Sunday, February 10, 2013

Opinion - What bishops are for

After a gap of more than two years, the Holy See has finally begun filling some of the episcopal vacancies in the Irish Church. 

The rumoured plans to reduce the number of dioceses seem to have been shelved for the time being, and in fairly quick succession we’ve had announcements of appointments to Cloyne, Limerick and Armagh. 

Bishop William Crean has already been ordained for Cloyne, with ordinations scheduled for Limerick and Armagh later in the spring.

There’s a certain sense of hope about these appointments – a touch of springtime. That hope is independent of the personalities of the men themselves. 

I can’t predict what particular style each of these new bishops will have, but the very fact that some appointments have at last been made is itself a sign of energy and life.

Why so? It certainly isn’t the case that the Church is all about the hierarchy. 

The concept of the Church as the People of God has been one of the most significant developments in our understanding of the Church in recent decades and many of us get irritated when commentators speak of ‘the Church’ when they mean the bishops. 

The rest of us matter too.

It’s not that bishops are all endowed with the gifts of perfect wisdom either. 

The briefest look at our history will prove that untrue. 

Neither is it the case that we need bishops to make things run smoothly. 

All vacant dioceses have Diocesan Administrators who are well able to keep the wheels of the organisation turning. 

Indeed, Msgr Eamon Martin has been administrator of the Diocese of Derry for over a year now. He didn’t need the rich and elaborate rite of episcopal ordination to be able to fulfil that role. 

So what then will be different after he has received ordination as bishop?

What is different after a new bishop is ordained is that the diocese becomes more fully what it is called to be – the manifestation of the People of God in a particular place – a local Church. 

As the Apostolic Nuncio reminded the congregation in Cobh during the ordination of Bishop Crean: “A diocese, like the Diocese of Cloyne, is not just any gathering of Christians; a diocese is a group of Christians, but it can be called a local Church because of the presence of a bishop. That is why it is a day of immeasurable joy when a new bishop is ordained for a diocese.”

The bishop isn’t just ordained to lead his own local network of parishes and congregation. 

A diocese is not an independent sect. 

It is part of the bishop’s role to embody the diocese’s connection through time with the apostles and Jesus, and its connection through space with the wider Church and the Successor of Peter. 

Those connections are part of what we mean by the word ‘communion’.

A deep sense of communion is what will protect a new bishop from becoming too full of himself and too impressed with his status, title or attire. 

He is to teach and to govern, to lead his people as a loving shepherd; to be both father and brother. 

And he does that most excellently when he presides at the Eucharist with the participation of his priests and deacons, in the midst of the people of the diocese. 

It is no accident that the word ‘communion’ is used to describe both the relationships within the Church and the act of receiving the consecrated gifts at the Eucharist.

The bishop is first and foremost the leader and head of the Eucharistic assembly. This is a fine sentiment, but it’s not how most people view bishops. 

In Ireland, bishops have dropped the most lordly and vainglorious excesses of past years, and, to their credit, have shown much less appetite for bringing back lace and ostentatious ‘bling’ than many of their brothers in other countries have been doing recently. 

But that is not enough. 

While there has been much debate since Vatican II about the nature of priestly identity, there hasn’t been nearly half enough about the nature of episcopal identity.

The fallout from the various scandals forced our bishops to adopt a more humble and cautious attitude. 

The growing secularism of our day means less notice is taken of them in the public square. All of this could make them feel timid or even irrelevant. 

But they aren’t irrelevant! Our Church is incomplete without them and vacant dioceses are spoken of as ‘widows’. 

A diocese is a local Church and not just an administrative unit. A bishop is a representative of Christ and not just a branch manager. They have lost most of the poor they used to have, which is no bad thing. 

But we haven’t really allowed or enabled them to claim and exercise the real authority of their office. 

Without reverting to the authoritarian models which have already been rejected, we need to have a renewed sense of who and what exactly bishops are if they are to foster ‘communion’ wisely. 

With three new bishops already appointed, and several more expected soon, now would be a good time to begin that reflection.

* Martin Browne is a monk of Glenstal Abbey, Co. Limerick, and Headmaster of Glenstal Abbey School.

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