By Cardinal Justin Rigali
Archbishop of Philadelphia

At this time, it seems appropriate for us to reflect on the pastoral role of a Bishop’s ministry.

A shepherd’s care
Throughout our large five-county Archdiocese I do not think that we will find many shepherds. We may have some sheep in our more rural parishes, but probably not many large flocks calling for a shepherd. Yet, Jesus makes such extensive use of the image of a shepherd that to ignore that imagery, and the teaching it contains, would be to deprive ourselves of the richness of the Gospel. For this reason, this image has always been widely used in the teaching mission of the Church. Some of the earliest artistic images that we possess of Jesus picture Him as a shepherd. In order to teach us about the continuity of His presence and His activity in the Church He founded, He promised to send His people shepherds who would teach, sanctify and lead them in His name and with His power.

The Second Vatican Council teaches: “The bishops have been appointed by the Holy Spirit, and are successors of the apostles as pastors of souls. Together with the Supreme Pontiff and under his authority, they have been sent to continue throughout the ages the work of Christ, the eternal shepherd” (Christus Dominus, 2). In what does this “work of Christ” consist and how does the Bishop continue it? Let us turn to a simple understanding of the role of a shepherd in order to understand this.

We know that the shepherd must fulfill his responsibility by both feeding and guarding his sheep. If he did not lead them to green pastures, where they could feed on nourishing grass, they would soon die. This reminds us of the basic responsibility of the Bishop to feed the flock entrusted to him with the saving message of Jesus. He is the primary teacher of the faith in the diocese, and he has the responsibility of transmitting that faith to those entrusted to his pastoral care.

Immediately after the ascension of Jesus into heaven, the apostles took up the task of teaching. We are told that the early Christians “devoted themselves to the teaching of the Apostles” (Acts 2:42). The apostles, of course, would die, but according to His own promise, the message of Jesus will last to the end of time. We say that the apostles died, but the mission of the apostles does not die, but lives on in the mission of the Bishop. In the same way, Peter died, but the office of Peter does not die but lives on in the person of the Pope.

Pope Benedict XVI recently underlined the teaching aspect of the Bishops’ mission in an address to a group of Bishops from Brazil, who were making their regular visit to the Pope. He said: “As teachers and doctors of the faith, you have the mission to teach with audacity the truth that must be believed and lived, presenting it in an authentic way. Therefore, help the faithful entrusted to your pastoral care to discover the joy of the faith, the joy of being loved personally by God, who offered His Son for our salvation. To believe consists above all in abandoning oneself to this God who knows and loves us personally, accepting the truth that he revealed in Jesus Christ with the attitude that leads us to trust in grace.”

This manner of presenting the truth of Jesus has been a constant of our Holy Father’s teaching. He often reminds us that our faith is not composed of a set of rules but of a loving message, which brings us joy, even here on earth, and everlasting happiness in the world to come. This is the fundamental message the Bishop is called to preach. In this task, I am so grateful to have so many who collaborate with me in fulfilling my teaching role, especially our priests, who help shepherd the local parish community in my name.

The guiding role of the shepherd
In the Gospel, Jesus speaks beautifully about the shepherd’s voice and how His sheep will recognize that voice and follow it. The bishop must also be a sure guide in maintaining the safety and unity of the flock entrusted to him. Anyone who presides over a local community, whether it be in the workplace or in the home, knows that there must be a sense of unity in working towards a common goal if that community is to live together in peace and harmony. The Bishop “presides in charity” over the local church and strives to maintain its unity and spirit of charity in the midst of the many challenges which each age brings.

Pope Benedict spoke of this aspect of the Bishop’s role as well in his address to the Brazilian bishops that I have already quoted. He reminded his hearers that the Bishop is “also called to judge and discipline the life of the people of God entrusted to his pastoral care, through laws, directives and suggestions, as established in the universal discipline of the Church. This ‘right and duty’ is very important, so that the diocesan community will remain united in its interior, and walk in sincere communion of faith, love and discipline with the Bishop of Rome and with the whole Church.”

Building up our local Church in holiness
In addressing another topic some time back, I wrote about the holy oils that the Bishop of a diocese consecrates and blesses at Mass on Holy Thursday morning. He gathers with the priests and deacons of the diocese, and in the context of that Liturgy he sanctifies the oils that will be used in the administration of the sacraments throughout the year. After Mass, these oils are placed in inspanidual containers, designated with the name of each parish in the archdiocese.

During the year, when these oils are used in the celebration of the sacraments, a wonderful unity is created between the bishop, as the chief shepherd of the diocese, and the faithful, who receive the sacraments in the bishop’s name and under his leadership. Therefore, at every sacrament in which these oils are used, I am one with you in the unity of Jesus Christ. Perhaps the next time you receive a sacrament, or witness a sacrament in which these oils are used, you will think of this and say a prayer for me. Similarly, in the celebration of the Eucharist, you hear the name of Bishop of the diocese mentioned after that of the Pope. This is a very ancient practice and shows forth our unity as members of the Church founded by Jesus Christ. The greatest responsibility of the Bishop is to help his people grow in holiness. He must do this by his teaching and also by his example. This daunting responsibility brings us to the next aspect of the Bishop’s ministry.

The challenge of the Bishop’s ministry
In 2001, the World Synod of Bishops took as its topic: “The Bishop, Servant of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the Hope of the World.” It is a great privilege to be at the service of the Gospel and the service of God’s People. However, as with any vocation, the Bishop needs constantly to challenge himself to greater fidelity. He also needs to pray, and his people need to pray for him, so that he may be faithful and courageous. The Bishop strives to fulfill his mission faithfully, but he is the one who is most aware that he does so with the limitations and imperfection that come with our human nature. Those limitations may cause him to make mistakes, for which he, above all, must have deep sorrow.

The Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, issued by Pope John Paul II after the Synod of 2001, speaks of the “objective sanctification, which by Christ’s work, is present in the sacrament (received by the Bishop at his episcopal consecration) through the communication of the Holy Spirit. This needs to coincide with subjective sanctification, in which the Bishop, by the help of grace, must continuously progress through the exercise of his ministry” (Pastores Gregis, 11).

It would seem that the famous words of St. Augustine, himself a Bishop in the early centuries of the Church, come naturally to our minds at this point. I make his words my own and ask you to receive them, along with my own efforts in serving the faithful of the great Archdiocese of Philadelphia as a faithful shepherd. St. Augustine said: “Believe me, brothers and sisters, if what I am for you frightens me, what I am with you reassures me. For you I am the Bishop; with you I am a Christian. ‘Bishop,’ this is the title of an office one has accepted to discharge; ‘Christian,’ that is the name of the grace one receives. Dangerous title! Salutary name (Sermon 340, 1)!”

9 September 2010