By Katherine Long
Sun Associate Editor
A silver dolphin, a tongue of fire, and symbols of the Virgin Mary now soar high above the altar of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, flanked by 12 tassels and topped by a green hat.
These symbols make up the coat of arms of Bishop James M. Moynihan, Bishop Emeritus of the Syracuse Diocese. In June, his arms joined those of Syracuse’s previous bishops on the wall of the Cathedral’s apse.
Ecclesiastical heraldry dates back to Pope Innocent III (1198-1216), the first pope to use a papal coat of arms. These arms, appropriated from royal and military traditions, use images to symbolize the lives, careers, and ambitions of the clergy they represent. In keeping with church tradition, a bishop’s arms are displayed in the Mother Church of his diocese following his tenure.
Bishop Moynihan, who served as bishop of Syracuse from 1995 to 2009, worked with ecclesiastical heraldry expert Deacon Paul J. Sullivan to develop a coat of arms shortly after receiving his appointment from Pope John Paul II. Deacon Sullivan, who has developed more than 500 coats of arms for clergy around the world, spoke with Bishop Moynihan about his personal background, devotions and ministries. He then carefully selected charges, or symbols, to represent the bishop and his work, creating hand-drawn sketches of arms that became the bishop’s heraldry.
Bishop Moynihan’s arms are impaled, meaning his personal arms are joined with the arms of the diocese to form the main part of the coat of arms, the shield. Impalement is decided by the bishop; Bishop John Aloysius Duffy was the first Bishop of Syracuse to impale his arms and several others have since followed suit.
On the left side of the shield, a silver dolphin winds downward on a gold cross; an upturned silver crescent hangs above them. These charges make up the coat of arms of the Diocese of Syracuse. The cross, anchored in the center, symbolizes the Roman Catholic church. The dolphin is a symbol of Christ, as mariners once believed the dolphins swimming beside their boats were signs from God that He was protecting them on their journey. The dolphin swims downward, an orientation rarely seen in heraldry, to show how Christ brought salvation down from the cross. The crescent is a symbol of the Blessed Mother, who is described in the Book of Revelation as appearing with the moon under her feet. Syracuse’s first bishop, Bishop Patrick Anthony Ludden, borrowed all of these images from the coat of arms of Siracusa, Sicily, when creating the arms for the diocese.
The right side of the shield is Bishop Moynihan’s personal arms. A red saltair (an “x”) with a lozenge (diamond) at its center is set into a silver background. These elements are drawn from and represent the arms of the bishop’s former dioceses of Rochester and New York City. A tongue of fire appears at the center of the lozenge, representing the guiding force of the Holy Spirit. The Greek letters chi and rho are placed at the top of the saltair, symbolizing the bishop’s devotion to Christ; their green coloring is a nod to the bishop’s Irish heritage. Likewise, the monogram of the Blessed Mother—an imposed “a” and “m,” standing for Ave Maria—sits at the bottom of the saltair and represents the bishop’s devotion to Mary.
Bishop Moynihan’s motto, “Support One Another in Love,” appears on a scroll below the shield. Taken from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, this phrase encapsulates the bishop’s belief that, as brothers and sisters in Christ, we must support one another in all things. “I chose it because that’s what I wanted to do – support one another in love,” he said.
Above the shield is the bishop’s pontifical hat, or gallero. Hanging from the gallero are 12 tassels, six on each side, which indicate the rank of bishop. Both the gallero and the tassels are green, the color of bishops. A processional cross appears behind the shield.
The coat of arms, which measures five feet high by four feet wide, is mounted more than 40 feet above the altar. It was constructed and painted by Diocesan Historian Edward Long, who called creating it “a great honor.”
Bishop Moynihan is pleased to see his arms hanging with those of the leaders who served before him. “It’s a wonderful reproduction.” he said.