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A Bishop’s Work Is Never Done

Just what are the demands on our shepherds in the world today?

BY Jim Cosgrove

December 27, 1998-January 2, 1999 Issue | Posted 12/27/98 at 2:00 AM

 

Following is an excerpt from the Statement of Conclusions issued regarding four days of meetings between the bishops of Australia and the Cardinal Prefects of the Congregations in Rome:

The bishop, in his role as chief pastor in his diocese, proclaims the “Good News” of salvation by his life and witness to the saving message of Jesus Christ: a message of truth, hope and joy for the world. Like a good shepherd, the bishop is close to his people, … and in his episcopal ministry he is ever mindful that he is at the service of the People of God.

While every bishop is himself a witness to the truth and is the “visible source and foundation of unity in the particular Church” (Dogmatic Const. Lumen gentium 23), each bishop is a member of the one episcopate, the single and undivided body of bishops. The unity of the episcopate is therefore one of the constitutive elements of the unity of the Church, and the visible source of the unity of bishops is the Roman Pontiff, head of the episcopal body. It is the authentic communion of the individual bishop with the Successor of Peter which, in a certain sense, guarantees and ensures that the voice of the bishop speaks the word of the Church and so witnesses to the same revealed truth.

The bishop is entrusted with specific responsibilities and duties, which are at times difficult and indeed burdensome. In our day, we are only too aware of the multitude of influences in our society which work not only against the gospel message of truth, but are even directly hostile to the Catholic Faith. The People of God look to their shepherds for guidance and leadership now more than ever in these confusing and increasingly secularized times. The bishop, as servant of the Gospel, is a beacon of light, leading people to Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the life.

The principal means by which bishops carry out this mandate from Christ to build up the unity of His Mystical Body, is through the three fold office of teaching, sanctifying, and governing, which every bishop is called to exercise.

CALLED TO TEACH

The bishop teaches clearly and effectively in union with the Holy Father and the Magisterium of the Church: “the teaching of each bishop, taken individually, is exercised in communion with the Roman Pontiff, pastor of the universal Church and with the other bishops dispersed throughout the world or gathered in ecumenical council. Such communion is a condition for its authenticity” (Congr. for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction Donum veritatis 19; cf. Lumen gentium 25). The People of God who are entrusted to their care have a right to receive authentic and clear Catholic teaching from those who represent the Church in its various institutions.

The bishops … are intensely conscious that they are authentic teachers “endowed with the authority of Christ,” and that it is their grave responsibility, clearly and unambiguously, to proclaim the Church's teaching and to do all that they can to preserve the faithful from error. As the “visible source and foundation of unity” in his diocese, the bishop is committed to fostering unity among the faithful and to preventing factions and divisions from developing among the People of God.

The bishop may not tolerate error in matters of doctrine and morals or Church discipline, and true unity must never be at the expense of truth. This delicate tension between truth and unity is experienced by most … bishops. When such cases of tension arise, the bishops intend to overcome it, trying to identify the truth by all appropriate and available means, especially consulting their brother bishops and the Holy See, and striving to correct errors, not by blunt use of authority, but through dialogue and persuasion.

Making their voice heard by all Catholics (let alone non-Catholics) is a major problem for bishops today. They recognize the importance of a free press and legitimate criticism and, for their part, will endeavor to collaborate more effectively with all responsible forms of the media in order to find new ways for effectively communicating the Gospel in today's world.

The bishops of Australia, as testes veritatis, are committed to teach the Catholic Faith in Australia. They are assisted in this task by theologians. The Magisterium and theology are both, each in its own way, necessary for the building up of the People of God. In summary yet essential terms, one can say that the theologian has the task of reflecting on Revelation with the instruments of critical reason and of exploring the contents of the Faith with the arguments proper to the intellectual process, but always within the context of the Faith of the Church and in communion with its Pastors. The Magisterium, on the other hand, taking into consideration sound theology, has the task of safeguarding, expounding, and teaching the deposit of the Faith in its integrity; that is, of interpreting, with an authority which comes from Christ, the word of God, whether written or transmitted in the living Tradition of the Church.

