Given the upcoming visit of Bishop Ackerman to preach and confirm on April 7th, and the upcoming election of a bishop-coadjutor for our diocese, I thought I would offer a brief catechesis on the office and work of bishops.
"The work of bishops," our catechism tells us, "is to represent and serve Christ and the Church as chief pastors, to lead in preaching and teaching the faith, and in shepherding the faithful, to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church, and the bless, confirm, and ordain, thus following in the tradition of the Apostles."
First, the bishop is a man who represents and serves Christ. Another way of putting that is that the bishop is Christ to us, a visible sacrament of the unity of Christ and His Body the Church. Primarily, the bishop does this by presiding over the Church in the place of a father and shepherd over the flock, especially in the celebration of the Eucharist. Every Christian should be reminded that when a priest celebrates the Eucharist, he does so in the place of the bishop, as it is only by the authority given by the bishop that he celebrates the Eucharist at all. The bishop has been chosen (in our case, by an election of the diocese, following the leading of the Holy Spirit) "to shepherd the Lord's flock of the elect, servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God." (LG, III.21) In this way, the ministry of a bishop is not to lord authority over the Church, but rather to serve, wholeheartedly devoted to even the most menial tasks for the upbuilding of Christ's body. In this way, the whole Body is instructed in not only the humility of the Lord's Incarnation, but are drawn to abide in His love through humble obedience. When a bishop visits the parish church, he links that parish to the whole of the Church Catholic, of which it is a microcosm. The parish is reminded that its identity is not primarily local or congregational, but universal. This is the reason that bishops stand in what we call apostolic succession: they stand as successors to the apostles and link each Christian and parish to the whole Church throughout space and time.
Second, the bishop leads in preaching and teaching. It has often been said that the bishop is the chief catechist of the Church, and in the ancient Church this was especially true, as the bishop was the one with primary responsibility for instructing catechumens, both in public teaching and preaching and later, following their baptisms, in what was called mystagogical catechesis, in which the newly baptized were further instructed in the deep and previously hidden mysteries of the Faith and of the Sacraments. The bishop, by faithfully teaching the flock, serves as a visible and personal link to the whole Church and the unity of the Church's Faith. This particularly illustrates the reason that it is so tragic (and disastrous) when a bishop abandons the catholic faith in favor of his own personal opinion, or even the desires of the people he serves.
Third, the bishop is a shepherd, a true pastor to the people of God. He does this primarily by serving the clergy of a diocese, by making sure that they are thriving, both spiritually and physically. When my children get married, the bishop will be asked to preside at their weddings. When I'm dying, the bishop will be called in to anoint me and pray for me. Whenever I have a crisis in my life, the bishop is the first to know. When that happens, the people of a parish can know that they are in good hands, cared for by a man who is under authority. What a blessing that is!
Fourthly, the bishop guards the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church. This happens by public pronouncements on the teaching of the Church with regard to various issues germane to the day, through his work with other bishops, and also through the discipline of clergy and the upholding of the Church's canons. If a priest begins to teach or preach in error, it is the bishop's job to correct him. If a layperson obstinately persists in notorious and scandalous sin, the bishop is notified so that, for the sake of godly discipline, the bishop can revoke their status as communicants until such time as they repent.
Lastly, the bishop administers ordination and confirmation. This does not however mean that he is only a pair of hands merely useful for this task. The bishop exercises discernment and prayer in determining who should be ordained, guiding ordinands through a process of formation and instruction, serving as a father to them. The bishop also must inquire as to the preparation of confirmands, as to whether they have been adequately instructed and whether they desire to be confirmed out of devotion to Christ and a hearty faith.
All of this will be visible when Bishop Ackerman comes to visit the parish. As he is not the ordinary of the diocese, he will come sent by Bishop Iker to visit on his behalf. Note how he will be dressed. He will carry a crozier, a shepherd's crook, reminding us not only that he is a chief shepherd, but that he serves in the place of Christ. He has a miter on his head, symbolizing the tongues of fire which descended upon the apostles on the day of Pentecost, with two pieces of fabric coming down the back, called lappets, which symbolize the Old and New Testaments. He will confirm, praying for the increase of the Holy Spirit in the men and women he confirms, and he will preach and celebrate the Eucharist, just as bishops have done for 2,000 years.
Might I ask you again to pray for our dear Bishop, for restoration of his health as he walks through cancer treatment? But, also for his steadfastness in the faith once delivered to the saints, especially as the diocese confers to elect a successor to take his office. We expect that the official slate of candidates will be released to the public on April 22nd, with the election taking place June 1st.