Buried in the midst of the Advent Season was the anniversary of the death of Archbishop Fulton Sheen. I had occasion to see a video of his appearance on the classic old game show What’s My Line? Aside from the fact that an Archbishop of the Church would be a regular on prime time TV, to the extent that he the celebrity panel had to wear blindfolds and he had to answer in French to throw them off, I was struck by two things. One, it only took a few questions for the blindfolded panel to figure out who he was, and when he went to shake their hands at the end, Dorothy Kilgallin, obviously Catholic, kissed his ring.
It put me in immediate mind of a recent conference I attended. Archibishop Sheehan of New Mexico was a speaker, and was greeted on the dais by Catholic uber-theologian and apologist, Scott Hahn with as deft and natural a kiss-on-the-ring (on the fly) as I have ever seen. It was beautiful, it was inspiring and it is all too rare.
Put together, the two events made me a bit wistful that the practice has fallen into disuse. Not because I have any particular desire to buss jewelry, mind you, but because we live in an age sorely in need of wonder. One of the more pernicious effects of the Protestant revolt, in my mind, was a loss of any earthly expression of fealty, awe, and admiration.
Once upon a time, the very presence of earthly kings drove home the idea of a Heavenly King. Not so in our Age of Enlightenment Republic. Ultimately, we have leveled ground that perhaps should have remained high, towering over our thoughts and minds and hearts to remind us, however imperfectly, of Him who is so very much beyond our knowing, and worthy of our fear and awe and praise.
Disrespect of ecclesial authority is not limited to the Protestants. Consider the behavior of high-profile Catholics that the media lionize. Patrick Kennedy has a front page debate with his Bishop over abortion and Catholic faith. Bill Maher slurs the Pope on the occasion of his visit to America. Madonna appears in concert scantily clad on a cross. Hard to image any of them submitting to the authority of their clergy, let alone kissing a Bishop’s ring as a sign or respect. Hard to imagine that they value any Catholic authority beyond their own minds and desires. Easy to know that they do not respect those who do.
My dad, staid Protestant that he was, was fond of reminding me, whenever I felt intimidated by people that “They put their pants on one leg at a time, same as you.” It was his way of reminding me of our common humanity, and in so far as it went, it was an important part of making me realize that I was no better--and no worse--than anyone else by virtue of my own simple self.
But Dad didn’t stop there. He also made sure I understood that there were offices--parent, adult, teacher, President, pastor--that were to be respected no matter who held them, for the office represented something so much more than the person who held it. He knew the value of the wisdom of the elders, as he called it, even if he imposed typically Protestant limits on it.
As it happened, I evolved into the same sort of equal opportunity, schizophrenic, office revering parent my dad was. My kids knew (and soon taught their friends out of sheer desire to avoid excessive embarrassment) that any yes or no response that was not followed by “Ma’am” or “Sir” was likely to be met with “I beg your pardon?” They also knew that a sure way to incur parental wrath was to “get above their raising” and start feeling inherently superior because of their relatively cushy station in life or their own personal accomplishments.
We seem to have mastered the latter sentiment in modern times, at least with respect to revering others, but have lost touch with the former. Because we have let the reality of our shared fallen nature (or an excessively optimistic vision of pure and unspoiled nature) control our vision of life, we fail to understand the reason for authority and its temporal expressions. And because we are Americans who will not bow to anyone (Obama in Japan, anyone?) we drift farther and farther from the physical reminders of that need in liturgy and life of Christ’s sovereignty.
One of my RCIA students brought that home to me, when she remarked after attending her first mass, that she was stuck by the fact that so many (not all...) genuflected before entering and exiting the pew, and knelt during the consecration. She said that it was good to see. We might, she reflected, approach the throne with confidence, but we still need to bow before our Lord and King.
Indeed. Living in the great American age of “Who Do You Think You Are To Try To Tell Me What To Do?”, hard on the heels of a Church reeling from terrible clerical sandals that have done great damage to the Church and her people, I still need reminders that I am a free soul, but have chosen to be subject to a King, One I do not see physically before me, but One whose command of my life is far greater than any earthly authority can ever hope to have, as great as that is.
Americans in particular need to be reminded what Kingship is. The King traditionally owned everything and everyone was subject to him. In our nation, where we believe power to govern is ceded by the people to the government, and that rulers rule only with--and so long as we give--our consent, we’ve rejected in our daily lives that notion of absolute, royal sovereignty in temporal government. It can be hard to regain it in the spiritual world.
I need to train myself in those old ways of thought again. I need to remind myself what Kingship means. I need to bow and genuflect to remind me of the great and overwhelming mystery of the Incarnation. I need to think about what that tiny sign of the cross on my forehead, lips and heart really signifies. I need to see and acknowledge the signs of offices that the King has established--collar, cassock, cope, mitre, crozier, keys and crown.
I need to understand that my loving Savior put generally wonderful, sometimes terrible, always fallible men in charge of the Church, and guaranteed me that, however foolish they might be, the essentials of the Faith would remain intact. I need to remember that I am subject to Him. I need to remind myself, in part by my actions towards those He establishes over me that He is indeed, King of my life.
Body language, any jury expert or focus group guru will tell you, means something. How we hold ourselves betrays what we think. And just as surely, but perhaps not as well appreciated, how we train ourselves to express ourselves in our bodies can shape the way our minds and spirits think and respond. Ask any former soldier, standing unconsciously at attention or parade rest at a funeral years after boot camp; or any former ballerina, whose toes still turn out in dancer’s attitude and who still sees the world in a choreography of shapes and patterns and sound.
A priest is a man, sinner in need of saving as much as am I. He is also the Icon of Christ, who brings Christ to me because his very priesthood emanates from Christ Himself. He is the same as me, but wonderfully, inexpressibly different. I need to know and honor the difference as well as the similarity. I need to pray vigorously for the man and love and respect the office.
Likewise a Bishop. Man, sinner, servant, with the incredible burden of shepherding souls in the name of Christ; or the Pope, Servant of the Servants of God, but still, Vicar of Christ.
Christ is our Brother. Christ is our Friend. Christ is our Savior. Christ is also our Sovereign Lord, King of all. Lord of my life, Sovereign overall I am and ever will be.
Perhaps it’s time to remind ourselves that we have chosen to be subjects of a king, and act accordingly. Perhaps by paying homage to the shepherds He has chosen for us--by accepting in physical humility that we are that wonderful contradiction, free subjects--we will grow closer to the Lord who is, after all, our first Kinsman. To know him as Lord, perhaps we need a little more practice with the idea here here on earth.
Bending knees and--if the opportunity arises--deftly kissing a ring or two.