CALLED TO SANCTIFY

The bishop is the guardian of the sacraments, the means of sanctification for the faithful, particularly the Holy Eucharist, which is “the source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen gentium 11). The bishop is called upon to exercise vigilance over the celebration and administration of the sacraments in his diocese. He ensures the sacraments are administered according to the proper liturgical norms set forth by the Church. If he discovers that these norms are not being followed properly, with integrity and reverence, he acts quickly to correct the error or abuse.

ishops realize that the sacred Liturgy is at the heart of their pastoral responsibilities. In promoting authentic sacred Liturgy, they have to provide against the introduction of spurious elements on the one hand, while, on the other, encouraging a Liturgy that is living and vibrant according to the prescribed norms and in the spirit of the liturgical reform. Most important is the bishop's own life of prayer which sustains his whole ministry, especially his central role in the Liturgy of his diocese. He must constantly return to the wellsprings of prayer in order to be strengthened by God in the grace of the Holy Spirit for his own personal sanctification for the good of the Church.

CALLED TO GOVERN

The bishop, in his pastoral governance, is entrusted with the important task of cultivating deep communion within the particular Church which, in turn, contributes to communion in the universal Church and for each and all members of his diocese: priests, members of institutes of consecrated life and societies of apostolic life, the lay faithful, and other diocesan groups and associations. As the minister of unity in the diocese, the bishop exercises an authority in the service of truth and love. The bishop receives his responsibility and duty to govern as a mandate from Christ himself and therefore keeps watch “over the whole flock of which the Holy Spirit has appointed you overseers, in which you tend the Church of God that he acquired with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).

The bishop's duty to teach, sanctify, and govern is a personal one, received by virtue of his episcopal consecration and the laying on of hands. This duty is by divine right, and cannot be surrendered to others. The … Bishops Conference is a forum where a local bishop can seek the assistance of his fellow bishops in pursuing his mission to proclaim the Gospel message (cf. Motu Proprio Apostolos suos 5-7, 14-24). In collaboration with his brother bishops in his own country and throughout the world, and in communion with the Successor of Saint Peter, the local bishop can build up and strengthen the Body of Christ in his own diocese.

In choosing their collaborators in the diocesan administration, in the seminary and in parishes, bishops need to make these appointments with a careful eye and with great attention, always giving emphasis to sanctity of life, orthodoxy, and pastoral competence. Continual vigilance is imperative in order to safeguard the integrity of the Faith and to ensure that it is clearly taught and explained at all levels of diocesan life.

The bishop maintains contact with his people at many levels and in many different contexts. It is his special care to demonstrate gratitude and appreciation, and to encourage the faithful in their endeavors as members of the Church, both in their striving for holiness and their charitable service to others. He keeps close contact with the many different diocesan agencies and apostolates under his care.

The bishop nourishes a special relationship with his priests, treating them as friends and collaborators, encouraging them in their work, promoting a sense of fraternity in the presbyterate, organizing retreats, and promoting opportunities for their on-going education. The bishop himself receives support and encouragement from his priests by their dedication, priestly example, and friendship. On the human level, the bishop can foster the positive identity of the priest by being present to him in a caring, personal, direct way, affording him all possible attention and time. As the priest is the closest and most indispensable collaborator of the bishop, he has a primary call on the bishop as his spiritual father, thus no care expended on him can ever be seen to be excessive.

PROMOTING VOCATIONS

The bishop's care for priests extends to a special concern for the promotion of all vocations, especially to the priest-hood, not only locally, but also nationally. One initiative already taken is the national network of vocation directors in Australia—“Catholic Vocations Ministry Australia”—which provides support, ideas, and materials.

As a personal responsibility enjoined upon him for the welfare of his seminarians, the bishop gives his assistance to the rector and staff of the seminary especially in the choice of candidates for admission. The bishop must have assurance of the candidates’ proper motivation for entrance to the seminary and their preparation (doctrinal, moral, spiritual, human and pastoral) for ordination. The diocesan bishop must have moral certainty of the suitability of the candidate in terms of doctrine, spiritual life and human qualities, before he is ordained to the diaconate. The bishop should never ordain a candidate if there is any serious doubt as to his suitability for Holy Orders.

A CROSS IN LIFE

In the world in which we live today, for a bishop to be a true shepherd, he is called to teach doctrinal truth with gentle firmness and profound humility, to sanctify by word and example, and to govern with fidelity and genuine authority. This will necessarily lead to suffering and the Cross. We know well that when the bearers of apostolic office dare to exercise authority which is theirs in matters of doctrine and morals, they become a sign of contradiction to the world. While this is indeed a real challenge for the bishop today, it is at the same time his source of grace, strength, and deep joy. The greatest sign of contradiction is also the greatest sign of hope. For in the mystery of the Cross we learn a wisdom which transcends our own weakness and limitations; we learn that in Christ truth and love are one, and in Him we find the meaning of our vocation.