried inside in baskets for the 10:30 a.m. Mass.
This year, the Pope's auxiliary bishop for the Diocese of Rome's North Region, Bishop Guerino Di Tora, presided over the Mass and Lateran Abbot Fr. Pietro Guglielmi blessed the lambs in the special rite.
From there, the lambs are loaded into a truck again for the ride to the Vatican.
This year, they arrived in time for the 11:30 a.m. presentation ceremony at the Vatican's Urban VIII Chapel. They were ceremoniously presented to the Pope, who then entrusted them to the Benedictine religious sisters of the Roman convent of St. Cecilia in Trastevere.
As they do every year, the sisters will use the lambs' wool to make a pallium for each of this year's newly-appointed heads of Catholic archdioceses in the world with sees in major cities.
The pallium is a special white liturgical vestment emblazoned with six black silk crosses. It is placed over the shoulders of the archbishops when they are recognized by the Pope. It is a symbol of both their pastoral authority and their unity with the Successor of Peter.
Last year, 38 metropolitan archbishops received the pallium in St. Peter's Basilica.
The pallia from this year's lambs will be ready for the ceremony on June 29, the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul. At that point the woolen vestments begin another journey, out from Rome to the archdioceses of the world.