ROME (CBS) — Archbishop Blase Cupich received a special honor Monday morning, as Pope Francis bestowed him with a pallium, a special lambswool vestment symbolizing his position as leader of a major archdiocese.

Cupich was part of a procession which entered St. Peter’s Basilica, where 46 bishops had their pallia blessed, and presented to them in boxes, rather than draped over their shoulders, as had been tradition in the past.

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The box came with a letter addressed to the papal nuncio, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the pope’s ambassador to the U.S., who will bestow the pallium on Cupich on Aug. 23.

“It’s here, right here, and I dare not open it, because I’ll probably mess it up,” Cupich said after receiving the pallium in a box, along with a note from the pope. “This is a letter in which he commissions the Nuncio to give it to me, and then it’s inside this box.”

In the past, popes have placed the pallia on the shoulders of new bishops, but Pope Francis changed that this year.

The bishops didn’t know before the ceremony how they would receive the vestments, and it didn’t come until after Pope Francis walked down the main aisle, and into a curtained area, where he personally presented the pallia one at a time in private.

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“We each came up and spoke to him, and he again said ‘pray for me,’ and I pointed up at the ceiling where the words of Jesus are, ‘I pray for you. I have prayed for you people.’ And I said ‘Jesus is praying for you.’ He said, ‘Oh, that’s good,’” Cupich said.

The symbolism was clear. Pope Francis wanted to focus attention on the ceremonies of the home dioceses of the bishops. Even handing them the pallia in public in the Vatican would detract from what would go on in Chicago and 45 other cities later this summer.

Cupich really didn’t know what to expect when he met the pope for the first time over the weekend, summoned to the papal residence for a surprise audience on Friday.

“He put me at ease immediately, because he just began to speak to me. He put up with the mistakes that I make in Italian, when I speak Italian. The discussion as all in Italian, and he gave me a chance to tell him that I was grateful that he received me, but also grateful for the appointment to Chicago,” Cupich said.

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Receiving his pallium leaves one remaining honor for Cupich, who now heads a major archdiocese which is now without a voting cardinal for the first time in 17 years. It’s a pretty good bet, though not a certainty with this pope, that Cupich eventually will receive the red hat of a cardinal as well.