I wonder how many persons know about the episcopal coat of arms. If I was asked about it some years ago, I really didn’t know what to answer.
What is an episcopal coat of arms? And what is his purpose? At first sight it looks a bit outdated, instead it is very interesting!
To understand what a coat of arms is, we have to think back to the Middle Age and remember the shields of the knights, later used also by Kings, Emperors and aristocratic families. All the powerful persons that wanted to distinguish themselves chose their own coat of arms with precise colors and characteristic elements. It was a topic so vast and important that it became a studied subject until nowadays: Heraldry.
A particular branch of Heraldry takes care of the ecclesiastical coat of arms, especially those that belong to the Catholic Church. So now we are closer to understand an episcopal coat of arms… indeed each one of the ecclesiastic figures like Pope, cardinals, bishops, vicars, deans, presbyters can have one.
But what’s so fascinating in this emblema quite old-fashioned at first sight? Firstly it is not simply a distinctive element like the one of a noble famity used to represent their power and prestige. The ecclesiastical coat of arm has a deeper and more noble meaning. It is a personal commitment of the priest towards Jesus and the Church of God.
It consits of various elements, some fixed and some changeable. In the case of the episcopal coat of arms: the shield, the galero, the cross and the cartuche are common elements for all the bishops in the world. Other elements that decorate the shield like animals, plants, objects and the “motto” are closely related to the personal story of the bishop. Each bishop chooses his own coat of arms at the moment of his episcopal ordination and this emblema will accompany him throughout all his ministry in every diocese of which he will be responsible.
It is interesting to pause a moment and observe attentively each coat of arm because it is more than a simple drawing. It is very nice if the bishop explains the meaning of his own emblema: it becomes a beautiful catechesis that speaks of Jesus, human fragility but also of love, charity and trust in God.
The first Sunday after his installation as new bishop of Bereina, His Excellency Otto Separy during his homily explained the meaning of his coat of arm. There are the beautiful mountains and the ocean with its waves in Aitape, the first diocese entrusted to him. There is the eagle like in the Psalm 91 “And he will raise you up on eagle’s wings, bear you on the breath of dawn, make you to shine like the sun, and hold you in the palm of his hand.” There is the Eucharist, of which Bishop Otto said: -it is my only strenght; and there is the “motto” in the cartuche “HAVE NO FEAR”. Bishop Otto friendly shared that indeed he was afraid when he was appointed bishop, but also shared how he felt encouraged and consoled by the exhortation of the Lord: Have no fear! I am with you and on eagle’s wings I will bear you.
So our Bishops are not only shepherds that lead the faithful with Christ in their heart. They are also God’s knights with the Lord in their shield that protects and encourages them to fight the good battle. “The LORD is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and he helps me.” Psalm 28