Wise rulers throughout history have often taken care to surround themselves with salutary reminders of their own frailty and the transitory nature of power. The auriga who held the laurel crown over the head of a triumphing Roman general would whisper into his ear: “Memento homo (Remember that you are mortal)” and during the coronation ceremony of the Byzantine emperor, stone masons approached him to display samples of stone for the construction of his tomb.
Various rites, in the same spirit, have been proposed for the Successors of Peter, so that amidst all the pomp owed to the dignity of their sacred office, the Supreme Pontiffs might not forget the humble origins of the papacy in the Galilean fisherman, who betrayed Christ out of fear of the washerwoman.
PART I: The Burning of Flax
One such rite is the burning of flax during the papal coronation ritual, a practice adopted by the papacy a thousand years ago and used continuously until modern times. Here is video of the burning during the coronation of John XXIII (short and long versions):
Gattico’s Acta Selecta Ceremonialia Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae contains this description of the rite, used for Innocent X’s coronation in 1644:
“Then the procession began in the usual fashion. The Pope was carried in his sedia under a baldacchino as described above. While proceeding toward the high altar, Dom. Dominicus Bellus, third Master of Ceremonies, when the Pontiff had reached the aforementioned Chapel of St. Gregory, lighting a small piece of flax on the top of a reed he had been holding, and raising it in front of the Pope who has stopped, genuflected and said: ‘Holy Father, so passes the glory of the world.’ He repeats it a second time in front of the bronze statue of St. Peter, and a third time in front of the entrance to the high altar, each time in a louder voice.”
Flax is a very dry material. When lit, the fire consumes it very quickly. For this reason it has long been taken to signify the brevity and frailty of human life:
“Flax, used as a symbol of transience, recurs in various passages of the Bible (Sir. 21:10-11; Isa. 1:31). Its symbolism is powerful; basic in its simplicity, profound in its significance: ‘like nothing else, it symbolizes human…transience’ viewed in relationship to the exercise of power (gloria).”
A rite of burning flax was used in the coronation of the Byzantine Emperor, and migrated to the West in the 11th century, when it was adopted in a handful of western uses under the influence of Peter Damian, who is the first western author to write about it. The rite was performed at Besançon, for instance, four times per year. A 13th century Ordinary of Lisieux notes a similar ceremony for Pentecost: ad processionem Missae stuppae inflammantur, quas custodes inveniunt.”
The rite was given various interpretations and ritual expresses in the early centuries, until some time around the Council of Trent it settled into its modern form. Originally, it was practiced several times a year in the papal court, especially at Easter and Christmas, being restricted only much later solely to the coronation ritual. There is the following reference to an Easter flax burning in Chapter 222 of the Gemma Animae. At one time, it seems, the splendor of the solemn papal Easter celebrations were marked by this memento mori:
“When the pope celebrates during Easter, a large lamp (pharum) made of flax is hung over him. The burning flax is allowed to fall down upon him, and is gathered up from the ground by his assistants. This ceremony reminds him that he is ash, and that all the glory of his garments will one day be reduced to cinders.”
The 12th century Ordo Romanus XI describes a flax ceremony at St. Mary Major on Christmas morning. The author presents the burning flax as an eschatological symbol of the end of the world, rather than a memento mori directed personally to the pope:
“During the entrance the (cubicularii) hold a cloth over the head of the Pontiff. When he enters the sanctuary, the (mansionarius ecclesiae) hands him a reed with a lit candle. The Pontiff takes it and sets fire to flax placed on the capitals of the columns as a sign of the end of the world through fire.
The rite continued at Avignon, by which time it had also been fully incorporated into western imperial ceremony, where it was used until some time around the Council of Trent, the same period when the rite was restricted to the papal coronation ceremony in its current form and fell out of use in the other churches of the West.
The English chronicle of Adam of Usk is the first eyewitness description of the ceremony of igniting the flax:
“On the feast of St. Martin (11 Nov. 1404), the new pope, for the solemnities of his coronation, descended from his palace into the basilica of St Peter where, at the altar of St George, he put on vestments for the Mass that had been brought to him by the auditors of the curia. At the exit of the chapel of St. George a cleric, bearing in hand a long cane covered with flax at one end, lit the flax with a candle and declared out loud: ‘Holy Father, thus passes the glory of this world’ [Pater sancte, sic transit gloria mundi]; and twice again in the center of the chapel in an even louder voice he proclaimed: ‘Holy Father, Holy Father’; and still a third time, at the entrance to the altar of St Peter’s, he issued a triple exclamation in an even louder voice: ‘Holy Father, Holy Father, Holy Father!’ And each time, immediately afterwards, the flax was extinguished.”
Adam of Usk adds: “in the same manner, at the coronation of the emperor, at the moment of his highest glory, stoneworkers would present him with pieces of marble of every sort and color, worked in every style, shouting at him: ‘Most excellent Prince, from which marble do you want us to make your tomb?’”
According to Agostino Patrizi Piccolomini’s ceremonial, the dying pope was invited to repeat the words pronounced during the coronation ceremony: ‘Holy Father, thus passes the glory of the world’ (Pater sancte, sic transit gloria mundi).” Stephen of Bourbon mentions the rite in a chapter that contains a quotation from Plato on the necessity of meditating regularly on death and references to biblical texts concerning ashes.
