The Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist
By Father Drew Larkin, Parochial Vicar
With the decree dated April 22, 2020, Pope Francis bestowed on the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist the tile of “Minor Basilica” as an honor recognizing the historical significance, architectural beauty, and liturgical renown of our church. By virtue of this designation, a minor basilica shares a special relationship with the See of Rome and the Holy Father. Basilicas contain various symbols which stand as visible reminders of this spiritual bond with the Pope and the universal Church.
Coat of Arms of the Holy See
Mounted on the choir loft is the traditional coat of arms of the Holy See, two crossed keys surmounted by the papal tiara. Since the 14th Century, the two crossed keys have been the official insignia of the Holy See. The gold one, on the right, alludes to the power in the kingdom of the heavens, the silver one, on the left, indicates the spiritual authority of the papacy on earth. The mechanisms are turned up towards the heaven and the grips turned down, in other words into the hands of the Vicar of Christ. The cord with the bows that unites the grips alludes to the bond between the two powers. Jesus entrusted the “keys of the Kingdom of heaven” to Peter and said to him, “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:19). Atop the keys is the Triregnum or Papal Tiara formed by three crowns symbolizing the triple power of the Pope: father of kings, governor of the world and Vicar of Christ.
Traditionally, a small bell mounted on a pole was carried at the beginning of papal processions to announce the coming of the Holy Father and to summon the faithful to worship. It has now come to represent the connection with the Pope as represented by another image of the papal keys and papal tiara above the bell. In addition to the bell and papal symbol, a small image of John the Baptist and Jesus at the Jordan River is displayed with the words Ecce Agnus Dei (“Behold the Lamb of God”) written on the reverse side, the basilica’s motto attributed to our diocesan patron and the Cathedral’s namesake, St. John the Baptist.
The umbraculum (sometimes called the ombrellino or pavilion) was used in processions to shelter the Holy Father from the elements. It is a partially opened umbrella made of red and yellow cloth, the traditional colors of the papacy, adorned with symbols significant to the basilica. Those embroidered on our umbraculum are the Coat of Arms of the Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist, the Coat of Arms of Pope Francis, the pope when the Cathedral was designated a basilica, the Coat of Arms of Bishop Gregory Hartmayer, the current Archbishop of Atlanta, who was the bishop of Savannah at the time that the process for being designated a basilica was undertaken, and the coat of Arms of Bishop Stephen Parkes, the current Bishop of Savannah appointed such shortly after the basilica’s designation.
The Coat of Arms of the Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist
Most notable about the Coat of Arms is the ombrellino which stands in the background indicating the Cathedral designation as a minor basilica. With that, the two crossed keys lay in the background of the coat of arms again signifying the basilica’s link with the Holy Father and the See of Rome.
Moving to the center shield, the dexter chief (top left) field contains a portion of the coat of arms of the Diocese of Savannah since the Cathedral Basilica is the central church of the diocese. The red cross is the cross of St. George, in connection with King George II for whom the state of Georgia is named; the Cherokee rose at the center is the state flower of Georgia; and the four stars represent the fact that Georgia was the fourth state to ratify the Constitution.
In the sinister chief (top right) portion of the shield, three symbols significant to the Cathedral Basilica are found. The fleur-de-lis is a popular symbol in French heraldry and represents the French origins of the Catholic community in Savannah. It was French immigrants fleeing turmoil in Haiti who established Savannah’s first parish, the Congregation de Saint Jean-Baptiste, near the end of the 18th century. The “trinity knot,” a triquetra interlaced with a circle, is a Celtic symbol used in iconography to represent the three Persons of the Trinity. The inclusion acknowledges the profound influence of the Irish immigrants which made up much of the Catholic population in Savannah especially during the mid-19th century but even up to recent history including many of the priests and bishops of the diocese. The scallop shell with drops of holy water is a symbol of the church’s namesake, St. John the Baptist who baptized Jesus Christ with water from a scallop shell. St. John the Baptist was later beheaded for his faith; these symbols are arranged on a red field, as red is representative of martyrdom.
The wavy argent per fess azure (wave shaped silver horizontal band on a blue field) that makes up the lower part of the shield is set to symbolize both the water of baptism and the geographical location of Savannah in its proximity to water. Central to this portion is the image of the Paschal Lamb, a reference to John the Baptist’s words (“Behold the Lamb of God”), representing Jesus Christ who truly is the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world. Appropriately this symbol of Christ stands at the forefront of the coat of arms reminding us that Paschal Mystery should likewise stand at the forefront of all that the Cathedral Basilica represents.
Below the shield in the center is the inscription Ecce Agnus Dei meaning “Behold the Lamb of God” (Jn 1:29), the words of John the Baptist upon seeing Jesus coming toward him. Taking up this motto from her patron, the Cathedral Basilica intends to likewise point out Jesus Christ to others so they may behold him.