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This is the kind of bishop that I long for as a priest

Fr David Forrester says that the ideal bishop is a gifted evangelist who lives alongside his flock

By on Thursday, 15 March 2012

A few years ago I unexpectedly found myself as the guest of an archbishop whose diocese was a large bustling city in Bolivia. Not only did I get a shock at the sight of so much poverty in Bolivia, the poorest country in South America, and feel helpless when confronted with it, but I was also immensely surprised at the manner and lifestyle of the archbishop. He lived in a very small house with a corrugated iron roof and situated up a dirt track, in which the water supply was erratic and in which he personally occupied just two small rooms. He also dressed and ate utterly simply, did not possess a car and travelled everywhere by public transport.

As the archbishop travelled around his diocese he was invariably surrounded by and greeted with great joy by his people who clearly both knew him on a personal level and loved him. They sought his advice and answers to their problems, but above all welcomed the way he brought the light of the Good News into their poor lives. To them, his behaviour and manner reflected the Gospel and were a form of apostolic evangelisation.

After a subsequent visit to the United States and then to different countries in Europe I returned to England, but was unable to refrain from contrasting the lifestyle and manner of many of the bishops I met with those of the archbishop in Bolivia.

It is indisputable that many of the Catholic bishops in both North America and Europe are conscientious, devout, often self-effacing and saddled with huge problems, ranging from diocesan financial problems, often caused by the deployment of expensive diocesan bureaucracies, which it is considered necessary to run things, to shrinking Mass attendances and the need to reorganise the parish system in the face of the decline in priestly vocations. In many places morale among priests also needs raising, given the fact that the scandal of clerical abuse has left many of them feeling tainted by the activities of a minority.

This is not to mention the additional state of affairs in the United States, which the Pope recently spoke of to its bishops on their ad limina visits, as ones where there are “powerful new cultural currents which are not only directly opposed to core moral teaching of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but increasingly hostile to Christianity as such”, including what he termed radical and reductive secularism.

Similarly, in Europe last December we were reminded in the discussions between the Pope and Lord Sacks, as well as in a lecture the Chief Rabbi gave at the Pontifical Gregorian University, that “we must help Europe rediscover its soul”, otherwise it has a grim future.

In view of these and other problems, the reality is that too many of the bishops in North America and Europe persist in functioning rather as managers than as pastorally minded shepherds, as executives of diocesan structures rather than as those who put people before plans, and as fundraisers rather than as spiritual leaders concerned for what Blessed John Henry Newman called “the apostolic rock” on which their authority is built. Some are also prisoners of their training in the turbulent 1960s and have not moved on in their thinking.

By contrast, it is common knowledge that Pope Benedict XVI does not view the Church in sociological terms as a network of power structures. One commentator says that the Pope “is completely hostile to this mentality”, arguing: “He does not see the Church as one large multinational corporation with franchise operations across the globe, the bishops as the executive staff, the pope as the CEO, and the laity as the shareholders.” Rather than viewing the Church operate along the lines of a corporate institutional model, the Pope sees the Church as the Body of Christ and as communion functioning within the existence of a unified network of different spiritual missions.

It is to be hoped that bishops of the future will always be rigorous in their thinking and able to face head-on the manifold issues facing our society. Above all, it is surely desirable that they be dynamic spiritual leaders of their flocks, giving priority to their role as evangelists. Quoting Vatican II and obviously utterly aware that a bishop’s traditional role is to teach, govern and sanctify, the Pope has nevertheless declared that “first and foremost, the bishop is an evangelist and we might put it this way: it is as an evangelist that he is a successor of the Apostles”.

Given that in an average diocese the teaching function of a bishop (apart from issuing pastoral letters) has nowadays been taken over by educational and catechetical professional persons, that in his governing capacity a bishop is usually assisted either by vicars general or episcopal vicars, and that in his sanctifying role a bishop essentially relies on priests to administer the sacraments for the laity, in theory this should release him to personally get to know and move among the people of his diocese and daily evangelise them, as my Bolivian host archbishop does.

How often, however, does an ordinary lay member in a diocese these days even personally meet his or her bishop, let alone find him as someone who can at least empathise with their situation in life? Many bishops are remote from the problems and lifestyle of those for whom they have been called upon to serve as shepherds.

