The evening of 30 June 1963 remains vivid in my memory. As a young student-priest in Rome, I had the good fortune and great privilege to attend the coronation of Pope Paul VI in St. Peters Square.
Actually, the event was the first public Mass of the new pope, held outdoors on the steps of the great basilica. Toward dusk, as the Mass concluded, a specially made tiara the triple crown of the Pope of Rome was placed on Pauls head. It seemed to weigh his frail figure down. What an apt symbol for the glory and burden of his unique office.
At the time, I never realized I was glimpsing the last tiara.
In a dramatic act during one of the public sessions of the Second Vatican Council, the Pope removed the tiara from his head, walked down from his throne to place it on the altar, and asked for it to be sold and its price given to the poor.
Later, simplifying papal symbols and ceremony, Paul decreed that the tiara and coronation rite would be used no longer.
There is no certainty about the symbolism of this headdress with its three crowns, one above the other. As with some other papal insignia, the tiara may well represent three major offices that the pope holds.
First, he is Bishop of Rome. Second, he is Patriarch of the West that is, the head of the Latin (or Roman) Catholic Church. Third and most important of all, he is Successor of St. Peter Prince of the Apostles, the rock on whom the Church is founded, the one who strengthens his brother bishops in faith and so exercises a unique ministry of unity at the service of the universal Church.
Of course, the responsibilities of each of these three offices are conjoined in the person of the Holy Father so much so that it is not always easy to identify the office from which each responsibility stems.
Generally, Western Catholics are hardly aware of the role of the pope as a patriarch. They usually do not think of him as head of a particular Catholic Church albeit the largest one the Latin (or Roman) Catholic Church. However, they are very conscious of him as Bishop of Rome and as Successor of St. Peter.
Members of the various Eastern Catholic Churches, who have their own patriarch or major archbishop, are far more likely to be aware of the popes additional role as Patriarch of the West.
Their fuller understanding of and respect for the papal office may well prove to be a providential instrument for nourishing the union of all the Churches of the East with the Church of the West.
For the most part, Eastern Orthodox Churches have respect for the primacy of the pope, but also fear losing their autonomy if they enter into full communion with Rome.
Perhaps some of their apprehensions arise from looking at the pope through Western eyes and confusing his patriarchal authority with his unique Petrine ministry and service to the entire Church of Christ.
Msgr. Robert L. Stern, Secretary General of CNEWA