The Ministry of Bishop Manifests Christ’s Presence in the World

Pope Francis arrives at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington on September 23 for midday prayer with the Catholic bishops of the United States.

Pope Francis arrives at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington on September 23 for midday prayer with the Catholic bishops of the United States. (Catholic Standard photo)

Today is the traditional day for the celebration of Epiphany, in which the Church recalls how wise men from the east recognized the great Star of Bethlehem as a divine sign and followed this light to find the Lord Jesus. As they undertook their journey to the newborn King, they represented the peoples of the world and in this way led the way for the rest of us in our journeys to Christ.

Epiphany is also a day that Saint John Paul II traditionally ordained new bishops. Like the wise men, a bishop has been drawn by the light of God, called by the Lord, and he goes before people on our pilgrim journey. Like the Star, a bishop is called to radiate the love of Jesus to show others the way, to help others see the presence of Christ in the world.

Looking at the road ahead in this new year of 2016, as a bishop entrusted with the care of a large archdiocese, on this day I would like to reflect on the role and mission of bishops in God’s plan for the Church and the world. At the beginning, middle and end of these reflections is Jesus Christ.

Our Lord Jesus Christ, who was sent by the Father to redeem the human race, in turn sent twelve Apostles into the world. These men were filled with the power of the Holy Spirit to preach the Gospel and gather every race and people into a single flock to be guided in the way of holiness. Because this service was to continue to the end of time, the Apostles selected others to help them. By the sacrament of Holy Orders, the Apostles passed on the gift of the Spirit which they themselves had received from Christ.

Just as it was the Lord who chose the original twelve, so too is it the Lord who calls their successors. Out of the Body of Christ today, alive in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and anointed in the gifts of the Spirit, the Lord continues to call some to be ordained ministers.

Today’s bishops are the successors of the Apostles. For two millennia, by a succession of bishops unbroken from one generation to the next, the spiritual powers conferred in the beginning have been handed down, and the work of our Savior continues in our time. It is only through this uninterrupted tradition, that we can be sure of the integrity and validity of the Christian faith.

Pope Francis said in his meeting with the bishops during his visit here, “We are bishops of the Church, shepherds appointed by God to feed his flock. Our greatest joy is to be shepherds, and only shepherds, pastors with undivided hearts and selfless devotion.” In his apostolic exhortation on the ministry of bishops, Pastores Gregis, which is Latin for “Good Shepherds,” Saint John Paul outlined the threefold function of the office of bishop – teaching, sanctifying and leading – adding that in a world increasingly influenced by secular and material values, the task of the bishop is to be a beacon of hope, one that invites people to experience the truth of Jesus’ message.

The bishop serves as shepherd and, as such, he has a solemn obligation to care for the multitude of souls who make up that portion of God’s flock entrusted to him – to feed Christ’s sheep (cf. John 21:15-17). As an apostolic teacher, the bishop is to “preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke and exhort – be unfailing in patience and in teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2). In the work of sanctification, he is to oversee the administration of the sacraments of which bishops “are the principal dispensers, moderators, guardians and promoters. They form a sort of saving ‘net,’ which sets free from evil and leads to the fullness of life” (Pastores Gregis, 5). Finally, bishops are charged with exercising the ministry of leading the Church “as pastors and true fathers,” said John Paul. In doing so, they “have the task of gathering together the family of the faithful and in fostering charity and brotherly communion” (Id.).

The bishop does not act alone. Together with the guidance of the Spirit, the whole People of God are called to provide their assistance, cooperation and commitment. First, as Archbishop of Washington, I rely daily on your prayers and support. Furthermore, in our many ministries, the efforts of auxiliary bishops, priests, religious and lay faithful – all working together to proclaim the Good News – is essential (Id., 74).

Saint John Paul presents a beautiful picture in Pastores Gregis of God’s family gathered around its shepherds, united first among themselves and in communion with the pope, as the successor of Peter, in the proclamation of the Gospel and the living out of its challenges. As we continue our pilgrim journey this year and beyond, we all travel together to the heavenly kingdom.