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Croziers and Relics - symbolism or an ecumenical matter?

In canon law, juridic acts enjoy a presumption of validity. Equally, the law proceeds upon the basis that a person's outward declarations correspond with their intentions. Why does it matter? Two recent events might give cause for reflection.

The first occurred during an episcopal consecration in Ireland last week. As is seemingly the vogue, the liturgy was attended by leaders of other faith communities, including the Church of Ireland. For some, such attendance may be considered a symbol of unity. For others, attendance is one thing, participation is an altogether different matter.

The consecration of a diocesan bishop involves a good deal of symbolism: the anointing, the laying on of hands by two bishops in full communion with Rome, the provision of the mitre and the crozier etc. Of course, the purpose of a symbol is to convey a message or meaning. The consecration rite is, inter alia, intended to attest to designation, apostolic succession, hierarchical communion, and conferral of authority.

With this in mind, observers would be entitled (if not duty bound) to ask: what message was being communicated by the decision of the bishop-elect to receive the crozier from a Bishop of the Church of Ireland? Given the status of the crozier as a symbol of pastoral authority some will have been perplexed by the idea that someone other than a Bishop of the Catholic Church should be involved in its conferral. For others of more satirical inclination, such an act might prompt speculation as to whether the transmission of the crozier was intended to portray a public act of submission or surrender, rather than any assertion of authority. Does it matter? After all, one might observe, are we not all Christians?

Those perplexed by such events, may have admitted to bewilderment earlier this week. Various Catholic news agencies have reported the Pope's donation of certain relics of St Peter to the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. Commentators were eager to point out that the Patriarch does not recognise the primacy of the petrine office. Others have reported how the Patriarch (himself a canonist) has described the act as "brave and bold". It is not difficult to deduce from this statement a sensitivity to the significance of the event which may not have been shared by the donor. Some canonists will draw comfort from the absence of any suggestion of infringement of canon 1190. Others might reflect upon whether the transfer of the relics was temporary or permanent.

Do these two seemingly disparate events convey a common message? Perhaps the answer is to be found in the papal message for July; reported by Catholic Media Agencies as "integrity to justice".

As any legal historian will attest, justice involves the delivery of that which is due (i.e. iustum). In the vocabulary of modern times: the conferral of something to which the recipient is entitled. Justice may itself be directed to a number of objectives; restoration being but one example. Whatever its form or purpose, justice will invariably be founded upon honesty and impartiality. Similarly, 'integrity' may be interpreted as a form of honesty and authenticity; free from fragmentation or compromise.

Soundbites are all well and good. If, however, the papal message is to be received and acted upon, its expression must inform both our actions and the symbols by which the mission of the Church is to be conveyed. In the context of inter-religious dialogue, it may be thought that "integrity to justice" demands that we have the courage to speak openly of those matters upon which there is not and cannot be agreement. At first blush, this may appear counter-intuitive. On reflection, one might suggest that any communication which disregards points of distinction in favour of platitudes is no dialogue at all. To draw upon the words of the Patriarch, such an approach would be bold and requires courage. Without either, ecumenism is reduced to the status of a trope worthy of Fr Ted. As St Anslem might remind us: fides quaerens intellectum. It is t​he faith which forms both the basis and purpose of our inquiry and any discourse that may arise from it. One might conclude that symbols which detract from this reality ought to be avoided.

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