Not of this world!: synodal reflection

Jesus taught that authority in the Church should be different from that exercised by kings, the traditional secular rulers

Your Grace, if I cut off more hair your mitre may no longer fit!

"Your Grace, if I cut off more hair your mitre may no longer fit!" (Illustration  Tom Adcock)

Updated: May 15, 2023 03:11 AM

“You know that the kings of the nations exercise authority over them, and their leaders rule over them. This, however, is not the way it shall be among you”. (Matthew 20,25-26)

“All [the Pharisees] do they do for people to see. They broaden their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. They love the places of honour at banquets, the chief seats in the synagogues.” (Matthew 23,5-6)

In my travels around the world as Vicar-General of Mill Hill I visited Catholic dioceses on all continents. I am still full of admiration for the excellent work done in all of them — through parishes, hospitals, clinics, schools, boarding houses and development projects. But at times I also witnessed truly ancient scenes.

When visiting the house of one archbishop whose name I shall not mention, I got to know ‘the power of the episcopal ring.’ The priest who introduced me to the archbishop whispered to me: “Do kiss his ring! It’s essential!”

True enough. The archbishop held out his right hand for me to kiss his ring. It was of considerable size and sparkled in the tropical sunshine.

Later I accompanied the archbishop to one of his outstations in the diocese. It was quite a long trip and, when we arrived at our destination, the noontime heat was overwhelming. A welcoming party of the local priest, religious sisters and prominent laity had been waiting for our arrival in front of the priest’s house.

The archbishop stepped out of his car. He allowed the priest to kiss his ring. But seeing the crowd anxious to do the same, he hesitated for a moment on what to do. He wiped his forehead and decided it was too hot to go round so many people. So he took the ring from his hand and, before entering the shade of the priest’s house, ordered the ring to be passed round so that all would have a chance to kiss it.

Believe me, it truly happened.

Remnants of feudal power.

Jesus taught that authority in the Church should be different from that exercised by kings, the traditional secular rulers. But has the Church not failed to listen to that injunction?

To begin with, the Church has adopted for its ministers many symbols of secular authority. Just think of the way bishops are presented.

Fully attired in episcopal vestments a bishop displays princely splendour derived from the early Middle Ages.
The bishop sits on a ‘throne.’
He wears a mitre and holds the crozier, a ruler’s staff.
Over his head a ‘coat of arms’ proclaims his right to dignity.
He is addressed with “My Lord”, “Your Grace” or “Your Excellency” — graded titulature borrowed from feudalistic society.
Bishops wear an episcopal ring.

Since the Vatican Council, such a display of secular majesty is now being discouraged and most bishops are more careful displaying them. The fact remains that much in the exercise of papal and episcopal power derives from secular sources.

How did Jesus display himself?

He did not wear the linen ephod, the special apron worn by the high priest in Jerusalem, not even the me’il, the robe worn by ordinary Jewish priests. Nor did he indulge in any ‘purple’ dress, the colour reserved for high-ranking officials in the Roman world. He continued to use the tunic and mantle he had always worn when working as the ‘carpenter,’ the handyman, in Nazareth.

Interpreting some instructions of the law — the Tora — literally, pious Jews in Jesus’ days strapped small leather boxes with scripture texts to their left arm or forehead. They were known as phylacteries. They would also attach some dangling bits of blue thread, tassels, to the four corners of a man’s garment. We don’t know if Jesus wore them, but he chides the Pharisees for enlarging them so that people would admire their piety.


Since Vatican II much has improved in the Church. No longer is the pope’s palanquin surrounded by imperial ostrich feathers as was done in the past. No longer do Cardinals drag a ten-meter red trail along the floor of the cathedral, as I still saw in pre-conciliar days. Much ostentation has been turned down. But does the underlying feeling still remain: “I’m different from you. I inhabit a higher sphere than you do …”?

Published by arrangement with the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

UCA News Catholic Dioceses in Asia
UCA News Catholic Dioceses in Asia
UCA News Catholic Dioceses in Asia