More importantly, people don’t often experience bishops as evangelists, imbued with the Holy Spirit and as successors to the apostles in their zeal to convey the Gospel to others. Instead, too often they are seen as administrative functionaries who are usually only actually encountered when visiting a parish for Confirmation.

It has to be said, indeed, that many bishops seemed relieved, delighted and glad to be freed of their usual duties at the last World Youth Day in Madrid when called upon to catechise and actually convey the Good News of the Gospel at first hand to the young people attending. It isn’t only young people at these admirable events however who would value meeting and being evangelised in this way by their bishop, but all others too.

Perhaps it is time we returned to a new – in reality, more ancient – version of the episcopate.

Fr David Forrester is a priest of Portsmouth diocese

  • Anonymous

    Well said Father. 

  • EditorCT

    What is it you mean Father, when you speak about the “Gospel”? All the buzz words are there – evangelise/Gospel/catechise etc.  But nowhere is there any recognition that the Catholic (repeat, Catholic) Faith has not been taught now for generations, in the systematic way that even the liberal Council of Vatican II stipulated and therefore we are now in a situation where even BISHOPS do not fully grasp the Faith – how can the blind lead the blind?  Just WHO is to do the evangelising and catechising? 

    As for meeting our bishops: kidding, right?  The Archdiocese of Glasgow springs to mind because the archbishop there (here!) has – for years now – delegated Confirmations to his clergy. 

    A bishop touring the land to visit the poor is a very nice image; that he is loved etc. – great.  But it is MUCH more important that bishops are aware of their primary duty to work for the salvation of souls. “And all these other things shall be added unto (us all!)”.

    Father Forrester wrote:

    “Similarly, in Europe last December we were reminded in the discussions between the Pope and Lord Sacks, as well as in a lecture the Chief Rabbi gave at the Pontifical Gregorian University, that “we must help Europe rediscover its soul”, otherwise it has a grim future.”

    It seems impossible to write an article without the ecumenical/interfaith dimension.  Massive loss of Catholic identity has followed hot on the heels of the loss of faith which Pope John Paul II called a “silent apostasy”.  The very fact that  we need a non-Christian to help us realise that Europe needs to “rediscover its soul” (whatever that means) indicates that we are, indeed, trapped in the awful mess created by ecumenism and inter-faith “dialogue” which has given the clear impression that one religion or “denomination” is as good as another.

    Returning to my question about the Gospel – rhetorical really, because I was thinking of the words of St Augustine who said “I would not believe the Gospel if I did not first believe th authority of the holy Catholic Church.”   There is a specifically Catholic understanding of the Gospel about which we are not hearing anything these days.  I’m afraid the above article is no different.  But then, with all due respect, Father Forrester, I once lived for a short time in Portsmouth Diocese and concluded that it must be one of the very worst dioceses in the entire UK. Plenty of collections for overseas aid of one kind or another.  Not a lot of Catholicity.  And until that changes, it won’t matter a jot if every bishop in these countries of the UK takes to living in tin huts and cycling to visit their priests/people. Until the traditional Catholic Faith is restored, it will not make the slightest difference. God, the new Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, desires that we are saved through knowledge of the truth (“the truth” in italics in the CCC) – teaching the truth, restoring the Faith in its every aspect, is what we should be doing – not worrying about what Lord Sacks thinks about anything and certainly not worrying about what bishops are wearing or where they are living.

  • Anonymous

    A very interesting blog, thank you. I agree with many of the points made, but I do however want to disagree with a couple of details.

    If most people’s contact with a bishop is when he visits for confirmation that is hardly an administrative function. They get the chance to see the bishop as a minister of the sacraments and a preacher. I regret the tendency in some dioceses for the bishop to delegate confirmations to others so that he can spend more time in the curial offices.

    I wonder where the model of the church as a multi-national company with franchise operations comes from: certainly not from the documents of Vatican II. Many would suggest that this model describes the way the Church has been run in the last few decades – with an example of the top-down management being way head office overruled the bishops over the new translation of the Mass.

  • sclerotic


    What exactly is this traditional Catholic Faith? Trent?
    Not traditional for fifteen hundred years but let’s allow that it is the best
    option. Trent’s decrees are couched
    in language drawn essentially from a mixture of neo-platonism and
    aristotelianism, which suffered severely at the hands of Galileo, Kant and
    Darwin. Any human faith seeks understanding and understanding Trent,
    even for the well disposed, is difficult. As a pedagogic exercise it is simply
    impossible. People ask questions which merit answers and the answers have to
    make sense in the wider context of peoples’ lives which nowadays, for good or
    ill, finds its paradigm in science and scepticism. Who made me? God made me. Darwin?
    Why did God make you? God made me to know him, love him and serve him in this
    world and be happy with him for ever in the next. Know him? As a category? As a
    concept? For ever? Is this what infinity means for an indivisible God? Stop
    romanticising the past and read a bit of serious theology – try Rahner.

