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Saint Ignatius High School

Keys to the Crest

In pondering his own family crest for this weekend's Lesson from Loyola Hall, Mr. Healey explains the symbolism behind the papal coat of arms, rooted in the teachings of the Gospels.

Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

First Reading: Isaiah 22:19-23

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 138:1-3, 6, 8

Second Reading: St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans 11:33-36

Gospel: According to St. Matthew 16:13-20

In the family room of my parents’ house hangs a painting, the work of my talented maternal uncle, of the Healey family crest.  Despite my ethnic pride I never took a shine to the shield that depicted three boars’ heads on a blue background.  I always wondered if this was some cruel joke foisted on our clan by some evil English overlord.  Only in adulthood was I made aware that in heraldic lore the use of these wild pigs actually referenced the qualities of hospitality and courage.  That’s great, but I’d still rather have something like a lion, or a tiger, or a bear.  Oh, my.

Researching the symbolism in coats of arms can be a wonderful rabbit hole to descend, and a few minutes (hours?) spent on such endeavors can bring to light some interesting information.  This weekend’s Gospel reading is one that could easily pique interest in the symbols associated with Peter and those who have followed him as the Bishop of Rome, Primate of Italy, Vicar of Christ, Servant of the Servants of God, Pontifex Maximus: in a word – Pope.

The coats of arms of the Pope, the Holy See, and the State of Vatican City are all based on one of the most famous statements in all of Sacred Scripture, made by Jesus to Simon, son of Jonah:

“You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church,
and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.
I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.
Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven;
and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven.”

In all Vatican-related crests there are depicted a three-tiered tiara, two crossed keys – one gold and one silver, a ribbon hanging from each cross, and a cord binding the keys together.  Each represents both the words of Jesus as well as the Tradition of the Church relating to the successors of St. Peter.

Essential to Matthew’s story are the two keys.  On the papal crests and the coat of arms of the Holy See the gold key is in the superior position – representing the importance of the spiritual realm, while on the flag of Vatican City the silver key takes precedence – showing that the pope is head of an earthly state.  The cord that ties them together shows that heaven and earth are bound together through Christ and His Vicar, but they also refer to the powers bestowed upon Simon Peter and all priests until the end of time: the ability to untie the knots of sin and administer the mercy of God in the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation.

On the coats of arms of every pope the keys (as well as the other items) lie behind a shield dedicated to and designed by each newly elected Bishop of Rome.  The shield designed by Pope Francis is dedicated to the Holy Family: on it lie the crest of the Jesuits (representing Jesus), a star (a traditional symbol for the Virgin Mary) and spikenard (associated in Hispanic iconography with St. Joseph).  At the bottom of his crest is a motto, meant to stamp for all eternity the focus of this pontificate: Miserando atque eligendo – literally, “by having mercy, by choosing him.”

The full quote to which this phrase refers is: “Jesus saw the tax collector and, because he saw him through the eyes of mercy and chose him, he said to him: Follow me.”  For Francis, the papal keys aren’t about the power associated with the office, but instead they are about the gift of forgiveness and the dispensation of the mercy of God: a message so clear that even an uncultured boar can understand it.