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THE BISHOP'S CROZIER: What the ‘Pelican in her Piety’ teaches us about the Eucharist

02/18/2022 | Comments

When a bishop is ordained, the Church asks him to design a coat of arms.  The coat of arms utilizes symbols to identify the bishop.  One of the symbols that I selected can appear strange at a first glance. On the top right of the coat of arms is an image of a mother pelican bird with her children gathered around her in their nest.    

This is an ancient Christian symbol called the “Pelican in her Piety.”

The origins of this image are a bit of a mystery, but many believe that at the time of Jesus this was a fairly common Greek allegory.  The story says that during a time of drought and famine when there is no food to be found, a mother pelican will lean into herself, use her beak and pierce open her chest.  Her children would then gather around and feed on their mother’s body and blood in order to live.  The story says that if a mother makes this sacrifice out of love, she will never die. This strange and wonderful story gives us insight into the mystery we call the Eucharist.

On the Mount of Olives in the Upper Room, where tradition says the Last Supper was celebrated, there is an ancient pillar upon which is carved the Pelican in her Piety.  This is noteworthy because the rest of the room was refurbished during the 12th century of the Crusader period. During the refurbishment, the Church decided to preserve this one pillar which dates back to the 4th century.  It is obvious that for both the early Christians and their later 12th-century relatives, the Pelican in her Piety became a symbol of the Eucharist.

This symbol still speaks to us today. It can be found in many of our local church buildings, including the St. Mary’s Cathedral in the stained-glass windows (look above the music ministers) and at St. Paul Church directly below the tabernacle. 

I believe this image continues to speak to us today about both the Eucharist and a life of stewardship. We are the children of God. In every place and time, we are starving for the life which God has to offer to us.  We realize that the things of this world will never completely bring us fulfillment.  We often try to fill up our lives with the “stuff” of this world: food, pleasure, sex, alcohol, wealth, prestige and many other things.  We do this with the false hope that these things will somehow feed our spirit.  We hope that they will make us full.  Instead, we end up empty. 

The saints tell us that it is a gift to realize how desperately we need God.  It is a gift to know that without God, we are nothing. Only when we realize that the “stuff” of this world will never bring us fulfillment — then we know that we are starving for the life of God. 

In the Eucharistic event, it is Christ who lovingly offers his body and blood. He initiated this at the Last Supper and then fulfilled this offering the next day by sacrificing his own life on the cross. Because of this wonderful oblation, we, the starving children of God, are invited to process forward during Mass and to feed on the very body and life of Christ.

Here we also find an image of stewardship. Christ gave his life freely because he knew that his life was not his own.  His life belongs to his Father. Through this offering of everything he had, the father was able to fill his son with a renewed and resurrected life.

You and I are called to live the same mystery. Our lives belong to God. We are called to spend them, offer them and sometimes to sacrifice them for God and God’s purpose.

Christ shows us that this is the way to real fulfillment and resurrection. May God bless our efforts.

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