Priests, Bishops and the Laity
I've been thinking about the difficult situation faced by much of our clergy in this country today. There are, what, 11 episcopal vacancies at present? That demonstrates a worrying lack of support for our priests. Priests should be united to their Bishops in a special communion of sacrament and ministry, through which the Church, the mystical Body of Christ, is built up. As St. Irenaeus testified, it is through those who were appointed bishops by the apostles, and through their successors down in our own time, the apostolic tradition is manifested and preserved. (LG 20). Priests need bishops to refer to, to validate their commitment to the whole body of the Church; their unity. This is an key dimension, because a bishop has no authority apart from that of the pope, and unless he is teaching the faith of the Apostles (LG 22).
The fact that we have so many diocese where we have no bishops at the moment really worries me. Those bishops like ours in Brentwood who have retired are clearly loathe to start any new projects or become embroiled in any complicated political wrangling. This must mean that we have hundreds of priests in our country who presently feel as if they are somewhat in Limbo, stagnating, until a new bishop is appointed and they can tell which way the wind is blowing. There's no point sinking all your effort into a new initiative to have a newly appointed bishop simply shut it down.
Of course, the lack of an active bishop doesn't just affect the clergy. The bishop is principally responsible in the diocese for the pastoral care of the family. He is both a father and pastor, and he must exercise particular solicitude in this clearly priority sector of pastoral care. He must devote to it personal interest, care, time, personnel and resources, but above all personal support for the families and for all those who, in the various diocesan structures, assist him in the pastoral care of the family. It will be his particular care to make the diocese ever more truly a "diocesan family," a model and source of hope for the many families that belong to it. (Familiaris Consortio n. 73).
John Paul II defined the priesthood as a vocation where a man dedicates his life to the service of other people, you literally become "a man for others". But the priesthood is not a business where responsibility passes up the chain. Each Parish Priest is pretty autocratic in effect. Benedict XVI explained the way in which priests act as a conduit, allowing God to be known by others by means of their faith:
When people sense that one is there who believes, who lives with God and from God, hope becomes a reality for them as well. Through the faith of the priest, doors open up all around for people: it is really possible to believe, even today. All human believing is a believing-with, and for this reason the one who believes before us is so important. In many ways this person is more exposed in his faith than the others, since their faith depends on his and since, at any given time, he has to withstand the hard-ships of faith for them…. ~ Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, from A New Song for the Lord, tr. by Martha M Matesich, NY: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1996.Undoubtedly true, and a real privilege, yet I cannot help thinking what an awesome responsibility this is. It must put extraordinary pressure on our priests, and undoubtedly draws all kinds of strange people to call on them and expect them to be able to dedicate vast swathes of time and effort ministering to their lives and problems. Yet how many of us are really listening to what our priests say to us? How many of us are willing to take that first step, and go to Confession, and make a full and frank account for the things that lurk in our memories and scare us so much?
Just as our priests and bishops have a huge responsibility to us, as St. Augustine put it
What I am for you terrifies me; what I am with you consoles me. For you I am a bishop; but with you I am a Christian. The former is a duty; the latter a grace. The former is a danger; the latter, salvation (LG 32).So, in the same way, we have a responsibility to them. Even more so in this day and age. Our responsibility is to inspire them to be courageous custodians of the faith and zealous preachers of the Gospel of Christ. We must inspire them by our faith by supporting their efforts and this will no doubt encourage them to commit themselves ever more to the service of the Church.
There is quite a bit of chat at the moment about the reason episcopal ordinations are taking so long. Some are saying that there is a breakdown in the relationship between the papal nuncio and the conference of bishops.
If this is true, it represents a terrible rift in my opinion. The bishops are utterly impotent without their link to the pope, who is personalised in the Nuncio. The link between the authority of bishops and the authority of Rome is clearly articulated in Lumen Gentium. Indeed, the prefect for the congregation of bishops recently commented to our bishops:
Perhaps you can sense viscerally the pressure to obey men rather than God, to see yourself-as a mere manager or functionary rather than a disciple and an apostle.The faithful in this country are desperate for strong leadership, leadership with the courage to stand up for the faith intellectually. To preach the truth in love and not be afraid to say that it is the truth. There is even a Facebook group with hundreds of members which has been set up to demonstrate this reality to the hierarchy.
Vatican II asked that the laity openly reveal to their spiritual shepherds their needs and desires with that freedom and confidence which is fitting for children of God and brothers in Christ (LG 37). Well any survey of the Catholic blogs will show that we are revealing, with reverence and charity toward those who by reason of their sacred office represent the person of Christ, that we would like more bishops like Mark Davies and Philip Egan please. I exhort our conference of bishops, with all my heart, to see those who love the Church before you asking you, pleading with you: let the Nuncio do his job boys, let's see what the truth, set free, can really achieve in this country!