I love this tradition on her feast day!
VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Certain things -- such as a bath and getting dressed up -- are universal before a personal meeting with the pope, and the rule holds even for lambs.
As he does every year, Pope Benedict XVI blessed two little lambs Jan. 21, the feast of St. Agnes.
Raised by Trappist monks on the outskirts of Rome, the lambs spent the night before their papal audience in the center of Rome on the rooftop terrace of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth.
L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, interviewed Holy Family Sister Hanna Pomnianowska about her convent's role in the ancient tradition which makes a connection between the name of St. Agnes, an early Christian martyr, and "agnus," the Latin word for lamb.
The wool of the lambs blessed on the feast day is woven by a different community of nuns and becomes the fabric for the "pallium," a circular stole, which the pope gives each June to new archbishops from around the world.
Sister Pomnianowska said her order got involved in 1884 when a group of elderly sisters living nearby could no longer handle the task of preparing the lambs to attend a Mass and then be blessed by the pope.
She said that as soon as the Trappists arrive with the lambs, "we take them to the top floor of our house, where we have a large terrace and laundry room. As you can imagine, they are the joy of the entire community, especially of the younger sisters."
"The first thing we do is wash them. We put them in a tub with baby soap to delicately wash the dirt away. Then we dry them. We used to use towels, but now we use a blowdryer. We are careful not to leave their skin damp because they are young and could get sick," she said.
The baby lambs spend the night in the laundry room, in a covered pen filled with straw to keep them warm.
The morning of their big blessing day, she said, a decorative blanket is placed on each lamb. One blanket is red to recall St. Agnes' martyrdom; the other is white to recall her virginity.
"Then we weave two crowns of flowers -- one red and one white -- and place them on their heads. And we tie bows around their ears," she said.
After they are adorned, the lambs are placed in baskets, the sister said. "We are forced to bind them to prevent them from running away; once, in fact, I saw a lamb jump up and run from the altar."
Once they are prepared, the lambs are taken to Rome's Basilica of St. Agnes Outside the Walls, where they are placed on the altar over the martyr's tomb and are blessed. Then Vatican workers arrive to take the lambs to the pope, she said.
The lambs are blessed again by the pope, usually in the Chapel of Pope Urban VIII in the apostolic palace, she said. The ceremony is attended by two of the Holy Family Sisters -- usually two who are celebrating a significant anniversary of religious profession, she said.