Here is Wikipedia on the meaning of "symbol". It is a good enough definition.
A symbol is an object that represents, stands for, or suggests an idea, visual image, belief, action, or material entity. Symbols take the form of words, sounds, gestures, or visual images and are used to convey ideas and beliefs.
Here are some symbols I've been thinking about;
- the Pope releasing doves as a symbol of peace
- the mandatum
- Papal red shoes
The release of the doves
There is no peace till there is peace in men's hearts. The doves are nothing. They stand for peace, but aren't peace and don't bring about peace. In the same way that Ar stands for the inert gas argon, but is not actually argon in any way shape or form. The Holy Father could just as effectively unfurl a large bedsheet from the balcony with "peace" written on it in poster paints and scatter rose petals on the crowds. This symbolic act does not increase the peace in the world, though it may give those watching a nice cosy glow of self satisfaction, thinking that they know about "peace". It doesn't make the act of peace any more or less likely. It is a more meaningless symbol than the papal red shoes.
I hate the mandatum. It is a representation of the washing of the disciples' feet as told in John's gospel. It is a symbol. It is NOT A LITURGICAL ACT. It can be performed anywhere by anyone in a position of power who wishes to symbolically show their humility and their service. Wash women's feet, wash the feet of infidels, it doesn't matter, do it in prisons, in convents, it is a symbolic act and as such is very powerful. What I hate about it is that it is so hard to explain to people that it isn't liturgical, it certainly should never take place in the sanctuary which really ought to be reserved for the liturgy. It can't be done wearing a maniple, therefore it isn't part of the Mass. Indeed the maniple is the symbolic representation of the towel used at the last supper. Just as the priest removes his maniple for the homily because this isn't part of the liturgy, he uses an actual towel for the mandatum because it isn't part of the liturgy. It needs removing from the Holy Thursday Mass to be done at some other time during the day, definitely outside the sanctuary.
Papal red shoes.
A symbol of tradition, that some pontiffs have messed around with by adding buckles or braid, or discarded in favour of some other colour. Red does serve to represent the colour of the martyrs. Every step a pope makes is courtesy of the blood of the martyrs, and this should not be forgotten. As such it is an effective symbol.
So what about the headline I saw in the secular press recently; "Pope prays for peace". Is this just a symbol? It ought to be symbolic in that it ought to get us praying a swell. The prayers are genuine and not a symbol, but the symbolic act sets an example we must follow. Sadly so much of the world looks at the gesture and turns it into a bit of magic, thinking well if the Pope does it, that's good that will work, God listens to him he's holy..... maybe I don't have to pray myself then 'cos he's doing it.