The Bishop: Christ the Good Shepherd Present Among Us
Having begun in November of 2011, the “ad limina” visits of the American Bishops to the Holy Father in Rome will continue for several months into 2012. In these visits, the Holy Father meets with all the Ordinaries of the United States, hears their concerns and challenges, and counsels them in their pastoral ministry. In his opening address, the Holy Father acknowledged “a troubling breakdown in the intellectual, cultural and moral foundations of social life, and a growing sense of dislocation and insecurity, especially among the young, in the face of wide-ranging societal changes” (Benedict XVI, Nov. 26, 2011). Therefore, he encouraged the Bishops to “to exercise the prophetic dimension of your episcopal ministry by speaking out, humbly yet insistently, in defense of moral truth, and offering a word of hope, capable of opening hearts and minds to the truth that sets us free” ( ibid.). In light of the many pastoral challenges that our Bishops face today, we want to meditate a little on the pastoral mission and authority of Bishops and the due response of the laity.
“Jesus Christ, the eternal Shepherd, established His holy Church, having sent forth the Apostles as He Himself had been sent by the Father; and He willed that their successors, namely the Bishops, should be shepherds in His Church even to the consummation of the world” (Vatican II, Lumen Gentium 18; hereafter = LG). The pastoral role of the bishop is of inestimable value for the life of the Church, for as successors of the Apostles, they teach, sanctify and govern in the name of Jesus Christ and with His authority. Jesus chose His Apostles, and through them, their successors, and made them “sharers in His power [so that] they might make all peoples His disciples, and sanctify and govern them, and thus spread His Church, and by ministering to it under the guidance of the Lord, direct it all days even to the consummation of the world” (LG 18).
Bishops are in the strictest sense “High Priests” of the New Covenant, priests in the fullest sense of the word, and derive their authority directly from Christ. Priests, on the other hand, are helpers and co-workers of the Bishop and have no authority except as delegated by the Bishop. It is primarily through the Bishop, therefore, that Christ the Good Shepherd is present in His Church today, for He has given them “as shepherds of the Church, and he who hears them, hears Christ, and he who rejects them, rejects Christ and Him who sent Christ…. In the Bishops, therefore, for whom priests are assistants, Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Supreme High Priest, is present in the midst of those who believe” ( LG 21-22).
The role of the Bishop is tri-fold, to teach, sanctify and govern the faithful. “Bishops, therefore, with their helpers, the priests and deacons, have taken up the service of the community, presiding in place of God over the flock, whose shepherds they are, as teachers for doctrine, priests for sacred worship, and ministers for governing” (LG 20). Beyond the bond of charity, which “binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col 3:14), the unity of the pilgrim Church is guaranteed by visible bonds of communion: the profession of one faith received from the Apostles; the common celebration of divine worship, especially of the Sacraments; the same ecclesiastical government (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 815; LG 14).
Each of these visible bonds of unity within the Church corresponds to the three-fold office of the Bishop: to teach the faith as handed down from the Apostles (prophetic mission); to offer the one Sacrifice of Christ and administer the Sacraments (priestly mission); and to govern the People of God with the authority passed on through apostolic succession (kingly mission). In this way, the Bishops, each in their own diocese, when united in thought with the college of Bishops throughout the world, together with the Holy Father and in submission to Him, maintain the fraternal concord of God’s family members of the Church.
The Roman Pontiff, as the successor of Peter, is the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity of both the Bishops and of the faithful. The individual Bishops, however, are the visible principle and foundation of unity in their particular churches…. For this reason the individual Bishops represent each his own church, but all of them together and with the Pope represent the entire Church in the bond of peace, love and unity (LG 23).
Bishops as teachers: Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they nevertheless proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly whenever, maintaining the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter, they are in agreement on one position as definitively to be held (cf. LG 25). In this circumstance, they authentically teach in the name of Christ Himself on matters of faith and morals and the faithful are bound to believe with “divine and catholic faith” and obey. They are also to be believed and obeyed in ordinary circumstances with religious submission of mind and will (cf. Code of Canon Law, Canon 753).
Bishops and divine worship: “Every legitimate celebration of the Eucharist is regulated by the Bishop, to whom is committed the office of offering the worship of Christian religion to the Divine Majesty and of administering it in accordance with the Lord’s commandments and the Church’s laws, as further defined by his particular judgment for his diocese” (LG 26). This is not to say the Bishop has the right to change the liturgy in his own diocese, but rather that he has the duty to protect the liturgy from abuses on the part of priests or of the faithful. Only the Supreme Pontiff has the right to change the liturgy or to delegate this right in some areas to the conference of Bishops (never to an individual Bishop), and even these changes must be approved by the Holy Father.
Bishops and governance: “Bishops, as vicars and ambassadors of Christ, govern the particular churches entrusted to them by their counsel, exhortations, example, and even by their authority and sacred power, which indeed they use only for the edification of their flock in truth and holiness, remembering that he who is greater should become as the lesser and he who is the chief become as the servant…. In virtue of this power, Bishops have the sacred right and the duty before the Lord to make laws for their subjects, to pass judgment on them and to moderate everything pertaining to the ordering of worship and the apostolate.” (LG 26).
