Icons foster curiosity, calm at archdiocesan tribunal
A new icon in the archdiocese’s Walmsley Avenue headquarters captures the moment of transformation at the Wedding Feast at Cana.
Water, unleashed into an empty wine jug by a servant, flows down in a bluish-white stream, turning into purple wine just before entering the mouth of the receptacle.
The divine replenisher – Jesus – leans toward his mother, who earlier had issued an imperative to the wedding feast’s organizers: “Do whatever he tells you.”
The hand-painted icon is one of a series of six jewel-toned artworks installed last month inside the offices of the archdiocesan tribunal to reflect its ministry of adjudicating marriage annulments and other issues of canon law.
“One of our primary apostolates here as a tribunal is to investigate the validity of weddings – whether they’re Catholic weddings or non-Catholic weddings,” said Father Peter Akpoghiran, the tribunal’s judicial vicar and chancellor for the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
“We thought (The Wedding Feast at Cana) would not only remind us of one of our apostolates here, but would also remind those who see the icon that marriage is also of divine origin, and not just subject to human will and human modification,” Father Akpoghiran said.
Domestic church at work
While the connection between the miracle at Cana and the tribunal’s work will be readily understood by most office visitors, the five other icon themes will invite closer examination.
The icon gracing the front-desk area, entitled “The Holy Family at Work,” shows the Blessed Mother spinning wool into yarn; young Jesus carving notches into a plank of wood; and Joseph engaged in the heavier work of sawing. Father Akpoghiran said the trio of relatives working in unison illustrates how God calls each member of a family to contribute his or her time and talents to the wellbeing of the whole unit.
“It also reminds us that each person should be given work according to his individual capacity – that way unity comes out of diversity,” explained Father Akpoghiran, noting that a similar division of labor plays out when the various archdiocesan offices offer their respective areas of expertise in collaboration with other ministries to help those in need.
The icon, which shares its name with the chancery’s Holy Family Chapel, also points to the dignity of human work, a precept of Catholic social teaching embodied by the Holy Family itself, Father Akpoghiran notes.
“If Jesus could perform miracles like changing water into wine and multiplying loaves, it was also possible for him to provide food for his family miraculously, but he didn’t choose that path; he chose to work,” Father Akpoghiran said. “So we should take pride in our work – in the fact that we are contributing to the betterment of society, the salvation of souls.”
A place of healing
The icon “Christ the King and Judge” hangs, appropriately, in the tribunal’s courtroom as a reminder to staff that they are making pronouncements in the name of God, the ultimate judge, while St. Joan of Arc earns a spot in the series thanks to her status as a beloved saint of the city of New Orleans.
St. Raphael the Archangel, a patron of Christian marriage and healing professions, also makes an appearance.
“Many people who come here for an annulment have been wounded by bad marriages and bitter divorce. Most of them seek a healing and a closure to that marriage,” Father Akpoghiran said, describing the one-year period leading up to an annulment judgment as a “soul-searching” time in which applicants are asked to discern what they did – or didn’t do – to contribute to the demise of their marriage.
“The fact that the marriage has been declared invalid brings healing to many of the parties and a closure,” Father Akpoghiran said.
Life’s knots loosened
But the icon that probably will pique the most curiosity presides over the tribunal’s waiting area: Mary is depicted in her role as “Untier of the Knots,” unraveling a knotted rope with the help of the Holy Spirit and a quartet of angels. The Blessed Mother, perched on a crescent moon, steps on the head of a serpent – imagery taken from Revelation and Genesis.
“One of our duties as a tribunal is to untie matrimonial knots that should not have been tied in the first place,” Father Akpoghiran said, noting that in many cases, couples seeking annulments admit that they saw “red flags” before entering into the sacrament, but proceeded anyway because of investments of time and money, a belief they could change their spouse or a wish to appease or prove something to family and friends.
“So they brave it,” said Father Akpoghiran, admitting that didn’t know about Mary, Untier of the Knots – a favorite Marian devotion of Pope Francis’– until he began researching potential icon subjects for his office.
“‘Mary, Untier of the Knots’ is not specifically related to matrimonial knots,” he said, “but we decided to appropriate the title to our mission here.”
The 28-by-36-inch pieces, created by Monastery Icons of Lee’s Summit, Missouri, were blessed by Archbishop Gregory Aymond on May 19.
“The icons were very carefully chosen by Father Peter and members of the tribunal staff,” Archbishop Aymond said. “We hope that people will not only see the beauty of the icons, but also God’s compassion in the scenes that are depicted.”
Father Akpoghiran added his hope that the paintings will be instructional, soothing and prayer-inspiring to all who view them.
“When people come in for hearings or other business of the tribunal, sometimes there is a lot of nervousness, a lot of tension,” said the judicial vicar, whose office handles an annual average of 200 annulment cases originating in the archdiocese, and appeals for an additional 400 cases in Louisiana’s six other Catholic dioceses: Alexandria, Baton Rouge, Houma-Thibodaux, Lafayette, Lake Charles and Shreveport.
“Every marriage is presumed valid until the contrary is proven,” Father Akpoghiran said. “We hope that when people come into the tribunal, because of the serenity reflected from the icons, that they will subconsciously become calm, serene and at peace with the fact that this is not like the civil court.”