In 1961, when I was studying for my doctorate in Rome, I attended the ordination of a priest from Bafut in Northwest Cameroon. His name was Pius Suh Awa. I met him a couple of times in the Propaganda Fide College where he was staying at the time.
Twelve years later Pius was to become bishop of Buea diocese in Cameroon, but I want to narrate one of his achievements. As a young local priest Pius was appointed curate of Fiango Parish, Kumba, and later supervisor of Catholic schools in the Forest Area of West Cameroon. Pius was one of the sons of the ‘Fon’, the local king of the Bafut tribe.
For more than a century there had been frequent fights between the Bafuts and other local tribes, such as the Mankons, the Metas and the Mungakas. Pius’s new position gave him a unique opportunity.
On a number of occasions, when in certain villages fights between the neighbouring tribes were flaring up, Pius intervened. He called both parties together, led them in negotiations and then proclaimed peace. His authority was recognised, both as a son of the Bafuts’ Fon and as an ordained priest. The parties gave in. Peace prevailed.
Pius had acted as an official herald of peace. I find it significant that he chose for his episcopal motto, displayed on his coat of arms, the Latin words “Ut Cognoscant Te”. It means: “That they may know Thee”. He rightly saw his task as making his people truly understand God.
What does ‘heralds of God’s Kingdom’ mean?
Let us begin with the expression ‘the kingdom of heaven’. For Jesus it stands for the new reality his Father was going to bring about. In ‘kingdom of heaven’, heaven stands for God. This can be seen from the many instances in which the Gospels mention ‘kingdom of God‘ as an obvious equivalent.
To avoid mentioning God by name, the Jews often used ‘heaven’ when they meant ‘God’. They would say: ‘I have sinned against heaven’ and ‘we don’t know whether this comes from heaven or from human beings’. Think also of our own expression: ‘Heaven forbid!’ Kingdom of heaven therefore means: God’s kingdom.
The word kingdom needs clarification too. When we speak about a kingdom, we usually think of a country that is ruled by a king. We can then say that someone travelled the length and breadth of the kingdom, or that there was a war between two kingdoms, and so on. This is not the first and most important meaning of malkûth, ‘kingdom’, for the Jews. Malkûth meant someone’s ‘being king’, what we may render by kingship in English. God’s kingship means that God rules as king.
There are very few kings or queens left in the world and where they still exist they are, to a great extent, no more than figure-heads of national unity. For most of us it is easy to forget how central the position of a king was in ancient society.
In tribal societies like Israel, the community resembled a large family and the king was an overall father; possessing, as father, absolute power and ultimate responsibility. Under a good king the whole family of society flourished; under a bad king everyone suffered hardship.
The king was at once lawgiver, supreme judge and army chief. In Israel, in spite of influences from neighbouring nations, the tribal image of a king who is close at hand and paternalistic remained predominant.
It is clear from the Gospel that for Jesus God’s kingship brought a new reality to human society. It established neighbourly friendship, peace, tolerance, forgiveness, self- sacrifice, care for those in need, in short: a realm of love.
Heralds of God’s Kingdom
Remember that in Jesus’ time TV, radio, the press did not exist. Whenever a political reality changed, the population would be informed about this by officially appointed ‘heralds’ who would proclaim what was happening.
Roman ‘heralds’ proclaimed that Emperor Cesar Augustus had decreed a registration of the whole population of Syria, to which Palestine belonged at the time. It required people to travel to their town of origin. This was the decree that made Joseph and Mary travel from Nazareth in Galilee to the Bethlehem in Judea, since Joseph was a descendant of David (Luke 2,1-5).
It is obvious that not just anyone could act as a herald. A person had to be officially appointed, authorised, to act as a herald. Heralds were authorised to carry state messages or to make proclamations.
We should realise that a political proclamation brought about a tangible result. Something changed. Once Pontius Pilate had been proclaimed Roman procurator in a town or village, his rule over that area had been established.
Jesus chose twelve disciples and appointed them ‘heralds’ of God’s new Kingdom. The Greek word ‘apostle’ actually means ‘a herald’. The main task of the apostles, and of their successors: popes, bishops and priests, is to bring about God’s kingship among people. And in the beginning the new reality was made visible through miracles of healing. “Go and proclaim that the kingdom of heaven has come near. Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons” (Matthew 10,8).
These initial signs pointed to the inner healing that was Jesus’ real purpose. This spiritual healing would transform people. As the beatitudes express it, it would make people humble in spirit, meek, thirsting for what is right, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, ready to suffer for the cause of righteousness.
- Is this how we understand ‘authority’ in the Church today?
- Is our ministry first and foremost focussed on bringing about that inner, spiritual transformation in people?
- Are we too much preoccupied with the externals of governance, with beaurocracy, with imposing rules, with administration?
Dr John Wijngaards is a Catholic scripture scholar and founded the Wijngaards
Institute for Catholic Research in 1983.
Published by arrangement with the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.
Series of Reflections on Church Authority by Dr. John Wijngaards – Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research