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To preach, to sanctify, and... Is something missing?

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 03, 2016

Pope Francis knocked me off balance, and prompted some new thoughts about the state of the Catholic Church, with something he said in a recent homily. Or rather, to be more accurate, he stunned me by what he did not say—by leaving out part of a very familiar series.

Let me explain first why the omission struck me as so noteworthy. There are certain phrases that, in a particular context, slip out of the mouth so smoothly, so naturally, that it takes an act of will to arrange the words in any other way. For example, if you grew up in the US, when asked to name the colors of the American flag, you will surely answer: “red, white, and blue.” You would not say, “blue, red, and white.” The latter answer would still be accurate, but it would sound unnatural. We have all heard “red, white, and blue” too many times to alter the sequence.

Nor, certainly, would you say that the American flag is “red and white.” That answer would be not just awkward but incomplete; you’d have left out the “blue.”

With that in mind, take a look at this CWN news story, about the Holy Father’s homily at a weekday morning Mass in the Domus Sanctae Marthae. Does something sound awkward to you? Is something conspicuously missing?

"The first task of a bishop is to be with Jesus in prayer,” the Pope said. He went on to say that the bishop’s second task is to preach and teach. These, he said, are the two columns on which the bishop’s pastoral ministry is built: “Two tasks that are not easy, but it is precisely these two tasks that are the strong pillars of the Church.”

Do you see anything wrong with these ideas? I don’t. But I definitely see something missing.

A bishop, the Church teaches, has a threefold office: as priest, prophet, and king. These roles correspond to a threefold mission: to teach, to sanctify, and to govern. There are three pillars, not just two, and if any one of those three pillars is weak the entire ecclesial structure is in danger.

Now Pope Francis was delivering a short homily, not a major doctrinal statement. No doubt he wanted to make a few points quickly. For that matter, the Vatican Radio account, on which our news story was based, might have been incomplete. Maybe the Pope did speak about the bishop’s governing office as well. But the omission of governance from the familiar three-part list made me stop and think: Is that what’s missing?

After Pope Benedict XVI resigned, there was a near-universal agreement among Church leaders that his successor should make it a top priority to bring the Roman Curia under more effective control: that is, to govern the Vatican well. In the daily conferences leading up to the 2013 conclave, one cardinal after another spoke out in favor of administrative reforms. Not surprisingly, after his election Pope Francis soon pledged himself to the cause of Vatican reform. It is not an easy task, and to date we have not seen the fruit of his efforts (except in Vatican financial affairs, where the reforms driven by Cardinal Pell are taking effect), but it will be fair to judge this pontificate on the Pope’s success or failure in streamlining and taming his own bureaucracy.

But the problems of Church governance do not stop at the Vatican walls. Especially because Pope Francis has indicated a desire for decentralized leadership, the Church will need bishops who govern effectively.

How often have you heard complaints about a bishop’s prayer life? Not often; very few people are presumptuous enough to judge the quality of another man’s prayers.

Have you heard complaints about a bishop’s teaching? Yes, occasionally. Frustrated Catholics will sometimes say that a bishop’s public statements on doctrinal issues have been confusing or misleading. Far more frequently there will be laments that the bishop remains silent when a clear teaching statement is necessary.

Still, by far the greatest source of concern about a bishop’s performance will involve his governance. The appointment of pastors, the decisions to close parishes or schools, and the diocesan budget priorities will always be easy targets for critics. But even beyond that, the most common complaints involve not the bishop’s acts of governance, but his inaction: his failure to respond to complaints about liturgical abuse or parish mismanagement; his unwillingness to rebuke prominent Catholics who flout the teachings of the Church; his acceptance of religious-education programs that mislead young people and leave them ignorant; his tolerance for priests who have lapsed into complacency or worse.

Granted, lay Catholics should spend less time complaining about their bishops, and more time praying for them. Nevertheless it is instructive to see the nature of their complaints. We certainly need bishops who pray fervently and preach effectively. But we also need bishops who govern well. Above all, we need bishops who want to govern.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: feedback - Feb. 04, 2016 9:58 PM ET USA

    Excellent points! It's amazing how it works: the "omission" of teaching on episcopal governance in the Holy Father's homily is what really highlighted its importance. And indeed! We pray for our Holy Father and for all our Bishops.