One of the central works of the Second Vatican Council was the renewal and reform of the Office of Bishop. Turning to the Scriptures and the Church Fathers, the Council rediscovered the pastoral and spiritual core of the episcopal office and brought forth a great jewel, which had become partly hidden.
It is in the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, Lumen Gentium, that one finds a worthy expression of this precious jewel. These texts brought me great light as I lived my retreat in preparation for my Episcopal ordination. I have referred to them often, and it has been my privilege over the years to preach on these texts to brother bishops gathered on retreat.
“A bishop, since he is sent by the Father to govern his family, must keep before his eyes the example of the Good Shepherd, who came not to be waited on but to serve, and to lay down his life for his sheep. Taken from among men, and oppressed by the weakness that surrounds him, he can have compassion for those who are ignorant and erring.
“Destined to render an account for their souls to God, by prayer, preaching and all good works of charity, he should be solicitous both for their welfare and for that too of those who do not belong to the unique flock, but whom he should regard as entrusted to him in the Lord.”
Of the 20 ecumenical councils, only Vatican II presents a chapter on the call to holiness. Here is some of what it says about the holiness of the bishop:
“In the image of the high and eternal priest, shepherd and bishop of our souls, (bishops) should carry out their ministry with holiness and eagerness, with humility and fortitude; thus fulfilled, this ministry will be for them an outstanding means of sanctification. Called to the fullness of the priesthood, they are endowed with a sacramental grace, so that by prayer, sacrifice and preaching, and through every form of episcopal care and service, they may fulfill the perfect duty of pastoral love. They should not be afraid to lay down their life for their sheep and, being a model to their flock, they must foster a growing holiness in the Church, also by their own example.”
So we see the vocation of the bishop: “Pastoral love.” He is called to love the flock as Christ loved the flock.
The Council turns to the holy bishop Augustine to show the communion and love that should exist between the bishop and his people.
“As Saint Augustine very beautifully puts it: ‘When I am frightened by what I am to you; then I am consoled by what I am with you. To you I am a bishop; but with you I am a Christian. The former is a duty; the latter a grace. The former is a danger; the latter, salvation.’”
More and more I recognize my own unworthiness and failure to live this office as well as I should; yet I experience an ever-increasing gratitude to God for his call to the episcopacy and for the light to see it as an office of pastoral love, not for myself, but for the Church. No wonder Augustine found it so demanding, but he was consoled by his closeness to his people. So am I.
Let us meditate on these words during this Year of Faith and also pray for Bishop Rhoades and myself that we will be more worthy of this beautiful vocation.