Ten steps every bishop can take to renew the Church
By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 26, 2019
Everyone has a role in Catholic renewal, but there can be no question that the greatest spur to an authentic renewal of the Church is episcopal leadership. If results throughout the long history of the Church are any guide, however, even bishops often do not know the concrete steps they should be taking to move their dioceses closer to this perennial goal. Well, they can all breathe a sigh of relief now, because I am here to help.
More seriously, before any bishop should embark on these ten steps, I would recommend he follow the example of Bishop Fulton Sheen by making a holy hour before the Blessed Sacrament each and every day of his episcopal ministry. This is even more important than reading my precious list. On that assumption, then, here we go:
1. Live the mantra “Priest, Prophet and King”
All the baptized are incorporated into Christ’s priesthood, His prophetic character, and His kingship. Therefore, every Catholic will find this list of ten steps applies in its own way to him or to her. But through the fullness of Holy Orders, bishops are commissioned priests, prophets and kings at a sacral level which exceeds that of other members of the Church. Obviously, the terms priest and prophet and especially king must be thoroughly grasped in Divine terms, as exemplified by Christ, who is the sacrificial way (king), the sacrificial truth (prophet) and the sacrificial life (priest). The first of my ten steps, then, is that a bishop must continually reconceptualize his life and ministry in terms of what it means to be priest, prophet and king in conformity to Jesus Christ.
2. As priest, manifest the power of the sacraments
Each bishop must, like any priest, place the celebration of the Church’s sacraments at the center of his ministry. This means he must set the tone for sacramental importance and reverence throughout the diocese. He must, at the very least, say Mass, preach and hear confessions at intervals throughout the entire diocese, not only so he can be present personally to as many as possible under his episcopal jurisdiction, but also to set an example and a standard for all of his priests. Precisely as priest, the bishop must be visible to and at least potentially approachable by the laity as well. Each bishop must give himself to his diocese in this way or he will be seen primarily as a distant bureaucrat—a king according to secular concepts, perhaps, but not a prophet, and certainly not a priest.
3. As priest, attract and form seminarians
A bishop who follows the first two steps will already be well along the road of attracting seminarians, and it is paramount for him both to encourage vocations to the priesthood from within his diocese and to ensure personally that his seminarians are not only well-educated in a truly Catholic sense but well-formed spiritually and morally. Every bishop is directly responsible for the quality of those who study for the priesthood for his diocese, those he ordains, and those who serve under him. He must play at least some personal role in their formation; he must be a personal example to them; he must develop a relationship with them as of a father to sons. If the bishop immerses himself in the way of life outlined in step 1 and cultivates the same spirit in his seminarians and priests, the vast majority will be positively inspired in their own ministries. If he does not, the majority will similarly fail.
4. As priest, attend to Church business not the business of the world
Owing to the reverence in which the Church used to be held, Western bishops too often had the opportunity to become deeply involved in prudential socio-political and economic issues, to the detriment of their proper focus on absolute issues of faith, morals and sacramental life. Bishops must learn again to avoid entanglement in social issues to which Catholic teaching can be only prudentially applied. It is one thing to make Catholic moral teaching clear—it is, after all, the natural law—but it is another to politically engage in selecting the best solution to complex problems within the limits of the moral law. When bishops do the latter, it becomes difficult for laity who disagree with their prudential judgments to accept their spiritual ministry. Each bishop must respect the role of the laity here. A bishop cannot be a priest and a lobbyist at the same time. This is true not only for individual bishops but for episcopal conferences in all their extended forms.
5. As prophet, teach faith and morals clearly
Contrary to popular belief, the first duty of a prophet is not to predict the future but to proclaim the truth of God and His will. Consequently, the first prophetic duty of a bishop is to ensure, beginning with his own example, that the truths of Catholic faith and morals are clearly proclaimed and taught throughout his diocese. There are three aspects of episcopal success here. First, a bishop must cultivate within himself a keen reverence for the absolute truth of Catholic teaching as something more important than any possible opinion about the practical affairs of the world. Second, he must check himself regularly to ensure that he is not wasting time on variable values and opinions which do not lie at the heart of the gospel. Third, he must proclaim to his diocese not only the whole Faith but especially the truths of faith and morals which those in his care are least likely to hear from the dominant culture in which they live. Though it may take courage, this is also an essential example for priests, deacons, religious and catechists throughout the diocese.
6. As prophet, avoid worldly entanglements
Another important aspect of the prophetic mission is to avoid even the appearance of permitting the rich, the powerful and the influential to play a role in shaping the bishop’s ministry. The desire for worldly honors and apparent influence generally comes at the cost of muting parts of the prophetic mission that reflect badly on these “cultural sponsors”. A bishop must free himself from worldly entanglements—honors, positions of influence and associations—which tend to alter his frank commitment to the full Christian message, especially to unpopular aspects of the Church’s message. A bishop must never convince himself that there are plenty of other good things to talk about, as if speaking publicly on the environment (for example) is a substitute for the prophetic voice of the Church in opposition to the glaringly sinful patterns which destroy not only the social order but the prospect of eternal life with God.
