Thursday, November 06, 2014

"Jesus Wanted It This Way" – Amid Landmark Days, The Pope on The Bishops

Much as the coverage over time has shown a mix of genuine understanding and agenda-induced invention alike, it's no secret that a key storyline of the Rule of Francis is the relationship between the Pope and his bishops... at least, the ones he's inherited.

Sure, there's nothing new under the sun – a sense of qualms among some of the Apostles about Peter and his means of wielding the Keys stretches back to the church's very foundations. Still, in recent times, it's very new: for all the talk of Vatican II of late, in reality you'd have to go back to the infallibility debates of Vatican I (1869-70) to find the last time the Catholic world saw such an exposed contrast of thought among its leaders on the papacy.

In the current context, however, there is one key difference: the fights over what became Pastor æternus focused on the role of the Petrine office. This time around, the flashpoint is the man who holds it.

It's against this backdrop that the next two weeks will see three very significant moments in the English-speaking church. This weekend, a US episcopate that – fairly or not – has become widely perceived as an influential center of skepticism, if not barely-veiled resistance to the reigning Pope will gather for its Fall Plenary in Baltimore, with the public sessions opening on Monday.

Along the way, the fortnight to follow likewise brings the installations of the two archbishops likely to figure as the most significant appointees Francis will make in Anglophone Catholicism through his entire pontificate: Anthony Fisher in Sydney – Australia's premier post – and Blase Cupich in Chicago, the latter formally launching a stunning, Pope-driven ascent that now sets the leadership of the Stateside church's three largest dioceses in place for the next decade.

Atop all that, these days likewise bring a sense of history beyond its first draft. This November 6th marks 225 years since Pope Pius VI established a diocese for the 13 new States with its seat at Baltimore (right), naming John Carroll – a member of the suppressed Jesuits and cousin of the lone Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence – its first bishop.

At the time, the Catholic community of the United States comprised some 25,000 sometimes persecuted, oft-misunderstood members from what's now Maine to Georgia, served by all of 22 priests. Thanks to the rich foundations laid and great sacrifices made by the founders and their successors – lay, professed and ordained together; immigrants and natives in equal measure – that first flock would grow to more than 70 million today. In our time, though, the legacy of that witness is far too often endangered, or simply taken for granted: where those who came before us believed, stuck together, accomplished much yet sought no credit, enough of this ecclesial generation has fallen prey to a lethal strain that makes a religion of its politics, tears each other down, achieves next to nothing and expects applause for it. That might make for an entertaining country club, but may this milestone above all remind us how much more this Church is called to be... and, indeed, how much of the inheritance we've received, a gift that's only come at so great a cost, has only come to be squandered by us.

All that said, back to the episcopate and its head. As the scene of these days begins to unfold, it was rather conspicuous that the Pope chose the topic of communion in the church between him, the bishops and their people as the focus of yesterday's General Audience.

Then again, that wasn't an accident – if you've been reading your way through these last 20 months, you'll know the degree to which Francis tends to use his talks to telegraph his mind on relevant events that've figured on his radar. That yesterday likewise brought the release of new regulations just approved on Monday to tighten up the existing norms for the resignations of bishops – including a firm warning that, in some circumstances "the competent authorities" (i.e. the Pope or deputies acting in his name) "may deem it necessary to request that a bishop present his resignation from pastoral office" – merely reinforces the point: that is, as he teaches, so will he govern.

At the same time, however it can't go discounted that in the course of yesterday's brief preach, Papa Bergoglio twice employed the line from Ignatius he's often used in speaking of the church's "true face" – a governing concept which serves to short-circuit the fantasies of the many supposed "defenders" who've sought to portray Francis less as Simon Peter than Simon Bolivar.

Given the confluence of it all, we'd be remiss to not start the coming cycle anywhere else than with the Pope's reflection on a passage from the first chapter of Paul's letter to Titus, which was read to the crowd before Francis began the talk – the cited verse and English translation of the catechesis are both run below.

* * *
A bishop as God’s steward must be blameless,
not arrogant, not irritable, not a drunkard,
not aggressive, not greedy for sordid gain,
but hospitable, a lover of goodness,
temperate, just, holy, and self-controlled,
holding fast to the true message as taught
so that he will be able both to exhort with sound doctrine and to refute opponents....
Dear Brothers and Sisters, buongiorno!

