God save us all!
I was one of the millions who woke up in the early hours of Saturday morning to watch the historic coronation of King Charles III and Queen Camilla. Although I proudly acknowledge my Irish ancestry, I was eager to witness this moment in history and I didn't regret it.
What a beautiful ceremony, steeped in both the best of British religious and secular traditions and, yet filled with moments of distinctively contemporary influence! Westminster Abbey -- the historical site of many prior coronations as well as the burial place of kings, queens and notable citizens of the realm -- simply looked magnificent!
Watching the coronation ceremony unfold, I couldn't help but notice the deeply religious character and symbolism present in each of its principal moments, reminiscent of many Catholic ritual similarities.
The hymns chosen were splendid, appropriate to the occasion; the prayers recited were rich with graceful, scriptural elements; and the ceremonial gestures were charged with emotion and sentiments of real devotion.
I was particularly moved when the Archbishop of Canterbury and the King walked behind the ornate screen for the ceremonial anointing with chrism of the new monarch, hidden from public view. Even the Queen was not present for her husband's "sacred" moment!
The choir filled Westminster Abbey with its splendid rendition of Georg Frederic Handel's glorious anthem, "Zadok the Priest," first performed for the coronation of King George II in 1727. Its lyrics were taken from the First Book of Kings' account of the anointing of King Solomon:
"Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet anointed Solomon king. And all the people rejoiced and said:
God save the King! Long live the King! God save the King!
May the King live forever. Amen. Hallelujah."
When he emerged from behind the screens, King Charles III was dressed by the Archbishop -- vested really -- in the golden stole and robes reminiscent of a priest. Although not a cleric, the King is not only head of state but also head of the Protestant Church of England, the "Defender of the Faith."
In a decidedly ecumenical outreach, King Charles III professed his desire rather to be the "Defender of All Faiths." That was evident in so much of the ceremony and the varied and diverse religious representatives who participated in the coronation.
For the British, indeed for the peoples of many countries with monarchies, there is something "sacred" about the coronation of their kings and queens, warranting an anointing with blessed oil. The notion of "divine right of kings" underscores the belief that all human authority comes from God alone to whom all who wield it are ultimately accountable.
That conviction makes a ceremonial anointing of a monarch not only reasonable but compelling, something that should influence the direction of one's earthly "reign." King Charles III was quick to declare before his countrymen and the world, the very words of Christ, "I have come not to be served but to serve." In that respect, "God Save the King" seems all the more meaningful. In that respect, these words can and should become a prayer.
In the U.S., we obviously don't have kings and queens or anything to compare with a royal coronation: no robes or crowns or thrones or anointings of our leaders. They are elected by the citizenry but only for a time and not for life and their powers are not inherited but constitutionally based.
That, perhaps, is why so many of us find ceremonial occasions like those we witnessed on May 6 in England interesting enough to get up early to watch -- not out of any desire to replicate them here but, simply, to watch "history in the making" somewhere else in the world!
Aside from the "pomp and circumstance" that surrounded the coronation's pageantry, the striking and profoundly religious character of the ceremonial "transition" of authority and power -- in a church, no less -- is largely missing in a democratic republic where the "separation of church and state" is virtually a political "sacramental."
Often enough, at least for now, there are prayers said and brief nods to the divine but that's about it. That is unfortunate, I believe. I am not advocating the "anointing" of our leaders but, perhaps the idea behind the gesture is worth thinking about.
In his confrontation with Pontius Pilate, the Lord Jesus Christ responded to his claim to authority: "You would have no power over me whatever unless it was given you from above." (Jn 19:11) More than simply an exchange, those words are instructive and reach beyond their scriptural moment.
Human authority comes from God and should be exercised with that in mind. "In God we trust" should be more than a mere motto in a courtroom or on a coin -- it should be a deeply held conviction of faith that is not bound by any particular religious denomination or tradition.
"Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's but to God, the things that are God's" (Mt 22:21) expresses a sense of human accountability for our life in this world, leader as well as follower. St. Paul said it well in his Letter to the Romans, "Every one of us must give an account of himself to God." (Rom 14:12) That includes the powerful.
I remember well a conversation I had a few years ago with a Catholic political leader who had embraced positions on human life contrary to his Catholic faith. He acknowledged "understanding "the church's teachings" but could offer no convincing or even plausible defense for his opinions and actions.
I said to him, "You know, when you, a Catholic, die and stand alone before God to give an account for your life and the decisions you made, there will not be anyone else standing next to you."
Whether or not one supports the British or any other monarchy or prefers one form of government to another; whether or not one thought King Charles III's coronation was "too religious" for its royal purpose; whether or not one ultimately believes that secular power and religious faith should be separate and mutually exclusive in the "public arena," I believe the royal coronation ceremony broadcast to the whole world on May 6 struck the right note for all to hear and see: all human power and authority on this earth come from God and, to those to whom they are given, regardless of the circumstances of their donation -- coronation, election, appointment or whatever -- they are given for the good of the human community God created.
Power and authority bring with them a responsibility and an accountability "not to be served but to serve." That was my "takeaway," one of three. The second was prompted by a passage in the Letter to the Hebrews:
"For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the one that is to come. Through him then let us continually offer God a sacrifice of praise, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have; God is pleased by sacrifices of that kind. Obey your leaders and defer to them, for they keep watch over you and will have to give an account, that they may fulfill their task with joy and not with sorrow, for that would be of no advantage to you." (Heb 13:14-17)
With no connection whatsoever to the worldwide television broadcast of King Charles III's coronation the day before, the HBO series "Succession" character Kendall Roy was saying, more profoundly than he probably realized on Sunday night, my third and final "takeaway," saying: "We watch history. We make history. And then, one day, we become it."
God save us all!
BISHOP DAVID M. O'CONNELL, C.M. IS THE 10TH BISHOP OF TRENTON AND FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE CATHOLIC UNIVERSITY OF AMERICA.