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Bishop McElroy

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Dignitatis Humanae: Coat of arms features Vatican II document, ‘Of the Dignity of the Human Person’
September 1st, 2010

The following description of the Episcopal Coat of Arms of Bishop Robert W. McElroy is written in the vocabulary of heraldry as expressed in the Old English language by way of its French roots.

Blazon: Tierced per fess. Chief Azure sur une trinité de dolfphins Argent. Vermillion tenne syant a fess ponte d’ Or. Sur vert fond, scales chevron light Or; entre dexter pale Vert chêne feuille, et sinster Vert syant colombe Argent.

An easy way to read his shield is to view it as horizontally partitioned into three main sections, with the lower section having three parts. The top section tells us the ancestry of Bishop McElroy. The middle section tells us of Bishop McElroy’s contemporary heritage. The third section of the Coat of Arms give us a view of his ideals.

The top charge, or dolphin symbol of the shield comes from the Coat of Arms of the Giolla Rua Clan of Ireland’s county Clare where they held a family seat from ancient times. As Irish patronymic surnames developed, they were often re-formed by adding the Gaelic word mac or mc, which means “son of” to the name of the original bearer’s father. The presence of three dolphins in the McElroy family coat of arms gives some indication to three original sons in the clan history.

County Clare on its west, faces the Atlantic Ocean. Thus, the use of dolphins in the family coat of arms indicates maritime history in the clan. The Azure blue background in this section of the shield indicates the Atlantic Ocean. In heraldic terms, deep blue is meant to convey depth and stability. In Christian iconography, dolphins were seen as one of the emblems of Christ. Sailors knew the dolphin’s qualities of intelligence, almost of divination, as well as their wonderful feats of life-saving. They considered the dolphin to be a benevolent traveling companion. The dolphin thus signifies Christ the guide, or Christ the friend. It is in this role as a “guide of souls” that we see it used here. The role of a bishop is to save the lost as Christ did – not only as the rescuer of the shipwrecked, but also as the sure conductor of the ship of the Church to harbor in sudden storms and darkness.

The middle charge, or symbol of the shield represents the contemporary, iconic Golden Gate Bridge. This alerts the viewer to the current geographic location of Bishop McElroy’s family. There is evidence of the McElroy’s family presence in various cities of California in records reaching back to the Gold Rush Era. Bishop McElroy is a fifth generation San Franciscan. The Orange Vermillion background of this field is unusual in heraldry. It is precisely the color of the Golden Gate Bridge. It is also called “International” Orange, which will have symbolic ramifications in the description of the third charge of the shield.

But more than just giving a geographic identity to Bishop McElroy, the symbol of the bridge also has symbolic importance. In Christian tradition, the role of a bishop has been seen as “pontifex,” which means “bridge-builder” – with the Bishop of Rome being the “pontifex maximus,” that is, the “greatest bridge builder.” Originally meant in a literal sense, the job of bridge-builder was an important one in ancient Rome, where the major bridges were over the sacred Tiber River. Only prestigious authorities with sacral functions could be allowed to “disturb” the river with mechanical additions. However, since Christian times, the title of “pontifex” has been understood in its symbolic sense. Episcopal “bridge-builders” are the ones who, in the pattern of Christ, erect bridges of reconciliation between God and humankind.

The third charge of Bishop McElroy’s Coat of Arms is divided into three parts – yet it is meant to be read as a single narrative. The field color of green, symbol of God’s natural order of creation, ties these three partitions together. The three symbols of a leaf; scales of justice; and a dove demonstrate the tripartate basis of the dignity of the human person made in God’s image. These three themes have formed the framework for Bishop McElroy’s published writings.

This defining section of Bishop McElroy’s Coat of Arms is further elucidated in the banner that is unfurled along the bottom of the shield which contains a mission statement (or motto) chosen by the Bishop. The title comes from the landmark 1965 Second Vatican Council’s document on religious freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, which asserts the fundamental right of all individuals, religious communities and families to freedom of religious participation and expression. Beyond religious freedom, this document also represents a major development in Catholic teaching on human rights and church-state relations, a development which Pope Benedict XVI has cited as an exemplar for the true spirit of reform at the Second Vatican Council. Finally, Dignitatis Humanae constitutes the principal contribution which the theology and experience of the United States made to the Council.

The scales at the bottom of the shield stand for justice. It is foundational that in human and international relationships, there can be no peace without justice. As the opening sentence of Dignitatis Humanae attests: “A sense of the dignity of the human person has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary man, and the demand is increasingly made that men should act on their own judgment, enjoying and making use of a responsible freedom, not driven by coercion but motivated by a sense of duty.” (Dignitatis Humanae 1.)

The leaf stands for the sanctity of life – both human and natural. In this case, the use of the Oak leaf also references “eternal life.” Since the oak tree does not shed its leaves in the winter, unlike most deciduous trees, it is seen as a symbol of life that lasts through human seasons. “And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:39-40.)

The third symbol of the dove of the Holy Spirit stands for the principle of peace. As stated in Dignitatis Humanae: “Like Christ Himself, the Apostles were unceasingly bent upon bearing witness to the truth of God, and they showed the fullest measure of boldness in ‘speaking the word with confidence’ (Acts 4:31) before the people and their rulers. With a firm faith they held that the Gospel is indeed the power of God unto salvation for all who believe. Therefore they rejected all ‘carnal weapons.’ They followed the example of the gentleness and respectfulness of Christ and they preached the word of God in the full confidence that there was resident in this word itself a divine power able to destroy all the forces arrayed against God and bring men to faith in Christ and to His service.” (Dignitatis Humanae 22-27.)

Covering the top of the shield, and used in episcopal heraldry since the Tenth Century, is the “Gallero.” It is also known as a “pilgrim’s hat” because of its wide brim protecting the traveler from the elements. In this context, the Gallero indicates a bishop’s willingness to journey to different places for the faith, while at the same time expecting to be protected by the shadow of God, as noted in Psalm 84:12. The Gallero has a cord attached to it in the color green, flanked by two sets of six tassels, or “fiocchi.” Originally this cord was a simple way of securing the hat to the traveler. Tradition now dictates that a bishop’s Gallero and cord are depicted in the color green and flanked by two sets of six tassels ordered in three rows, indicating the wearer has the rank of bishop.

Above and behind the shield of Bishop McElroy, there appears a processional cross which further reinforces the theme of “bishop as pilgrim” – a person on the move for the sake of the kingdom of God. In this case, the cross is fashioned in the shape of the Order of St. Gregory. This cruciform honors St. Gregory the Great, (540-604) and the patron of the parish at which Bishop McElroy has served as pastor in the San Francisco Archdiocese for fourteen years. It was Pope St. Gregory who first described the papacy as that of “the servant of the servants of God.”

Prepared and executed in consultation with the Most Reverend Robert W. McElroy of the Archdiocese of San Francisco in July/August of 2010 by the Reverend Timothy Pelc of the Archdiocese of Detroit.

From September 3, 2010 issue of Catholic San Francisco.



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