The supreme pontiff, like other sovereigns, can confer outward signs of benevolence or appreciation. Recognized as such by all when conferred by the pope on lay people of any country, these signs are decorations officially called pontifical equestrian orders. They are bestowed according to merit, protocol, or courtesy. There are five orders, or degrees of conferment, three of which are additionally divided into classes. Clergy and women are traditionally excluded from these honors, the first because specific honorary ranks may be bestowed upon them, the second because by ancient usage only the gol den rose and the Cross Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice, as well as personal titles of nobility, are granted to deserving ladies, although strictly speaking these are not considered decorations. In recent times, however, more women have been created Ladies of the Holy Sepulcher, a group closely linked with the Holy See (see knights of the holy sepulcher).
The Order of Christ, the highest distinction that the Holy Father can confer, is rarely given, and then only to Catholic heads of state of great countries. By tradition it is also given, after some years of service, to the prince commandant of the papal Noble Guards. It dates from the time of Pope John XXII (1319). A Spanish branch of the same order exists, although for several centuries it has been entirely separate from the papal order of the same name.
The Golden Spur, or Golden Militia, is the honor (but seldom given) for non-Catholic heads of state of great nations. It consists, like the former order, of one class, ancient date of origin unknown. The insignia of both these orders are beautifully designed wide gold and enamel chains to be worn around the neck and over the shoulders.
The Piano Order, although rare, is better known than the first two and consists of four (or five) classes: (1) Knights with Chain (for heads of state), (2) Knights Grand Cross (for heads of government and ambassadors to the Holy See), (3) Knights Commander with Star, (4) the same without Star, and (5) Knights. It owes its name to Pope Pius IX, who instituted the order in 1847.
The Order of St. Gregory the Great, perhaps the best-known, consists of three (or four) classes: (1) Knights Grand Cross, (2) Knights Commander with Star, (3) the same without Star, (4) Knights. The order has a civil as well as a military division, the latter being reserved for military personnel who receive the order in that capacity. It was founded in 1831 by Gregory XVI.
The Order of St. Sylvester Pope possesses the same classes as the preceding order. It was constituted as such, being formerly part of the Order of the Golden Spur, in 1841, by Pope Gregory XVI.
Gentlemen who belong to the different orders rank inter se and unus post alium; e.g., a Knight of the Piano Order precedes one of St. Gregory; and he in turn one of St. Sylvester. However, a Knight of the Piano Order would be preceded only by a Knight Commander of St. Gregory or a Knight Commander with Star of St. Sylvester, etc.
The orders are conferred by the pope on such as have been recommended by their bishops or by the papal representatives in their countries. Diplomats, as well as members of official delegations (on the occasion of papal coronations, etc.) receive one of the orders as a mark of courtesy to the country they represent. Although in former times the Piano Order was generally reserved for Catholics, the distinction was dropped long ago, as was the automatic nobility of rank that came with the Piano Order—hereditary in its first classes, personal in the lower ones. Each order has its own uniform. The classes can be clearly distinguished by variations in the elaborateness of dress as well as by the insignia of the order worn with the uniform.
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