We heard the things that the Apostle Paul says to the Bishop Titus, how many virtues we bishops must have, we all heard, no? And it’s not easy, it’s not easy because we are sinners. But we entrust ourselves to your prayers so that we can at least hope to be closer to the things that the Apostle Paul advises for all Bishops. Do you agree? Will you pray for us?

We have already had occasion to point out, in the previous reflections, how the Holy Spirit has always filled the Church with an abundance of gifts. Now, in the power and grace of his Spirit, Christ does not fail to give rise to the ordained ministries, in order to build up the Christian community as His body. Among these ministries, that of the bishop stands out. In the Bishop, assisted by priests and deacons, it is Christ himself who is present and who continues to take care of his Church, ensuring his protection and guidance.

In the presence and ministry of bishops, priests and deacons, we can recognize the true face of the Church: she is our Holy Mother the Hierarchical Church. And really, through these brothers chosen by the Lord and consecrated by the sacrament of Holy Orders, the Church exercises her motherhood: she generates us in Baptism as Christians, when we are born again in Christ; she watches over our growth in the faith; she accompanies us into the arms of the Father, to receive His forgiveness; she prepares us for the Eucharistic table, where she nourishes us with the Word of God and the Body and Blood of Jesus; she calls upon us the blessing of God and the power of His Spirit, sustaining us throughout the course of our life and envelops us with her tenderness and warmth, especially in the most delicate moments of trial, suffering and death.

The Church’s motherhood is particularly expressed in particular in the person of the bishop and in his ministry. In fact, as Jesus chose the Apostles and sent them out to preach the Gospel and shepherd his flock, so the bishops, their successors, are placed at the head of the Christian community, as guarantor of their faith and as a living sign of the presence of the Lord among them. We understand, therefore, that it is not a position of prestige, an honorary role. The Bishop is not an honorary role it is a service. Jesus wanted it this way. There should not be room in the church for a worldly mentality. A worldly mentality speaks of a man who has an ‘ecclesiastical career and has become a bishop’. There should be no place for such a mentality in the Church. The Bishop serves, it is not a position of honor, to boast about. Being Bishop means keeping ever present the example of Jesus, as the Good Shepherd, came not to be served but to serve (cf. Mt 20:28; Mk 10:45), and to give His life for His sheep (cf. Jn 10:11). The Bishops who are Saints - and there are many in the history of the Church - show us that one does not seek this ministry, one does not ask for it, it cannot be bought, one accepts it in obedience, not in an attempt to climb higher but to lower oneself, just as Jesus "humbled himself and became obedient unto to death, even death on a cross"(Phil 2,8).

It is sad when we see a man who seeks this office and does all he can to get it and when he gets it does not serve, instead goes around like a peacock and lives only for his vanity.

There is another precious element that deserves to be highlighted. When Jesus chose and called the Apostles, he thought of them not as separate one from another, each on their own, but together, that they might be with Him, united as one family. The Bishops too are a single college, gathered around the Pope, who is the guardian and guarantor of this profound communion that was so dear to Jesus and His apostles themselves. How beautiful it is, then, when the bishops, with the Pope express this collegiality! And try to be the servants of the faithful, the servants of the Church! We recently experienced this in the Assembly of the Synod on the Family. Just think of all the Bishops throughout the world who, despite living in places, cultures, sensibilities and traditions that are different and distant from each other, - One bishop the other day told me that to come to Rome it took a flight of 30 hours – even distant from each other, when bishops feel part of each other and become an expression of the intimate bond, in Christ, in their communities. And in the common ecclesial prayer all Bishops together listen to the Lord and the Spirit, thus being able to pay greater attention to man and the signs of the times (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 4 ).

Dear friends, all of this makes us understand why the Christian communities recognize the Bishop as a great gift, and are called to nurture a sincere and profound communion with him, starting with the priests and deacons. There is no healthy Church if the faithful priests, deacons are not united around their bishop. This Church not united around their bishop is a sick Church. Jesus wanted this union, of all faithful with the Bishop. The priests and deacons too. And this in the knowledge that it is in the Bishop that the relationship of each Church with the Apostles is visible and with all the other communities, united with their bishops and the Pope in the One Church of the Lord Jesus, that is our Holy Mother the Hierarchical Church.