Moving from one language to another can be very confusing at times. Germans, for example, use the word “bitte” for politely asking someone to repeat a comment because it wasn’t heard clearly or understood, but curiously, they also use the same word for responding to an expression of gratitude. The dictionary may indicate the word itself means, “please.” It could be used, therefore, if I didn’t hear or understand someone’s question, so I ask them to repeat it by asking “bitte”/”please”? On the other hand, someone expresses a kind word of thanks, and in colloquial German, I could end that conversation with a smile and the same word, “bitte,” but in that case, simply meaning, “You are welcome.” I am in error if I don’t understand the two very different meanings of the same word.
Years ago, while traveling in Germany, I remember repeating something in increasing decibels because I thought the polite, elderly German gentleman couldn’t hear what I had said, rather than his simply intending to kindly finish the conversation in order to be about his other business. I had asked a question for information. He had responded in a very helpful fashion. I thanked him, and he said, “bitte,” which I presumed meant he had not understood me; so, I kept repeating the word more loudly. He finally walked away with a smile, probably concluding that I was just another example of a dim-witted American.
Translating from one language to another needs understanding and sometimes caution. Very often, the simplest things in communication are easily open to error. Sometimes precision is required for correct appreciation of whatever is the matter under discussion at the moment.
I say all that because it serves to introduce and illustrate a common misunderstanding in the way we speak of our interrelationships in the Church. The Greek word for sacred is “hier,” pronounced just as the English word “higher.” The Greek word “arche” means order, with one item existing separate from another but somehow interrelated to the other. Hierarchy simply means, therefore, a sacred order of some sort.
That can cause significant misunderstanding. We speak of the Catholic Church as a hierarchy. What we mean in using the technical word is that we exist in a sacred interrelationship of mutual service. By that, we insist that every person is uniquely gifted by God, each with their own specific contribution to the common good — and in that sense, each a member of the hierarchy. It’s not a matter of greater or lesser importance, or higher or lower status, but merely a sacred relationship in which each contributes an important element.
The problem for the American ear is that “hier” sounds like “higher” and seems to imply a notion of elevation of importance. But that’s not what the word means. The word hierarchy simply means in our case a sacred interrelationship of mutual service and care.
There is a hierarchy in the Church, but that includes everyone baptized into care for each other, placing our own gifts, whatever they may be, at the service of others. As the Apostle Paul admonished the Romans of his day, “Have the same regard for one another … do not be wise in your own estimation.” (Romans 12:16)
Understanding the true nature of our Church is a task which belongs to everyone. We’re very much in this together.