Last week's article focused on bishops as members of a sacred college, a college that has responsibility for the governance of the whole Church and its evangelizing mission throughout the world.
However, what does it mean to be a bishop? Is the bishop basically the manager of a geographic area, one who celebrates ordinations and Confirmations, but is otherwise an aloof figure remote from the concerns of the ordinary faithful?
Prior to my coming to work in a position in the Church where I have regular contact with the archbishop, I did not see my faith life as having much, if any, connection with the bishop. The pope was important, of course, because I could read his teachings in my Catholic newspaper and he was a person with a high public profile.
But my faith was primarily fed by the priests I knew, by the dedicated laity and religious with whom I discussed the issues of faith and Church, and by Jesus with whom I related through my personal prayer life and the liturgy and sacraments.
The bishop, however, is actually an important person in every Catholic's life of faith, whether they know him or not.
The Second Vatican Council's Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) says the faithful "should be as closely attached to the bishop as the Church is to Jesus Christ, and as Jesus Christ is to the Father" (27). Words cannot express how close that is.
Less appetizing perhaps is what this means. The constitution says the faithful "are obliged to submit to their bishop's decision, made in the name of Christ, in matters of faith and morals, and to adhere to it with a ready and respectful allegiance of mind." Even more so, it continues, "this loyal submission of will and intellect must be given, in a special way, to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman pontiff" (25).
Later on, however, Lumen Gentium says "the laity are empowered - indeed sometimes obliged - to manifest their opinion of those things which pertain to the good of the Church" (37). The bishop "must not refuse to listen to his subjects" (27).
CNS PHOTO | KAREN CALLAWAY
The diocesan bishop must lead his flock in loving the Church, says Vatican II's Constitution on the Church.
The council documents repeatedly express the need for the laity to play a vital role in various ways in the life of the Church.
Yet the bishop is so important because he is the visible source and foundation of unity in his diocese (23). When a diocese is left without a bishop for a lengthy period, it is a serious matter. Not only does Church law prohibit many types of decisions from being made, but that visible source and foundation 0f unity in the local Church is not present.
The bishop for his part must foster and safeguard the unity of the faith. This should not be interpreted solely in terms of the bishop being the one to crack down on those who express heterodox opinions.
The bishop, more positively, must lead the faithful in loving the Church, promote various forms of apostolate and, "in a special way," enable the faithful to love "the poor, the suffering, and those who are undergoing persecution for the sake of justice" (23).
The bishop's manner of life should be a positive example to the local Church, inspiring people to live a more holy life. Among their many duties, preaching the Gospel has "pride of place." Bishops are to be "heralds of the faith who draw new disciples to Christ."
Indeed, the bishop's responsibility is not only to uphold the Church's age-old teachings, but more basically to draw "from the storehouse of revelation new things and old." Aided by the Holy Spirit, the bishop is to make the faith shine forth and bear abundant fruit (25).
He himself should be inspired by the example of the Good Shepherd who lay down his life for his sheep. The bishop's life is to be sacrificial, not one where he seeks to be served and waited upon (27).
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the bishop's attitude of sacrificial service is not optional. It is "intrinsically linked to the sacramental nature" of his ministry. Bishops "must freely become the slaves of all" (876).
In today's large dioceses, the bishop's responsibilities cannot be carried out without the help of numerous priests. Priests, however, do not strike out on their own. Lumen Gentium calls them "prudent cooperators of the episcopal college and its support and mouthpiece" (28).
The bishop has received the fullness of the sacrament of Orders and, as such, he partakes of the fullness of Christ's offices of priest, prophet and king. He leads his flock to holiness, he proclaims God's Word and he governs the Church. Our life of faith is incomplete if it lacks an indissoluble bond with the local bishop.