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September 10, 2012

The ordination of a bishop in Edmonton is a great and rare event. It hasn’t happened since 1958 when Bishop Emmett Doyle, chancellor of the Edmonton Archdiocese who served 31 years as bishop of Nelson, B.C., was “consecrated” as the rite was called in those days.

The ordination, however, takes but a couple of hours while the work of the bishop continues for the rest of his life. It is a daunting responsibility, as our new auxiliary bishop, Gregory Bittman, has himself said.

It is daunting because of the heavy workload and the many and diverse administrative and pastoral responsibilities. It is also spiritually daunting because a bishop is not a mere religious leader for this time and place, but a successor to the apostles. He has a responsibility to the Church in all places and all times.

The bishop is the teacher, even the embodiment, of tradition. “Tradition” has become something of a dirty word, carrying connotations of stuffiness, inflexibility and even prejudice. In fact, a distorted tradition can morph into those three things.

Tradition, however, is the lifeblood of the Church. It is our connection to the apostles and to Jesus himself. Without that connection, the Church would be just a human institution, free to make up its teachings on the fly.

Tradition includes not only doctrines, but also sacraments, Church institutions, powers of the ministry and liturgical rites. Tradition has not only an objective sense, but also a subjective one — an instinct or feeling for the identity of the Church.

Moreover, tradition is not dead; it is dynamic. It evolves. Traditions such as infant Baptism, the Lenten fast and the sign of the cross are apostolic even though they did not exist in the time of the apostles. Rather, they evolved out of apostolic teaching. The rites of the sacraments have changed enormously over the centuries; they are still part of apostolic tradition.

Despite such evolution, a bishop cannot be a Lone Ranger. Today’s society values “creativity”; the Church values truth above all. It is truth, not self-expression, which sets a people free. The bishop can be creative in presenting the truth, but his ultimate responsibility is to the truth of tradition.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “The pastoral duty of the magisterium is aimed at seeing to it that the People of God abides in the truth that liberates” (890). This is a “pastoral” responsibility. The greatest care that the bishop and his priests can give to the people is to help them “abide in the truth that liberates.”

We have been blessed with a new auxiliary bishop who knows all this well. He will not lead people astray.

May Bishop Bittman be blessed with many years of a joy-filled creative fidelity to the tradition that sets us free.