“It is you who will be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel.” A thousand years before Jesus, Samuel, the prophet, records the scene in the first reading when Daniel is anointed “king over Israel.” Though flawed and imperfect, we remember David as the greatest of Israel’s kings. Was he a great shepherd of his people as well?
On this final Sunday of the ecclesiastical year, we hear Paul tell us,“The Father has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.” The language of the first two readings uses the rich imagery of kings and kingdoms. This resonated with listeners of past centuries in a way that it just may not today.
Paul tells us unequivocally that Jesus “is the head of the body, the church.” A tension exists between the proper interpretation of the leadership role of the shepherd and king. The tension within this dichotomous leadership model comes most vividly to light when over the ages we see the church interpreting its role in a more earthly than spiritual context. Did the church slowly moving away from a primary emphasis on the shepherd after 380 with the Edict of Thessalonica? At that time Emperor Theodosius I made Christianity the sole authorized religion of a decaying western Roman Empire. The church took on the trappings of the power that came with this powerful new role. Pontifex Maximus or Supreme Pontiff had been the title of the head priest of Rome’s polytheistic state religion prior to 380. It now became a title for the Christian pope.
The trappings of royalty proliferated. A papal tiara, that diadem or half a metre high triple crown, would be placed on a new pope’s head at his coronation by the beginning of the second millennium. It resembled Persian royal headgear from antiquity. Ancient symbols of authority attempted to imbue their contemporary holder with legitimacy. Similarly the Jewish headdress worn priests by dating back to the time of Moses became the mitre now worn by today’s bishops.
Those of us who are old enough can remember the Pope Pius XII wearing the papal tiara and being carried in the Sedia gestatoria or portable throne held aloft by 12 uniformed footmen. Two attendants holding large ceremonial fans called flabella made out of white ostrich feathers followed it.
Other papal clothing dictates included the famous red velvet or silk slippers at times decorated by gold braid or buckles. Noble men of the Renaissance had worn these, so too did the pope whose rule had become more temporal as papal authority over a wide swath of land and peoples in what is now central Italy grew through the Middle Ages and onward.
Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) offered an early articulation of the “divine right of kings.” All authority spiritual and temporal flowed from on high through the papacy. Only the pope could depose a king. Later kings would usurp this papal authority and see divine power and consequently their authority flowing directly from God to them bypassing the papal intermediary.
Popes like the famous “Warrior Pope” Julius II in the early 1500s vigorously defended their royal prerogatives in asserting church control over the Papal States. Armies rallied to the papal banners over and over again. This continued late into the 19th century when papal armies attempted to block the unification of Italy under Victor Emmanuel. Some 500 Canadian volunteers joined the fight in the late 1860s. The famous Zouaves attempted to halt the march toward modernity by backing the ultramontane struggle against such “liberal” ideals as freedom of speech and conscience, democratic governance and the separation of church authority over the state. The fall of Rome in September of 1870 ended this phase of church history. The only remnant of those papal armies remaining is the Swiss Guard.
The trappings of the royalty so long attached to the papacy have slowly fallen away over the last half-century. The solemn coronation of Pope Paul VI in 1963 saw the papal tiara used for the last time. The papal tiara, though, continues to be seen as a symbol of the papacy.
Pope John Paul I was the last pope to be carried in the Sedia gestatoria back in 1978.
The red slippers are gone too. Pope Francis has chosen to wear simple black shoes, forgoing that tradition for his papacy.
The British historian and 19th century Catholic philosopher Lord Acton famously remarked, “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This quote is found in a letter he wrote to Anglican Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887. His observation emphasizes that a person’s sense of morality lessens as his or her power increases. Does that hold true for institutions as well?
Pope Francis challenged priests around the world to turn this around during the Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday, March 28, 2013. “Shepherd must have the smell of the sheep. This is precisely the reason why some priests grow dissatisfied, lose heart and become in a sense collectors of antiquities or novelties — instead of being shepherds living with ‘the smell of the sheep.’ This is what I am asking you — be shepherds with the smell of sheep.”
The image of a compassionate Lord that Luke models in today’s Gospel shows even in during Jesus’ final agony what it is to be the shepherd and king. Jesus, remember me too.
Dougherty is co-chair of the Social Justice Committee at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Whitehorse, Yukon.