Today is the Fourth Sunday in Lent, called Laetare Sunday from the first words of the Introit at Mass, "Laetare Jerusalem" — "Rejoice, O Jerusalem". On this Sunday, the mid-point of the season of Lent, the Church permits certain special signs of joy to encourage the faithful in their course, a relaxation of the stark penitence of the Lenten fast and a foreshadowing of our joy in the Risen Lord at Easter. Flowers are permitted at the altar, the organ may be played at Mass and Vespers, the deacon and subdeacon wear dalmatics instead of folded chasubles as on other Sundays of Lent, and in place of penitential violet, rose-colored vestments are allowed. By a happy blending of of significations, there is another rose-related tradition on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, on account of which the day is also called "Dominica de rosa" or "Sunday of the Rose".
By tradition, on this day the popes have blessed a golden rose, a precious and sacred ornament made of pure gold by skilled craftsmen, to be bestowed, as a token of special reverence and devotion, upon Catholic kings and queens, princes and princesses, other renowned and distinguished persons, governments or cities conspicuous for their Catholic spirit and loyalty to the Holy See, and, from the latter half of the 20th century, upon certain places of devotion, churches and shrines.
Pope Innocent III wrote about the significance of the golden rose. As Lætare Sunday, the day set apart for the function, represents love after hate, joy after sorrow, and fullness after hunger, so does the rose designate by its color, odor, and taste, love, joy, and satiety respectively. Adverting to the spiritual resemblance, he continues that the rose is the flower spoken of by the Prophet Isaiah (11:1), "there shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse, and a flower shall rise up out of his root".
The golden flower and its shining splendor show forth Christ and His Kingly Majesty, Who is heralded by the prophet as "the flower of the field and the lily of the valleys"; its fragrance (the principal rose incorporates a tiny cup with a perforated cover into which the pope pours musk and balsam) shows the sweet odor of Christ which should be widely diffused by His faithful followers (Pope Leo XIII, Acta, vol. VI, 104); and the thorns and red tint tell of His Passion according to Isaiah 63:2: "Why then is thy apparel red, and thy garments like theirs that tread in the winepress?"
The design of the golden rose has varied over time. Originally, the ornament appears to have taken the form of a single, simple rose of red-tinted gold. For greater embellishment and in lieu of the red tint, a ruby was placed in the heart of the rose, and many precious gemstones were set in the petals. Later a thorny branch with leaves and many roses (a half-score and sometimes more), the largest of which sprang from the top of the branch and the smaller ones clustered naturally around it, was substituted for the single rose. More recently, the roses have been fashioned from heavily-gilt silver, with vases and pedestals of various forms and materials. In addition to the customary inscription, the coat of arms of the pope who had the ornament made, and that of him who blessed and conferred it, were engraved on the pedestal.
The pope blesses the golden rose with this prayer:
O God! by Whose word and power all things have been created, by Whose will all things are directed, we humbly beseech Thy Majesty, Who art the joy and gladness of all the faithful, that Thou wouldst deign in Thy fatherly love to bless and sanctify this rose, most delightful in odour and appearance, which we this day carry in sign of spiritual joy, in order that the people consecrated by Thee and delivered from the yoke of Babylonian slavery through the favour of Thine only-begotten Son, Who is the glory and exultation of the people of Israel and of that Jerusalem which is our Heavenly mother, may with sincere hearts show forth their joy. Wherefore, O Lord, on this day, when the Church exults in Thy name and manifests her joy by this sign, confer upon us through her true and perfect joy and accepting her devotion of today; do Thou remit sin, strengthen faith, increase piety, protect her in Thy mercy, drive away all things adverse to her and make her ways safe and prosperous, so that Thy Church, as the fruit of good works, may unite in giving forth the perfume of the ointment of that flower sprung from the root of Jesse and which is the mystical flower of the field and lily of the valleys, and remain happy without end in eternal glory together with all the saints.
Here are some photographs of golden roses down through the ages.