  • Lazarus

    The idea that the average concerns of 21st century Britons would be addressed by reading Rahner is slightly bizarre.

    There’s a muddle here between a) the theological/philosophical system in which truth is best expounded; and b) the way in which it is best explained to a variety of audiences. I’d argue that Thomism is still the best for a); and as for b), most audiences do not need some replacement philosophical system du jour, but the knack of putting difficult ideas into simple language. 

    If people find their sole paradigm of knowledge in science and scepticism (I suspect that in everyday reality they don’t) then they need to be argued out of that rather than indulged in error.

  • EditorCT

    I made no mention of Trent in my post.  But if you think Rahner is a “serious” theologian, there’s no point in any further discussion except to say…

    You gotta be kidding!

  • Just Passing By

    A friend of mine told me when she was young she went around in a group of young people which included a young catholic man. She asked him what he wanted to do in life.  He replied, “Become an Archbishop.”
    He is one now.  I am not sure he is anything like the archbishop you mention in your article. 

  • Anonymous

    Do not forget the bottom up ignoring of the status of the Mass of the ages by most Bishops. Totally ignoring the Holy Father.

  • John Byrne

    Well done. Her Holiness, of course, will not understand and will not wish to understand — but some others might.

  • sclerotic


    The Rahner recommendation was made in reply to CTEditor. I
    agree, not the obvious starting point for everyday concerns. Indeed I think
    your point b is quite the most elegant statement of a desperate need that I
    have yet read. (Shame that Corpus Christi
    was closed – that was just the sort of thing Charles Davis did brilliantly). I’m
    not sure about the Thomism though – it’s subtle and sophisticated stuff but
    Aristotle ultimately had a metaphysics which was devised to explain physics –
    it can, with help from such as Wittgenstein still be a very powerful tool but
    it does have its limitations. I agree with you that people have a variety of
    starting points, not just scientific reductionism (to which we certainly should
    not pander) and unfortunately tend to use several different ones simultaneously.
    But my point is I think still relevant. Take the atheism of Fry or Hitchens. It’s
    pathetic stuff, incapable of standing up to serious scrutiny for more than
    thirty seconds and yet it has its appeal, as much emotional as intellectual,
    and the traditional arguments used to defend us in earlier days from such former incarnations of Fry as Bertrand Russell (an altogether more
    sophisticated thinker) need to be rethought and reshaped and despite the
    nostalgia of CTEditor I am far from persuaded that traditional Catholicism has
    much to offer by way of help in this sort of enterprise.

  • EditorCT

    Traditional Catholicism has absolutely NOTHING to offer, if by “to offer” you mean change the Church to suit the new incarnations of  Bertrand Russell ! 

    To cite Rahner and now Charles Davis (“former” priest / publicly dissident) as people as starting points for people learning about the Church is downright ridiculous. 

    Would you recommend studying the life of Dr Harold Shipman to would-be medical students?

    Get a grip.

  • Christopher

    Perhaps it would be worth you knowing that EditorCT is actually a supporter of the (probably soon-to-be declared) schismatic SSPX. Amongst other things, she has serious doubts about the validity of the Ordinary Form of the Mass – yes, the same one celebrated by the pope. Her comments should always be understood in this light.

  • EditorCT

    There is absolutely no indication whatsoever that the  SSPX are to be declared “schismatic”.  Goodness, the Pope has lifted the unjust excommunications so the very opposite is true. People who hate the SSPX actually hate the undiluted Catholic Faith. They are, themselves, de fact schismatics. 

    As for the validity of the novus ordo - I stand with the Pope himself who agreed publicly with the great liturgist, Monsignor Klaus Gamber when he said that while it would be wrong to say that the novus ordo per se is invalid, there can be no doubt that the number of invalid Masses is increasing. Anyone who doubts this truth is either naive or an idiot. Take your pick.

    But Christopher, answer me this question, please.

    Do you think we need more Rowan Williams?