7. As prophet, turn dead parishes into missions
Perhaps it would be more appropriate to make this heading more general: As a prophet, turn loss into gain. But as stated, this does apply to a very large number of bishops in the West. Demographic change can leave churches and other parish buildings high and dry, and it is not always anyone’s particular fault. Nor am I an advocate of mammoth buildings for their own sake. But with the number of parishes that have been closing over the past generation, and the number of Catholics who are being lost to the Church for many reasons as well, it would seem that each bishop ought to try to turn loss into gain by repurposing at least some former parishes as centers for the evangelization of the surrounding neighborhoods. Here we need episcopal, priestly, diaconal and lay creativity. Bishops should look for new religious communities (including new pious associations) and groups of well-organized layman to take this on, helping them to cultivate support within the diocese for such a mission.
8. As king, mandate clear teaching on marriage and sexuality
The role of a bishop as king is to rule his diocese, which he has the full authority to do. But even a good personal example is seldom enough. The purpose of ruling is to ensure that the benefits of priestly and prophetic witness are spread as far, as deeply and as efficaciously as possible. In every culture there are neuralgic points at which the gospel is consistently undermined or derailed, and it is no secret that sexual morality is the Achilles heel of Catholic witness today: Too many priests fail to accept the Church’s teachings concerning sex, infidelity and divorce are commonplace, contraception is rampant, homosexuality is approved and promoted, and, in many parishes and parish schools it is considered too awkward to teach the truth. Each bishop should mandate that the key neuralgic points in the dominant culture be expounded in a thoroughly Catholic way each year both in the pulpit and, at the appropriate levels, in the Catholic schools—and he should “hire and fire” according to whether this is consistently done.
9. As king, discipline ecclesiastical ministers who deny the rights of the faithful
Things got so bad in the second half of the twentieth century that when the Code of Canon Law was revised in 1983 it included a new emphasis on the rights of the faithful. Canons 213 through 217 enumerate rights which have been repeatedly violated in many dioceses over the past sixty years, including the right to be assisted by pastors with the word of God and the sacraments (213), the right to worship according to the prescripts of the approved rite (214), and the right to a Catholic education by which the faithful “may know and live the mystery of salvation” (217). Yet through willful deprecation of the sacraments (especially of confession), tinkering with the liturgy, and actual errors taught from the pulpit and in religious education, the rights of the faithful have been frequently abused. And when the faithful have availed themselves of the right under canon 212 to make known their distress, they have often been “stonewalled” or even mocked. Instead, bishops must promptly discipline and even remove priests, deacons, religious and catechists who abuse these rights.
10. As king, ensure that all diocesan activities foster faith, sound spirituality and care of the whole person
Under this final heading, each bishop should make sure that every diocesan program is ordered to his priestly and prophetic mission in accordance with the faith, hope and love which transform each baptized soul in Christ. If a particular program or activity is not consistent with the nature of these theological virtues, then it must be either altered or discontinued. In all spiritual, educational and charitable initiatives, the goal must be to serve the whole person in accordance with the purposes of Jesus Christ. As appropriate to the circumstances, the faith must be proclaimed in its wholeness—and not selectively to please any cultural sensibilities or sources of funding. Dependence on the State for the administration of Christian charity must be promptly brought to an end. The Church’s moral witness must never be muted by either legal requirements or deficiencies of faith. In charitable endeavors, attention must extend wherever possible beyond immediate relief of a physical or medical need to the need of the whole person for a greater experience of faith, hope and love.
As I mentioned at the beginning, “All the baptized are incorporated into Christ’s priesthood, His prophetic character, and His kingship.” Therefore, it should be impossible even for a lay person to read these ten steps without examining how they may be modified into steps which Christian responsibility demands each of us to take within the context of our own lives—particularly in family life, professional life, the lay apostolate, and membership in the Body of Christ. On another day, I suppose any of us might enumerate ten slightly different steps, but surely they would be closely related to these. For my part, I found also that I was unable to engage in this exercise without examining my own conscience.
Finally, we must remember both that all attempts at Catholic renewal meet with resistance at some level, and that there is always tremendous inertia in the Catholic population as a whole. It happens at times that, despite their flaws, we are not worthy of our bishops. Moreover, no bishop will be judged by God based on his “results”. Rather, bishops will be judged just like the rest of us, based on their fidelity. Catholic renewal begins inside, where fidelity must take root and grow. That is what makes it priority one for all.
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