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Archbishop’s portable throne heaver than sin


Ever since the guy from the chancery called years ago to ask where to bring the archbishop’s throne and I declined, I have wondered whatever happened to the elaborate episcopal chair. The archbishop was coming to bless an addition to the school I once administered. The school community wanted a modest, throneless blessing. The archbishop came, sat on a folding chair and didn’t seem to mind in the least. I was afraid he would belt me with the holy water bucket.

In technical jargon, a bishop’s throne is known as a cathedra, a Latin word meaning “chair.” By extension, the chair is a symbol of episcopal authority. Thus, a diocesan bishop’s church is known as a cathedral because it houses his episcopal chair. When a bishop speaks ex cathedra, loyal Catholics are expected to obey or he might use his crosier to break their knees.

Cathedrals still have permanent chairs. Even parishes have scaled-down models for the local nabob. But I wonder often about the long-gone portable throne on which bishops once placed their consecrated bottoms. For me, it represents a symbol of how things change in the church -- not with a roar but a whimper.

I never found the now deceased archbishop’s chair. It could be in the basement of the archbishop’s mansion or in a seminary attic. One elderly, long-retired priest, who once served as the archbishop’s master of ceremonies, recalled that it came in three heavy parts, including the canopy. Its drapes nicely fell into place when the chair was turned upside down and then righted. It was heavier than a mortal sin. Lugging it around would risk herniating Samson before he got his haircut.

For years, the throne was toted by a local department store, owned by a family of the Chosen People, adherents to a “gravely deficient” religion -- at least in the view of Dominus Iesus, the recent master-religion statement from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s bunker. They sometimes moved the throne three times in a single day in order to ensure that it would be in place before His Excellency glided down the nave to jumpstart one liturgy or another.

Some years after the archbishop was installed, he was named a cardinal. The chair was recalled in order to install red upholstery to replace the green. The red would match his watered silk cassock and cape. After that, the department store quietly withdrew, and a retired religious goods salesman, aided by his two sons, lugged the throne around from one confirmation, funeral or dedication to another.

The cardinal died a dozen years later. His successor went to Vatican II and was deeply influenced by the Holy Spirit wafting through the open windows. Gradually, his need for the chair diminished. His successor used it on an optional basis and, well before he died, the throne was consigned to storage.

For me, the throne’s history encapsulates how things happen in the church. Customs appear to have a life of their own. Once they reach their apex, they begin to slide -- not always directly. It is often three steps forward; two steps back. We appear to be at the two steps back period now. The angels roll back the door of the tomb, and the church rolls the door right back into place. The church just can’t take a chance on letting Jesus out. Far better to speak of evil spirits and to have exorcists handy to pray over hysterical people. (Just a few years ago, the local exorcist society at the Vatican had 40 members. It now has 400. Chicago has just appointed an exorcist, although it has no record of an exorcism in its history and could likely use a chaplain at a number of the city’s psychiatric units.)

I have double locked my doors and added six more surge protectors to my hard drive. With all those evil spirits on the loose, one can’t take a chance.

The Vatican’s recent 36-page announcement on the frequent flyer mileage of each religion and the banning of evil language such as “brother” and “sister” when referring to heretics in other faiths is just another salvo-of-the-month that has been coming from Vatican offices in recent years. Homosexuals have been scourged. Theologians will likely be bar-coded, often by baby bishop theologians who have mail order degrees in graduate catechism. Couples may soon be required to bring their marriage certificates to Mass so that they can receive the Eucharist. Slowly but surely, the bishop’s ex cathedra throne is moving back onto the church’s truck so that he can read the latest papal directive to diminishing numbers of the faithful.

The American church may be drifting toward the now-defunct theology of Cotton Mather (1663-1728), the narrow, intolerant, severe Puritan who wrote over 400 mostly forgotten books centered on evil. He had a strong influence on the Salem Witch Trials in 1692 that sent 19 witches to their deaths. But like most conservative theologies, Puritanism faded along with Jansenism and other reactive teachings. Gradually, as the church dictates even who does the dishes after the Eucharist, it is downloading more and more fundamentalism -- enough to raise the “Syllabus of Errors” to the size of an “Encyclopedia of Errors.” In the process, the slippage of the faithful will get so bad that the priest shortage will become moot.

Meanwhile, if that throne comes back, I plan to load it on a rented van and toss it in Lake Michigan.

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago where he sells used maniples. Audiences can be arranged at unsworth@megsinet.net

National Catholic Reporter, December 15, 2000