Checkmate! Chess and the Church ExplainedJoseph BurleyChess is a venerable and familiar game with a history of tradition. Some say it representsan analogy of early history, with the bishops representing the Churchs role in past warsand other political events. However, I think the figures on the board could just as wellrepresent the entirety of the Church. My 8th grade Religious Formation Class has beenlearning about the history and structure of the Church. I thought the game of chess couldpresent a suitable analogy as a way of summarizing our faith and the Church. While I amprobably not the first one to think of this, here is my version:The game is focused around protecting the King. There is no question that this piece is incharge of and protected by his army. The King is the Pope, the head of the Church. It isthe slowest moving piece on the board. This is quite suitable since it is the slow anddeliberate process for any change or action in the Church led by the Pope and theMagisterium of the Church that provides a remarkable long-term stability and preserves itfrom error. The white King piece from my hand-carved marble chess set appeared tohave the head glued back on. Perhaps the piece was dropped and repaired by the gamesprevious owner? I pointed out that this reminded me that popes have been martyred,including Pope Sixtus II, who was beheaded in the pre-Constantine era.The next piece I picked up was the Queen. The queen is unquestionably the mostpowerful piece and the only feminine figure on the board. While the Church is viewed asa patriarchal institution run by men, there is no underestimating the female role andpower in the Church. Who no knows what the Church and the world would be likewithout the role played by and the powerful intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary? Inaddition, I noted that a "secret" power within the Church can be attributed to all thecloistered nuns and sisters whose prayers and tireless work behind the scenes enable theChurch to thrive. Other examples of power and influence of women in the affairs of theChurch include St. Helena and Mother Theresa, who have arguably made more tangibleimpact on the Church than individual popes have. That covers the two unique pieces.There are three pieces that have two of each, one on each color: the bishop, the knightand the rook. The bishop represents…(what else?) the bishops, who are dedicated to a life of obedient service to the King. The Bishop on the Kings color represents the bishops who have been ordained by Peters successors through the chain of apostolic succession in the Roman Catholic Church. The Bishop on the opposite color represents those bishops that were similarly ordained by one of the other apostles and belong to one the Orthodox Rites of the Church, which through the lineage of apostolic succession and valid ordination remain a part of the Church.
The rook piece is thought to be a primarily defensive but subtlety powerful piece. It cancontrol a large area of the board, often from the Kings rank or "behind the scenes." Therook on the Kings color represents the new tabernacle, the real presence of Christ foundwithin. No further comment is necessary about what this means to the Church! The rookon the opposite color represents the ark of the covenant, the aron kodesh, the holy placelocated in a Jewish synagogue that containing the Torah scrolls. This is a reminder thatour Christian faith in inextricably connected with the Jewish faith of our Lord. Our PastorMonsignor Easton has a tradition of holding a Passover Seder meal to celebrate thisconnection to Judaism.The move in chess known as "castling" reminds us of the Pope leading the Church fromthe safety of the Vatican and his castle retreat. The Pope was not always free to lead theChurch without political interference or threats. The "castling" of the Holy Father thatprotects and preserves his authority comes through apostolic tradition (the greatest ofwhich is represented by the Eucharist--the rook on the Kings color) and public revelation(The Bible), as represented by the Torah/Rook on the opposite color.The eight pawns are the priests, deacons, monks and friars that serve the Church. Whilethe term "pawn" would at first be seen as a derogatory term that understates the value of apriest, most ordained men would understand their role to be as one of a humble servant.The "pawns" may be seen initially as the visible front line of the Church. That changesquickly in any chess game. The pawns are unique in that they are the only piece thatcannot move backwards, in a sense symbolizing the life long commitment to celibacy.However, end rank promotion (a pawn reaching the opposite end of the board and nolonger able to move) in the game of chess shows how they may have the opportunity toaccept an additional calling from God and advance and become leaders in the Church. Anend rank pawn may be upgraded to any other piece except another King, reminding usthat there never was nor can there ever be two popes at one time. Each pawn is named forthe piece it stands in front of. For example, the pawn in front of the Knight is called theKnights pawn and the pawn in front of the Rook is called the Rooks pawn. In the sameway, some priests and other religious have a "vocation within a vocation." Some priests,such as the "Rooks pawn," have a special calling to promote devotion to the Eucharist.Others may consider them self "Marys pawn."Finally, in chess the most unique piece is perhaps the Knight, in part due to its specialability to jump over other pieces and land directly into the action by surprise. TheKnights, as perhaps suggested by the "Knights of Columbus" represent the lay ministersand servants of the Church. This is sort of a catch-all category for those who are notordained and are part of the Church. The Knights on the Kings color represent Catholiclay ministers. Lay people are all called to be lay ministers of some sort. As Knights, weare challenged to surprise people in our families, workplace and public with acts of faithand to fight the war on our culture and our faith. Our priests serve and equip us tominister to others (as the "Knights pawns"). They can only do so much. We should notleave the bulk of the Lords work on them.
In our parish (the National Shrine of the Little Flower), the mascot of schools is theKnight! What a great place to prepare our children. They are no doubt being taught froma very young age to be lay ministers and active members of the Church.The Knights on the other color represent the lay ministers of other Christian faiths, thoseordained outside of apostolic succession and the non-ordained. This represents peoplewho are sincerely seeking to serve Christ and therefore have some commonality and bondin and with the Church but do not serve under the "Kings color."The Knight piece is also specially empowered with a "fork" ability, the ability whenstrategically placed to simultaneously threaten and force one of two opposing pieces to becaptured. This represents the understated and underestimated lay vocation of those intotal service to the Lord who have forsaken marriage and/or having children andtherefore have that additional freedom to serve Christ and the Church. It’s an importantreminder that marriage is not necessarily a vocation for all of the non-ordained.I passed out the chess figurines to my class as I discussed them and had them write ashort prayer for that corresponding element of the church. The students said these prayersat home and in class for the Church.One of my students who had received a pawn wrote this prayer:I pray for the priests and deacon at the Shrine of the Little Flower and all priests thatthey may teach the Lords work and have strength, love and health. May they be in thehands of the Lord and be in His light always and forever. Amen. --KeelinAll of the pieces of the Church as represented by the elements of a chess game are theinstruments of the Lords work on earth. The core strategy of chess is "thinking severalmoves ahead." We must always do this. Playing to win requires proper planning, whichmust include prayer and discernment. The secondary strategy of chess is maximizing theuse of and when necessary, the sacrifice of the pieces. Some pieces remain on the boardfor a long time and dominate the game. Others are sacrificed early. So it is in life.However, with all of the "pieces" of the Church moving toward a common goal, itadvances us personally and the Church as a whole towards "checkmate," when sin isdefeated. The game is over and in death we are fully reunited with the Lord.