On the combative nature of episcopal office

A few posts ago, we considered the meaning of “pastoral care” as not merely a ministry of tenderness and mercy but also one of firmness and discipline towards the flock. Shepherds break the legs of straying sheep to teach them not to wander, only to heal them that they might walk anew under his guidance. Another dimension of pastoral care is that the shepherd must be ready to defend the flock from the onslaught of the wolves. This is why he carries a staff– to gather the herd together while repulsing the predators. Bishops are the shepherds par excellence of their particular churches, which is why they too carry their crozier, a twofold symbol of their power to gather the flock under the discipline of the faith, and to strike fear into those who would dare threaten the flock of the Lord, which is the Church.

In Otto Preminger’s 1963 film “The Cardinal”– well noted for its uncanny liturgical and ecclesiastical accuracy– there is a scene in which the protagonist, an American priest named Stephen Fermoyle, is consecrated as a bishop in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome, and we see a snapshot of this beautiful rite according to the old Caeremoniale Episcoporum in force prior to the reform of Paul VI. Fermoyle, a member of the Vatican diplomatic service, receives episcopal consecration on the eve of World War II, when Holy See diplomats would be called to assist in the care of Catholics in the face of totalitarian persecution. Against this background of looming global conflict, the film did not choose to depict the actual laying of hands (the matter which effects the grace of the sacrament); instead, we see the imposition of the miter and– more importantly– we hear the stirring prayer which accompanies this portion of the ritual. The primary consecrating bishop, with the two co-consecrating bishops at his side, say in unison as the new bishop receives the miter:

Imponimus, Domine, capiti hujus Antistitis et agonistae tui galeam munitionis et salutis, quatenus, decorata facie et armato capite, cornibus utriusque Testamenti terribilis appareat adversariis Veritatis; et, te ei largiente gratiam impugnator eorum robustus exsistat, qui Moysi famuli tui faciam ex tui sermonis consortio decoratam, lucidissimis tuae claritatis ac veritatis cornibus insignisti, et capiti Aaron pontificis tui thiaram imponi jussisti.

We impose, O Lord, upon the head of this your Bishop and champion a helmet of armament and salvation by which, with his face adorned and his head armed with the horns of both Testaments, may he appear fearsome to the enemies of the Truth; and, with you having poured grace upon him, may he stand out as their robust punisher, You who marked the face of Your servant Moses, decorated by the partnership of Your teaching, with the most shining horns of your clarity and truth; and You who willed that a crown be placed on the head of Aaron your high priest.

Though it cites more directly from Scripture (1 Peter 5:4), the analogous prayer in the modern Roman Missal has definitely lost the theological depth, myriad biblical imagery, and oratorical force of the old prayer:

Accipe mitram, et clarescat in te splendor sanctitatis, ut cum apparuerit Princeps Pastorum, immarcescibilem gloriae coronam percipere merearis.

Receive the miter, and may the splendor of holiness shine in you, so that when the Chief Shepherd appears, you might be worthy to receive the unfading crown of glory.

Upon comparison, one immediately notices how impressive the old prayer is– wholly biblical, dramatic, and oozing with Romanitas; its author (now obscure) was obviously a master of rhetoric and of theology, well steeped in Scripture and in the classical Graeco-Roman arts. That wonderful phrase terribilis appareat adversariis Veritatis showcases the rhythmic and smooth construction; how wonderfully does such profound and dense content roll smoothly off the tongue in so few words! Here we get all the symbolism of the Roman (two-pointed) miter; the two “horns” represent the Old and New Testaments and symbolically recall the beams of light emanating from Moses’ face when he descended from Sinai; reference is further made to ministry of Aaron the first high priest, which the new ministry of bishops has subsumed.

What also strikes us modern Catholics is the combative language of the prayer. The bishop’s miter is a “helmet of fortification and salvation”; he himself is called agonista and impugnator. The former is the term for a skilled gladiator, the champion of his master’s household. Spartacus the Thracian, agonista of the house of Batiatus, is one such historical example; a bishop is a champion of the house of God. He is also impugnator, an intrepid guardian of the sheep, ready to smite the prowling wolves. Above all, the Church asks that he “appear fearsome to the enemies of Truth”; the old liturgy certainly makes no bones about the perennial spiritual warfare which marks the history of the Church. Thus, on account of this spiritual warfare, because in this earthly abode reigns the “Prince of this World”, the combative character of the episcopal office emerges as a necessity. In fact, it is inherent in the pastoral ministry.

Of course, spiritual warfare is not earthly warfare; bishops do not go door to door literally smacking heretics and sinners with their croziers. Their struggle, and the struggle of the whole Church, is a fight in favor of Christ’s ultimate victory, who when he was about to ascend Calvary, told his disciples: “I have already conquered the world”. Bishops, and indeed all Christians, appear fearsome to the enemies of Truth not by drawing their swords against the ears of sinners, but by leaving the sword in its scabbard. By unabashedly proclaiming the truth against the jeers of the world, even unto death, the man of faith enters into the Paschal Mystery. The powerful witness of martyrdom confounds the wicked, but earns for us the unfading crown of glory.

In this vale of tears, we call the Church by the epithet Ecclesia militans— the Church Militant. We are still subject to the struggle of all fallen creatures. The Redeemer himself spoke of this struggle, and we see it in a unique way in that passage from the Gospel of Matthew dear to all Catholics:

You are Peter, and upon this Rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.

See that last phrase: “the gates of hell shall not prevail”. This is not the image of a Church sitting idly by, passively waiting for the Second Coming. No, it is the Church who is on the offensive! Hell is besieged by Assembly built on Peter! He, the First Apostle, and all the Apostles with him, are agonistas assaulting the citadel of sin and death under the banner of Christ! The bishops of today, successors of the Apostles, carry on this campaign in the temporal realm through evangelization and preaching. Though it may bring pain and suffering, their testimony to the Truth helps to ensure the salvation of souls. By facing head on the perils of false doctrines, they clarify and let shine the splendor of the faith. Armed with the helmet of salvation and adorned with both Testaments, may they continue to stem the tide of modern errors, and thus ever appear fearsome to the enemies of Truth.

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