We see then the extensive authority of the Bishop which they exercise in Christ’s name. The spiritual growth of the faithful depends upon their union with Christ, and this union is mediated by the hierarchy of the Church. In this sense, St. Ignatius of Antioch, a Bishop and second Century martyr, writing from his prison cell, urged the faithful, “You must be made holy in all things by being united in perfect obedience, in submission to the Bishop and the presbyters” (Office of Readings, 2nd Sunday, Ordinary Time). Through this submission to the mind and will of the Bishop, the people are united to the will of God: “I am taking the opportunity to urge you to be united in conformity with the mind of God. For Jesus Christ, our life, without whom we cannot live, is the mind of the Father, just as the Bishops, appointed over the whole earth, are in conformity with the mind of Jesus Christ. It is fitting, therefore, that you should be in agreement with the mind of the Bishop” (ibid.)
Through this unity of love and obedience, the spiritual strength of the entire Church grows. “Every one of you should form a choir, so that, in harmony of sound through harmony of hearts, and in unity taking the note from God, you may sing with one voice through Jesus Christ to the Father. If you do this, He will listen to you and see from your good works that you are members of His Son. It is then an advantage to you to live in perfect unity, so that at all times you may share in God” ( ibid.).
Not only do the faithful grow in unity, holiness and intercessory power through union with their Bishop, but also they become a much more effective witness to society at large. Just consider, what would be the spiritual impact on our society if all the Catholics in the States would speak out and vote according to the teaching of our faithful Bishops? Would we still have legalized abortion after all these years? Would stem cell research be publically funded? Would individual States have legalized suicide laws? But many Catholics do not listen to their Bishop, or only selectively. Many even criticize the Bishops publically.
One problem arises when we consider that not all Bishops speak in conformity with the college of Bishops and the Holy Father. In this instance, of course, the faithful would be wrong to follow such maverick Bishops. Fortunately, in major issues it is rather rare that a Bishop would speak out against the common doctrine of the Church. In some cases, however, Bishops are regrettably silent where we wish they would speak out. Even here, reverent discretion is advised, as we do not know all the issues involved. It is easy to criticize, but to lead is not easy. Therefore, especially as members of this Crusade for Priests, we want to be careful never to publically criticize a Bishop and to gently correct those in our midst who do. A saintly woman once said, “The Church is our Mother; would you criticize your Mother? Do you not rather love her, even with her faults?” When we see what seem to be faults or failings on the part of our Bishops, let us remember the heavy burden they carry. Let us be slow to criticize, but quick to kneel in prayer and to support our Bishops.
The office of Bishop is getting even more difficult to carry in our secularized society. Many Bishops have come out openly and clearly defending the Gospel values in the midst of today’s heated political forum, standing up to Senators and other public officials who betray their Catholic faith. May God reward these Bishops who suffer greatly at the hands of the media! It is in this context that the Holy Father encouraged our American Bishops to continue to speak out saying,
Despite attempts to still the Church’s voice in the public square, many people of good will continue to look to her for wisdom, insight and sound guidance in meeting this far-reaching crisis. The present moment can thus be seen, in positive terms, as a summons to exercise the prophetic dimension of your episcopal ministry by speaking out, humbly yet insistently, in defense of moral truth, and offering a word of hope, capable of opening hearts and minds to the truth that sets us free. (Benedict XVI, Nov, 2011)
Cardinal George of Chicago recently mused that he would die in his bed, his successor in jail, and his successor’s successor, a martyr. Let us not tear at our Bishops, therefore, like wolves in the midst of the flock, but pray for them that they may bear witness to Christ in every situation. As Pope Paul VI would say, “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses” (Evangelii nuntiandi, 41). We pray daily for our Bishops, that they have the courage to bear witness by their lives and to speak out and confront the evils of our society, to uphold the ideal of family life and to defend the defenseless, especially the unborn and the aged. We ask our Blessed Mother to watch over her priests and Bishops, and to form them according to the Heart of her divine Son. And we ask the holy angels to accompany our Bishops, to make their words effective and to strengthen them in their trials, that they may be faithful witnesses united with Jesus even to the end.
Prayer for the Leaders of the Flock
Father, be with the leaders of Your flock in their needs today. Help Your Bishops and priests to interpret the Gospel message with clarity and urgency, witnessing in their own lives to the teaching and example of Christ. Bless those who are involved in new responses to contemporary needs; guide those who direct and foster dialogue with other Christians, with non-Christians and with the secular city. Assist those who are trying to promote Christian values, that with zeal tempered by prudence, and in the framework of lawful authority, they may help to build up a truly Christian world for man. Send Your Holy Spirit in a new outpouring, so that under these leaders chosen by You, the entire People of God may progress in a harmonious cooperation towards their final consummation in unity, truth and love by, with and in Your Son Jesus Christ. Amen.
© 2015 • All texts of the Circular Letters are copyrighted and may not be reproduced without written permission except for personal use.