The humble, month-long papacy of Pope John Paul I is now regarded as a footnote in the history of the papacy, a time for the princes of the church to catch their breath before they elected the pope the Holy Spirit really wanted -- John Paul II.
But in his brief tenure, John Paul I made one quite significant, little noted, change in the life of the church. He chose to be installed as pope, rather than crowned. Gone was the jewelled tiara which had been placed on the heads of popes for centuries.
John Paul II saw the brilliance of this simple change and made it his own.
The abandonment of the tiara and the throne which papal footmen so recently carried around St. Peter's Square was not empty symbolism. It embodied a fuller understanding of the church, an understanding taught by the Second Vatican Council. It, in essence, turned the church's hierarchy upside down.
The church hierarchy would no longer be in competition with worldly thrones and dominations, a sort of counter-throne. The church has a truth to offer -- the truth of consecration to an eternal destiny. This truth does not involve escape from the world; neither does it involve the imposition of truth. Rather than trying to impose truth from the top down, the church would permeate the world with its truth from the bottom up. It would be the leaven in the dough.
To point out that there is little evidence of this actually happening is irrelevant. The shift from one model to another has just begun. What we do have is God's assurance of his "plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in (Christ), things in heaven and things on earth" (Ephesians 1:10).
The brief section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church which we examine this week looks at the three degrees of the Sacrament of Holy Orders -- bishops, priests and deacons. Several times in this section, priests are described as "co-workers of the episcopal order" who "exercise their ministry only in dependence on the bishop and in communion with him" (nos. 1562, 1567).
If one sees the church as a perfect society existing in parallel to worldly governments and corporations then bishops would be regional vice-presidents and priests their local office managers. Deacons would be little more than liturgical hangers-on and doers of good works. (No wonder the permanent diaconate disappeared for so many centuries!) The priesthood would be a position of honor and the episcopacy one of greater honor.
But the church can be more broadly viewed as the communion of God's people in heaven and on earth with Christ as their head. Their work can be viewed in the context of Ephesians 1:10. And in that context, the laity have an equal responsibility for the work of gathering all things up in Christ. The saints are at least as important as the bishops.
And it is laity who are best able to reach and enter those places in society where Christ is most absent. They are the ones who have the most arduous job of "gathering all things up."
The role of the priest is one of service to the servants of God. He must be one who constantly goads laity towards the sanctity and moral courage they need to challenge the powers which stand in the way of all things being gathered up in Christ. The priest's roles as sanctifier, teacher and pastor are all carried out with the aim of fulfilling Ephesians 1:10. The priest doesn't rule the church so much as agitate it with the spirit and life of the Gospel.
The bishop, of course, is the guarantor of the church's fidelity to the teaching of the Apostles. And it is vitally important that his priests exercise their ministry in communion with him and with each other. The deacon too is bound more closely to the altar by the imposition of hands and by his exercise of liturgical ministry. His works of charity and justice in the world thus bear an evident sacred character. They are a sacred and public sign of what the laity are doing in a less visible way.
Vatican II spoke of priests as "unwavering champions of truth" who teach "not their own wisdom, but the Word of God." This role is vital in a body which seeks to transform a secularized society into the image of Christ. It is not, however, a role of giving orders to the troops. The clergy do not wear the tiara.
The "troops," in this case, bring their own specialized knowledge and skills to tasks which are beyond the competence and command of the clergy. Part of the clergy's role of service is to help the laity integrate their knowledge and skills with the Gospel. But the Holy Spirit abides in and acts through all the baptized and confirmed. Each is called, in his or her own way, to gather up all things in Christ.
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