VATICAN CITY — Pope John Paul II had some tough words for the bishops of the Church on his anniversary day, telling them to be “firm and decisive, just and impartial” in their handling of priestly sexual abuse, which he referred to as “grave lapses” in chastity and “crimes.”
The injunction came as one paragraph in a 196-page document on the mission and vocation of bishops in the Church — following up the Synod on that theme held two years ago.
John Paul signed the final document, Pastores Gregis (Shepherds of the Flock), Oct. 16, in the presence of the cardinals and bishops gathered for his anniversary. The comments on bishops' responsibilities in sexual abuse cases caught several of the American cardinals off guard. Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore said he was not aware that the Pope was going to address the issue.
Karol Wojtyla has spent 45 years — more than half his life — as a bishop. He said in the new document that “the bishop stands in the midst of the Church as a vigilant sentinel, a courageous prophet, a credible witness and a faithful servant of Christ.” Cardinals and bishops in Rome said that “job description” accurately summarized John Paul's exercise of his papal ministry.
“If ours is indeed a time of continual movement and even at times frenzied ‘doing for the sake of doing,’ then the bishop must be the first to show by the example of his own life the need to re-establish the primacy of ‘being’ over ‘doing’ and, more importantly, the primacy of grace, which, in the Christian vision of life, remains the essential principle for any ‘planning’ of pastoral ministry,” the Holy Father wrote.
The document, termed a “post-synodal apostolic exhortation,” like the documents following up other synods, treats themes broadly and has a little to say on almost every aspect of the theme treated.
John Paul indicated as much in his address presenting Pastores Gregis, saying that a bishop must be “a herald of the divine word, a teacher and doctor of the faith … teaching with apostolic frankness the Christian faith, re-proposing it in an authentic way.”
The bishop is also to be the “high priest” whose liturgical celebrations become an “epiphany of the mystery,” as well as a “guide of the Christian people” and a “prophet of justice and peace.”
Bishops on hand for the document's release expressed their gratitude for the Pope's insights.
“It will be of tremendous usefulness to the bishop,” Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington told the Register. In the post-Sept. 11 world, he predicts, the role of the bishop is going to be “even more important, perhaps more difficult, more demanding, but more filled with grace because where there is concern and trouble, there is always grace.”
“The idea of the bishop being the servant is very much in keeping with the Pope's own example,” added Cardinal Wilfred Napier of Durban, South Africa. “As a bishop he has been very much a servant of the Church and the people of the Church as well.”
And Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, speaking to Vatican Radio, said the document is a “gift” not only to bishops but “for the whole Church because the role of the bishop is to serve the communities in the Church, and I'm sure that this exhortation will help all bishops to reflect in their ministry and will be a source of renewal for the Church.”
Archbishop Fitzgerald was particularly interested in the Pope's focus on interreligious dialogue. “It is important for every bishop to remember that he is bishop of the whole population, not just of the Catholics in his area,” he said, “and so there must be a reaching out to people of other religions, and the bishop is called to do many things in this field.”
Father Raymond de Souza.
Edward Pentin contributed to this report.