In the midst of ongoing reports about the failures of bishops, communications manager David Hazen asks Archbishop George J. Lucas why Christ put bishops at the head of the church, what they are supposed to do, and what it means to follow them.
Q: On Oct. 17 the church celebrates the feast of St. Ignatius of Antioch (35 – 108 A.D.). In one of his letters, he wrote, “See that you all follow the bishop just as Jesus Christ does the Father,” and “Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop.” While we have talked a lot recently about the sins and failures of church leaders, Ignatius brings us back to fundamental questions: What is a bishop, and what is his vocation?
I am happy to reflect on the vocation of the bishop in these times when we are aware of the failure of bishops and the loss of confidence which many express. This is an occasion for all of us to think about why the Lord has established the church in the way that he has. We should not judge the Lord’s plan or the church herself only by those who fall short of their calling.
St. Ignatius holds up an ideal for all of us to aspire to, but it is not an unrealistic ideal. If there is anything that we could say to describe Jesus’ public ministry, it is that it was very practical and realistic. People experienced in Jesus the love of the Father in very practical ways right where they were, in their ordinary circumstances.
One of the ways that the Lord provides for his people is by calling certain men to ordained ministry. They not only have a function in the community, but they become living sacraments of the presence of Jesus in the community of believers. The most practical way that our people experience that is in their parish communities, where the pastor serves in the person of Jesus himself. They experience the life of the church right there. They don’t have to go to Rome or to Jerusalem to experience that the Lord provides for them. The priests are sent to those parish communities by the bishop, who stands in the person of Jesus at the head of the local church, which we call a diocese. That personal representation of Jesus sacramentally, in the person of the bishop, is a unique aspect of our life in the church and is a very intentional part of Jesus’ plan.
Q: Help us to better understand the bishop’s essential responsibilities.
The bishop is called to teach, to govern and to sanctify the people of God in the place over which he has responsibility. They are the duties that Jesus Christ gave the apostles, who in time became spiritual heads of local churches as groups of believers gathered around them.
These three responsibilities are interrelated. Perhaps the easiest one to understand is the teaching role. Like every teacher of the faith, the bishop proclaims Jesus Christ, the Son of the eternal Father, who has come among us as our savior and brother. We proclaim the Gospel as it has been handed down to us. We also teach what it means to respond to the invitation of Jesus, to be his disciples. Jesus has established a new covenant between God and his people, through the power of his death and resurrection. It is important that we understand what our side of the covenant means. Part of the bishop’s responsibility is to help people in a particular place and in a particular time and culture to understand what it looks like to live in
accord with the Gospel.
In his sanctifying role, the bishop leads the clergy and people in the celebration of the paschal mystery in the sacred liturgy. He works with the priests and deacons to see to it that the sacramental life of the church is experienced, according to the church’s rites, throughout the diocese.
One way to understand the bishop’s governance is to see it in light of Pentecost. The Spirit provides a variety of charisms and gifts to the baptized. An important responsibility of the bishop is to help order those charisms, to try to empower people who have a particular talent or understanding to take a role of leadership in the church; to see that those who are given leadership have proper instruction and preparation; and then to call the people of God together so that they might experience the variety of gifts in the unity of the church.
Q: What does it mean for us as laity to take seriously St. Ignatius’ admonition and “follow the bishop”?
What it means to follow the bishop is to follow Christ. The bishop is given the responsibility to represent Jesus, as I said, as a living sacrament of him at the head of the community of believers. We are all aware that none of us can do that perfectly. At times, some of us are able to offer a credible manifestation of Jesus and at other times it is not so credible. To our great sadness and shame, we know that there are times currently in recent history and also in the history of the church where bishops have acted contrary to the life and the example of Jesus and have led people astray or harmed the flock. It’s important then that bishops take this responsibility seriously in humility, and accept collaboration and correction when needed. We should listen to the people of God who reflect back to us the kind of shepherd that they desire. They are looking for Jesus and should be able to find him in their response to the bishop’s leadership.
It is an interesting aspect of the plan of Jesus that he has established the authority of pastors in the church from the very beginning and now through the ages. He did not just give us an instruction book, and he did not give us one specific place that we all had to go to in order to solidify our membership. He gave us living pastors who are strengthened and inspired by the Holy Spirit. We need to be open to receive that grace.
The genius of this is that through good and faithful pastors, one generation to the next, the church has been able to thrive. If we think about all that it has taken for the church of Jesus Christ to get from Pentecost in Jerusalem to us here in Nebraska in the 21st century, we realize that it has taken a certain amount of steadfastness and a certain amount of flexibility. The charism of the bishop is, with the help of others and in his own prayer, to discern prudently when to be steadfast and when to be flexible. Only a person can do that. An instruction book or a lifeless mechanism cannot do that.
The church’s pastors, the bishops, are entrusted with the life and the care of God’s people. These are the people for whom Jesus has died and has been raised. It is a huge responsibility, but because Jesus entrusts it to people, it must be possible for us to do it with the help of grace.