The gift of Christian faith must be shared with the world

Father John A. Kiley

I say bring back the Cappa Magna.

Until the middle of the last century, bishops were frequently photographed, often standing but sometimes kneeling, enveloped by an ermine cape with a generous train neatly arranged at their feet. Occasionally in public processions, both in the street and within the church, attendants would be noticed walking behind their excellencies raising the train above the dirt or the dust. Ermine, of course, was a particularly regal addition to the episcopal wardrobe. Queen Victoria, who always dressed in black after the death of her husband, made a major concession by permitting ermine trim to be generously added to her widow’s wardrobe to mark a prayer service in thanksgiving for her son’s recovery from typhoid fever. However, the wearing of ermine did not just denote mere royalty; ermine frankly connoted empire. From the time of Columbus up until the First World War, the nations of Europe extended their spheres of influence far beyond the limits of the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. The Spanish Empire encompassed most of the Americas. The Portuguese emperor held colonies in India and the vastness of Brazil. France ventured into North Africa and Indo-China. Germany was late in securing some African possessions, and, of course, the sun never set on the empire that Great Britain posted in red on any world map.

Many commentators today are appalled at the thought of powerful European nations violating the customs and practices of native peoples around the globe. And frankly the age of empire was indeed an age of exploitation. The atrocities that Belgium’s Leopold III unleashed on the Congo are notorious and much lamented. Cecil Rhodes greatly impeded race relations in southern Africa in his quest for diamonds. Yet Europe clearly had much to offer the wider world. Would Mahatma Gandhi have appreciated the need for democracy in India had he not studied law in England? Would he ever have developed his expansive attitude had he not been introduced to Buddha, Mohammed and Christ while studying in Britain? Would priests from parts of the Third World be coming to rescue of clergy-poor American dioceses today had the faith not been spread to them by European religious congregations over the past 400 years?

The missionary efforts of Christian Europe could easily be associated with the empire building of the nations of Europe. Evangelization could be understood as a form of ecclesiastical imperialism. In the current era that favors diversity and multiculturalism, the triumphalism that characterized so much of church history up to Vatican Council II, symbolized so well by the wearing of the cappa magna, is regarded by some as mere pomposity, arrogance, and religious chauvinism. Equality, not empire, is the motto of the modern world. The contemporary world is tolerant of all cultures, all philosophies, all theologies. One world view is as good as another in an age that respects individuality above all other values. Nowadays everyone is entitled to wear a cappa magna.

Yet for the civilized westerner and the Christian believer the age of empire can never be over. Plato and Aristotle, Moses and Jesus Christ, Augustine and Benedict, Bonaventure and Aquinas, Florence Nightingale and Dorothy Day, Dietrich Bonheoffer and John Courtney Murray have a priceless message that should not be denied to the rest of the world. And, of course, regarding Jesus Christ, his is a saving message that must not be lost for the rest of the world. The wonderful gift of Christian faith and the many fruits of that faith which have been granted by God to the Western world should be appreciated first of all by those to whom it has been entrusted and then preached and shared fearlessly and joyously with the worldwide family of man. A renewed confidence in the Gospel message, a revived assurance in the mission of the church, a restored urgency in the spreading of the faith, both at home and abroad, are sorely needed at this point in salvation history. The certitude, the conviction and the commission once symbolized by the cappa magna are still qualities an eager church needs to spread the faith throughout the world to bring the Gospel “to every creature.”