William Davage considers the symbolism of recent papal gestures

Mgr Augustine Hoey

Many readers of New Directions will know Fr Augustine Hoey, who was formerly a member of the Community of the Resurrection and now lives at Walsingham. He celebrated his 100th birthday on 22 December 2015, and Pope Francis made him a Monsignor in recognition of a long life lived in the service of Christ’s Church. We send Mgr Hoey our congratulations and best wishes.

At a deep level of conscience, Catholic religion has signs and symbols at its heart. The sacraments themselves are, in the words of the Catechism in the Book of Common Prayer ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual and inward grace.’ Article 25, not an authority to which I often resort, says that the Sacraments ‘be not only badges and tokens of Christian men’s profession, but rather they be certain and effectual signs of grace … by which [God] doth work invisibly in us’.

These sacraments are supplemented by an array of signs and symbols: statues; vestments; icons; paintings; murals; stained glass; rosaries; scapulars. None of these is a sacrament; but they all point us towards faith and worship, doctrine and devotion. They are not indispensable, but are part of the fabric of being a Catholic. And it is greatly to the credit of the Oxford Movement that these have been recovered for the Church of England. Anglo-Catholic priests went to prison to defend the use of some of them, and subsequent generations have benefited from their use. They remain vital parts of any Catholic mission.

The significance of signs and symbols retains its hold over many beyond the Church. That is why such widespread revulsion is felt at the destruction of buildings and artefacts of historical – more than historical – significance by the so-called Caliphate and the Taliban, in the Middle East and elsewhere. Christianity has had its own iconoclastic past. In this country the Puritan Protestant nihilism of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries wreaked particular havoc in cathedrals and parish churches. Look no further than the Chapter House at Ely and its headless statues.

Ecumenical relations have greatly benefitted from signs and symbols. When St John XXIII gave his breviary to an Anglican priest, it was a sign of the shared prayer of the Church, the daily Opus Dei to which both communions were dedicated. Blessed Paul VI gave an episcopal ring to Archbishop Ramsey; Benedict XVI gave a pectoral cross to Archbishop Williams; and in January Pope Francis sent the head of a crozier traditionally associated with St Gregory the Great to the meeting of Anglican Primates in Canterbury, where it was displayed in the Cathedral.

If signs and symbols mean something to Catholics, Roman and Anglican, Eastern and Western, then what does this mean? Is it merely a generous and kind gesture? No doubt some will see it as no more than that. Were that the case, however, he could have sent many other signs, kindly meant; a crucifix; a statue; a signed photograph; a bible; an icon; an intention of prayer. But Pope Francis sent a distinctly episcopal sign.

As one commentator has asked, ‘in sending part of Gregory the Great’s crozier – the shepherd’s crook, the pastoral staff – is the Pope also reminding the disaffected Primates that they have another option?’ Or is it that he is conferring some sort of ecumenical validity on the meeting of – as he sees them – bishops, although bishops not in communion with the See of Peter? Does the Pope see the occupant of the See of Augustine as an ecumenical equivalent to the Bishop of Rome, as of similar standing to the Ecumenical Patriarch? Does he see the dispersed authority of the Anglican Communion as a model for the Church of Rome?

These are questions to which I have no answer. But they arise from a belief that such signs and symbols cannot be passed off merely as an exchange of meaningless baubles, as acts of courtesy – courteous though undoubtedly they are – as without significance beyond themselves. For many in the Church of England they may, indeed, have no significance beyond themselves: and that is, in part, a failure of the Oxford Movement. The Archbishop of Canterbury is of thoroughbred Evangelical stock, but he is also an Benedictine Oblate. For some these may sit uneasily together but, perhaps, it

means that he is better placed than many to interpret the signs. Although the Bull condemning Anglican ministerial orders remains intact, is it undermined by this trinity of gifts of episcopal significance? Signs and symbols mean something: but what do they mean to Pope Francis? ND

The Revd William Davage is a former Priest Librarian of Pusey

House, Oxford.