Let’s Pray for our Bishops
Should an enterprising researcher conduct a survey of what quality lay people appreciate most in priests and bishops, humility would doubtless rank highly, perhaps even top such a poll.
One often hears lay people reacting to an encounter with a bishop with the observation that “he was so humble”, perhaps signifying that this attribute was unexpected.
This expectation may well derive from an idea that the bishop should be impressed by his office. Bishops and priests who communicate with laity as equals are likely to be seen to exhibit humility.
They communicate humility most obviously by their disposition when engaging with the faithful, but also by their lifestyle and the manner in which they exercise their authority.
This is what Pope Francis is expecting from today’s bishops and clergy: men who impress through their humility, mercy and Christian witness, rather than by virtue of their title.
Pope Francis wants the bishops to open the doors of the Church to those at the peripheries — economically or socially — and to be apostles of mercy. By opening the doors of the Church, the bishops liberate Christ and bring him to the margins of society — exactly where we can locate him in the gospels — thereby offering a narrative of hope.
Today’s call for the bishops — and by extension also for the clergy and the laity—is to go out and be missionaries.
The pope is making great demands on bishops. This month he told a conference for newly-ordained bishops that they must be always available for their priests.
“When a bishop gets a telephone call from a priest or he receives a letter, answer right away — the same day if possible,” the pope told the conference.
For bishops in charge of large dioceses, that is bound to be a tall order, especially if they don’t have auxiliaries. The demands on their time might preclude dealing with correspondence expeditiously.
Bishops, like any other group of people, come in all shapes and sizes. Like any of us, they have their strengths and their weaknesses, clear vision and blind spots, and they record successes and failures — which are amplified, because of their position.
It is fair game to criticise a bishop for his failings and mistakes. Sometimes it is even necessary that a bishop be removed from his position, for gross mismanagement or for having lost the confidence of the clergy and laity.
But when we offer criticism of a bishop who is not guilty of such gross mismanagement or alienating the faithful, we ought to be charitable in our appraisal.
Being a bishop can be a lonely and colossal task, performed by a relatively small number of men who must find ways of meeting the trust that has been invested in them.
The price of the mitre is indeed steep: a bishop must take decisions that will not please everybody. A good bishop will make difficult and hopefully wise judgments, even at risk of upsetting his friends. Expectations of him differ so much that invariably he will disappoint somebody at some point. And a bishop knows that some people will find it difficult to pardon a mistake or lapse in judgment.
A bishop is expected to be a father, brother and friend to his clergy, and a shepherd to the laity.
He must also be a spiritual leader, pastor, administrator, human resource executive, social advocate, promoter of vocations, psychologist, arbitrator, moderator, reconciler, teacher and student, and guarantor of unity within his diocese — preferably exercising all these roles with a measure of collegiality. No man can excel in all these tasks.
The Body of Christ must be thankful to those who assume these great responsibilities. We must pray for our bishops that they may satisfy the enormous expectations invested in them, that they exercise their authority with wisdom, that they will not be discouraged when things go wrong and remain humble when things go well; and that they will not be too lonely.
We must commend our bishops when they perform their obligations well. And when they do not, we must feel able to communicate our concerns as well, with charity and respect.
Above all, we must give thanks to our bishops for their selfless service to the People of God, and offer our prayers for them in their demanding ministry.