Gaetano Moroni’s Dizionario records several of the more notable flax burnings, as well as some extraordinary stories connected with it:
The Acts of the Council of Pisa tell us that in Alexander V’s coronation in 1409: “There were many solemn ceremonies on that day, such as the burnings of flax while saying Sic transit gloria mundi.”
There is a moving story about Pius III (1503): “Pius III, seeing the burning flax and hearing the three-fold chant: Pater sancte, sic transit gloria mundi, was so stricken and moved, among other things because was unable to stand due to a disease, broke out in tears: ‘he broke out in tears and bemoaned the human condition, which so quickly passes away.”
Sixtus V, who was renowned for his wit, contrary to the custom of remaining silent during the burning ceremony, cried out in response to the Sic transit: “Our glory will never pass away, because our only glory is in doing what is just!” He then turned to a Japanese ambassador in attendance, and admonished him: “Tell your princes, our sons, the meaning of this noble ceremony.”
At Clement XIV’s coronation (1769), the flax would not light, perhaps because of the humidity. The pope-elect was quite pleased, taking it as a sign portending a long rule. Later on, he fell from his horse in the procession up the Capitoline, and recalled the verse Impulsus eversus sum, ut caderem, et Dominus suscepit me which seemed to fit his circumstances.
Flax burning was abrogated by Paul VI ipso facto along with the coronation rite, as part of that generation’s apparent disgust with the “detritus of imperial Rome.” Its disappearance is in complete harmony with the principles of the new liturgical order, under which the Church’s historic penitential discipline and rites have been all but abolished as unattractive relics of medieval piety.
But as the Church and her Petrine office enter deeper into this season of humiliation and repentance perhaps it is time to reconsider the fittingness of ceremonial acts of penance. One hopes a more judicious generation will soon rediscover, in this picturesque rite borrowed from the Byzantine court, a fulsome and timely reminder that the Petrine ministry is a ministry of repentance, an example of conversion for the whole world, founded when Christ raised the over-zealous Peter from the dung-heap of his betrayal.
 “Inchoata post haec fuit processio juxta suum morem. Papa delatus fuit in sede sub baldacchino ut supra elevato, et procedendo versus Aram majorem Dom. Dominicus Bellus tertius Caeremoniarum Magister, cum fuit Pontifex extra praedictam Capellam S. Gregorii, accensa parva stuppa in culmine arundinis, quam prae manibus habebat, eaque elevata ante Papam tunc consistentem, genuflexus dixit in tono: Pater sancte, sic transit gloria mundi; quod et secundo ante statuam aeneam S. Petri, et tertio ante ingressum quadraturae Altaris majoris fecit semper altiori voce.”
 Agostino Paravicini-Bagliani, The Pope’s Body, p. 29
 Paravicini-Bagliani, op. cit., p. 29: “A completely analogous rite appears in the liturgy of the cathedral of Besançon that was reorganized by Archbishop Hugh I (1031-66). The archdeacon presented the archbishop with some linen flax that had been set afire and addressed him with the words: reverend father, so passes the world and your vitality.”
 Cap. 222: De vestibus patriarchae et apostolici.
Patriarchae quoque et apostolicus pallio utuntur, qui eodem officio praediti esse noscuntur. Porro apostolico in Pascha procedente, pharus ex stuppa super eum suspenditur, quae igne succensa super eum cadere permittitur; sed a ministris vel a terra excipitur, et per hoc ipse in cinerem redigi, et gloria ornatus eius in favillam converti admonetur.
 Mabillon, Musei Italici, v. 2, p. 126: “In introitu ecclesiae cubicularii alte portant mappulam super caput Pontificis. Cum autem intrat presbyterium, mansionarius ecclesiae porrigit ei arundinem cum cereo accenso. Tunc Pontifex accipit eam, et ponit ignem in stupa posita super capita columnarum ad figuram finis mundi per ignem.” Durandus gives the same interpretation in 4.6.13: “In quibus dam etiam basilicis circa medium chori manipulus stupae appenditur, cui Pontifex transiens ignem apponit, ut in conspectu populi cito incineretur, per hoc secundum adventum commemorans, in quo Christus vivos et mortuos, et saeculum per ignem iudicabit; nam ignis in conspectu eius semper ardebit, et in circuitu eius tempestas valida [….] Hoc etiam fit, ut Pontifex ignem apponens consideret quod ipse debet in cinerem redigi, et ornatus eius in favillam converti, et quod quemadmodum stupa facile comburitur, sic etiam facile, et quasi in momento, praesens mundus transit, et concupiscentia eius [….].
 The Pope’s Body, p. 130.
 Tractatus de diversis materiis predicalibus, I, De dono timoris, ch. 7, de memoria mortis, nos. 98-99.
 Dizionario di erudizione storico-ecclesiastica, v. 70, pg. 93: “Pio III […] nel vedere ardere la stoppa e nel sentire il triplice canto: Pater sancte, sic transit gloria mundi, ne rimase talmente penetrato e commosso, anche per esser impedito da una piaga di stare in piedi, che ne pianse; flevisse statim, et humanam sortem ingemuisse dicitur, brevi perituram.”
 Dizionario, v. 70, pg. 93: La gloria nostra non passera mai, perche non abbiamo altra gloria, se non che far buona giustizia. To the Japanese ambassador: “Dite a’vostri principi nostri figli, il contenuto di questa nobile ceremonia.”
 Ibid. There are further accounts in Gattico, Acta selecta, e.g.: (1484) Innocent VIII, pg. 373; (1644) Innocent X, pg. 410; (1676) Innocent XI, pg. 423.