“Bishops, in an eminent and visible manner, take the place of Christ himself, teacher, shepherd, and priest, and act as his representative.” (Lumen Gentium 21)
In June 2017, I published a book called Our Bishops, Heroes for the New Evangelization: Faithful Shepherds and the Promotion of Lay Doctrinal Literacy (Wipf and Stock Publishers). My goal was rather simple, and not really that lofty: to remind my fellow laypeople that, when it comes to understanding the Church’s array of teachings on any number of doctrinal points, we should resist the temptation to look primarily to secular sources’ evaluations of the Church’s teachings.
Nowhere is this more evident than when it comes to possibly well-intentioned but otherwise-uninformed media sources, and powerful but worldly-minded politicians, particularly those whose claims to Catholic fidelity are diametrically opposed to the legislation that they further. In other words, our allegiance must be to the Church and her embrace of Christ’s teachings.
Today’s world needs true leaders now more than ever. It is human nature to look for some source of authority. Every single human being seeks authority in some capacity, from the infant (whose authority is characteristically his or her mother and father) to the elderly infirm (whose authority is typically his or her next of kin and other caretakers). Ideally, this authority is legitimate, having the best interest of the subordinate at heart.
In most modern governmental structures, there is a national leader with varying categories of functionality. In education, there are teachers and administrators. In sports, there are coaches. In the symphony orchestra, there is a conductor. Without leadership, there is utter chaos, whether in the form of anarchy or a systematic abandonment of moral norms. Yet, we Catholics – especially the laity – are in a curious setting: we have both shepherds to look to ourselves, and the Good Shepherd (see John 10:1-21), whom both we and the shepherds themselves look to. And we must be grateful for that dynamic.
Given that we need leaders, we must place our trust carefully. Yes, any democracy requires a leadership structure, but political leaders of any party affiliation are going to let us down time and again. After all, the Gospel does not follow neat ideological lines, particularly considering that so many political terms, affiliations, and concepts of the modern age did not exist even a few hundred years ago, let alone going on two thousand. Lest we forget the Psalmist’s assessment: “Put no trust in princes, in children of Adam powerless to save” (Psalm 146:3). Subsequently, God put our anxiety to rest with a promise: “I will appoint for you shepherds after my own heart, who will shepherd you wisely and prudently” (Jeremiah 3:15).
Where do we see this fulfilled? In Christ Jesus.
Recall one of the most overlooked of Gospel excerpts, which is the phrase leading up to Jesus’ miracle of the feeding of the five thousand: “When [Jesus] embarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd, and he began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34). Who was in the vicinity? Jesus’ Twelve Disciples. And who did the 11 remaining Disciples become following the Paschal Mystery comprising the Lord’s Passion, Death, Resurrection and Ascension? The Apostles (with Matthias replacing Judas Iscariot). And who are the successors of the Apostles? Our bishops. Thus, where should we lay Catholics place our credence foremost in the midst of frequently cacophonous claims at authority that attempt to drown out the Good News of Jesus Christ? In our bishops, our faithful bishops.
I encourage you, my fellow lay brethren, to reach out to your own bishop, and to thank him for his ministry. Are our bishops perfect? No more than we in the laity are. Yet, is there any other role in the world more fitting than that of the episcopacy when it comes to exercising a magisterial teaching authority with Christ’s own Gospel as its foundation? No.
At a time when dissent against the Church’s teachings is at an all-time high in the West, we need to remember that our bishops overwhelmingly want to draw the laity closer to the sacramental life focused on Jesus Christ, upon whom the Church is centered. We can give thanks to the Almighty that we are “sheep with a shepherd.”
Prayer for a Bishop. Oremus et pro Antístite huius dioecesis. Stet et pascat in fortitúdine tua, Dómine, in sublimitate nóminis tui. Amen. (Let us pray for the bishop of this diocese. May he stand and tend your flock in your strength, O Lord, in your sublime name. Amen.)