The sixth document of the Second Vatican Council, one of five promulgated on the same day, October 28, 1965, is Christus Dominus [CD], the Decree Concerning the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church.
Not surprisingly, this is perhaps one of the least read of all the 16 documents of the Council. Comprising just 44 articles (or short chapters) this decree encompasses the most comprehensive outline of what the Church expects from Her bishops. Hidden within are several passages pertaining to the role of priests, consecrated religious and lay faithful under the pastoral authority of the bishop.
Most apparent in the first few paragraphs of Christus Dominus is the clear identity of our current bishops with their ancient counterparts. This is especially the case when considering the person of Saint Peter and those who have succeeded him down to the present in the person of Pope Francis.
Present-day bishops who perform the same leadership role in the Church as that of their ancient predecessors like Saint Paul are described by the Second Vatican Council as “successors of the apostles” (CD, 6). Coming from the larger People of God and, having been judged to have had performed their priestly duties in an exemplary way, their new responsibilities include being not only men of the Church but men of and for all the people of God. Recognizing the presence of Christ in the life of the Church they, like the shepherd in the Gospel account who sought the lost sheep, are to be always concerned, if not fixated, as was the shepherd, on reclaiming the sheep that stray. (cf. Matthew 18:12–14).
Focusing on this theme in a recent homily to new bishops on September 19, 2013, Pope Francis commented: “We are called and made Shepherds not by ourselves, but by the Lord, and not to serve ourselves, but rather to serve the flock entrusted to our care, to serve to the extent of offering our lives, like Christ, the Good Shepherd.”
The pope’s words resonate as I reflect on my association with various bishops. Over the years, first as an altar server, later as a young seminarian, deacon and priest, and then in my role as a seminary administrator, I had several opportunities to meet and greet many bishops from the United States, Canada and elsewhere. Not unlike priests, consecrated religious and lay people, I found some to be sincere, fascinating, engaging and holy, others to be lukewarm and unimpressive and still others to be downright arrogant, nasty or hypocritical. One of the most personal betrayals came through the actions of a former teacher and priest whom I admired but, later as bishop of a Canadian diocese, was found guilty of numerous unspeakable and immoral crimes. Following his prison term, to the credit of the Vatican, he was swiftly laicized (defrocked). I guess the truth can be summarized thus: in the natural order of things, bishops come from the larger culture and therefore, although disappointed and scandalized, we should not be surprised when the disposition of some bishops reflect the various anomalies of our present culture.
On the positive side, the bishops remind us that Jesus did not leave us abandoned when He ascended into heaven. It is through the episcopal ministry (of the bishops) that Christ keeps His promise to be with us “until the end of the age” (Mt 28:20). In a sense, the bishops guarantee for us, the people of God, the spiritual DNA which we commonly refer to as apostolic succession. In other words, each bishop from every diocese around the world can trace his succession back to one of the original apostles of Jesus. Other Christian or quasi-Christian groups trace their origins to a specific historical figure like King Henry VIII or Martin Luther or John Wesley or John Calvin or Joseph Smith. The founding of our Church by Jesus Christ on the apostles whom He appointed is the distinctive quality in our Catholic identity and foundation.
If a bishop shows himself to be less than what we expect of one who represents Christ and the Church, we are still assured by Christ Himself that we will not be deprived of the many helps to our salvation including access to the sacraments, Holy Mass, the Church to guide us and His own Mother to intercede for us. These are all helps which God provides to our salvation “in season and out of season” (2 Tm 4:2) even if we humans get in the way or somehow dishonor the best of what God offers.
Bishops also share with their predecessors like Saints Peter, James and John the commission to advance God’s kingdom and carry the gospel message to the world (Mt 28:16-2; Mk 16:15). This they do most especially through their collaborative association with other recipients of the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Christus Dominus explains: “Bishops enjoy the fullness of the sacrament of orders and both presbyters (priests) and deacons are dependent upon them in the exercise of their authority” (CD,15).
While priests and deacons, like bishops, receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders, priests and bishops have a unique share in the priesthood of Jesus Christ (ordained priesthood), whereas deacons, while not sharing in the ordained priesthood, share in the common priesthood of the baptized. In addition to preaching and teaching, deacons assist priests and bishops at the altar and participate in ministries of charity.
is worthwhile reading. Several themes discussed have a huge impact on various elements of the entire Church. It chronicles the role of the bishops “as legitimate successors of the Apostles” (CD, 6) including their responsibility as pastors “under the authority of the Supreme Pontiff … in their office of teaching, sanctifying, and governing” (CD,11). Several chapters detail their relationship with the laity, diocesan priests, and consecrated religious men and women (CD,11-21; 28-35) as well as their authority as “principal dispensers of the mysteries of God … (as) governors, promoters, and guardians of the entire liturgical life in the church” (CD,15) including the recommendation to use “the media of communication” (CD, 13) in their instruction.
The Diocese of Metuchen, established on November 19, 1981, is a relatively new diocese, and almost 32 years later we rejoice in having been blessed with four bishops. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, four gifted men have come to us from four different diocese’ with varied and diverse backgrounds. Our founding bishop, Theodore McCarrick, had previously served the Archdiocese of New York. His successor, Bishop Edward T. Hughes, came to us from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Our third bishop, Vincent De Paul Breen, had previously served as a priest in the Diocese of Brooklyn. Our current Bishop Paul G. Bootkoski was first ordained as a priest and later an auxiliary bishop in the neighboring Archdiocese of Newark before being installed as Bishop of Metuchen in 2002.
During this present Year of Faith, let us pray for all the bishops who lead the Church during these turbulent times. We pray most especially for our own shepherd, Bishop Paul, that he may continue to direct and guide our diocesan family with mercy, courage, right judgment, a spirit of knowledge, love and wisdom.