Jesus told the Apostles, “Those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt, but it shall not be so among you.”
The Church has not always heeded Our Lord’s caution against lording it over people. I served under a bishop who demanded that he be addressed as “My Lord,” and when he visited our parish all the people had to assemble to kneel and kiss his ring. His reason for demanding those things was that he thought the Church wanted it. He was not a proud man.
That Bishop Tom Quinlan, to be able to continue serving his people, stayed behind when the Reds invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950. All through the next winter he plodded north on a death march that took the lives of two thirds of the American soldiers who were his companions. One survivor called him, “The bravest man I ever knew.”
A bit of church history from the year 500 explains how people came to address any Catholic bishop as “My Lord.” For two centuries before that the barbarians who overran Europe had embraced the Arian Religion. As Arians they read only a doctored version of the New Testament. It regarded Jesus as just a good man, not the Son of God. The Arians had all but wiped out Christianity when Clovis the king of the Franks, a new nation from the east came along. He married a Catholic girl who talked him into getting all his people baptized Catholic. It happened at Rheims on Christmas of 496.
The Catholic priests ran into a problem with the Franks. Like all the new nations the Franks followed Feudalism. Feudalism had a primitive social framework. Under it everyone with an inheritance possessed a noble name, an estate, and serfs; while anyone without an inheritance was a serf, and he slept with the pigs. The bishops and priests had no inheritances, but they didn’t like being classed as serfs. What they did was they rigged up a ceremony for the year 500. With the nobles all assembled, one by one each bishop and priest came before them, making the same announcement: “I have an inheritance. My inheritance is the Lord.”
The word they used for an inheritance was klerk, and because each of them used that word, people took to calling them “clerks.” The acceptance of them as clerks brought about a total restructuring of Feudalism. Where it had been only nobles and serfs, now it was nobles, clerics, and serfs.
One problem remained for the bishops and priests. The nobles demanded that since the clerics, like the nobles, were high above the serfs, they needed to be revered. Like the French say, “Noblesse oblige.” So they became the reverend, the very reverend, the most reverend. This introduced a conflict into their souls, because our Master had told them to not make their importance felt.
For the Church to survive the centuries when Feudalism was the only acceptable thing, the priests and bishops had to adopt Feudalism. Now, that we have come into a liberal age it might be necessary for priests and bishops to adopt, if not democracy, at least republicanism.