When I was given the readings for today’s Mass, I looked quickly through them for a phrase or sentence that might sum up what it means to become a bishop and my eyes lit on the words we heard in the Gospel where it says: “somebody else will put a belt around you and take you where you would rather not go.”
Now I am sure that as Canon Peter begins to get to know the diocese of Northampton he will be very happy to have been brought here and certainly the diocese will be not only relieved but also grateful and confident as this new chapter in the history of the diocese unfolds.
But that phrase I quoted does suggest something characteristic and distinctive about what it means to be a bishop in the Catholic Church and, as I said, when I pondered the readings that was what I was looking for. Becoming a diocesan bishop normally means leaving your diocese of origin and assuming responsibility for a different one.
It means letting go of the diocese to which you committed yourself at ordination to the priesthood and identifying completely with the diocese that has been entrusted to your care. This is something quite different from moving from one parish to another or temporarily working outside your own diocese. The future is new, different, and most probably quite unanticipated.
So what further light do today’s scriptures shed on episcopal ordination?The words of the prophet Isaiah will give strength and confidence to Peter as he responds to the call to be bishop here: “The Spirit of the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to bring good news to the poor.” The sending and the anointing are acts of God. The bishop elect has been chosen for this task and for this time. This celebration is not the celebration of anyone’s personal achievements; it’s the celebration of God’s action in an individual and in the life of the Church. The new bishop has been given to Northampton. His whole being has been given to this Church, and we thank God for this blessing.
But this action of God is a very personal thing and the Gospel of today’s Mass makes that very clear by referring us to the dialogue between the Risen Lord and Peter that took place on the shore of Lake Tiberias. Jesus says to Peter: “Do you love me?” He is seeking a personal response, and when Peter replies “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you”, Jesus speaks directly to that response when he says “feed my lambs, feed my sheep.” And that is the response that the Lord will continue to elicit and to which he will continue to address his commission: “feed my sheep.”
So the Lord calls, he seeks a free response, he anoints and he sends. The letter to Timothy which we also heard today speaks to the way in which we are to engage with those to whom we are sent. It focuses particularly on the human qualities that correspond with episcopal ministry: patience in teaching and gentleness in correcting people. There is a lot of wisdom in what is said about patience and gentleness. Both can be costly. A bishop, for example, has to make difficult decisions; he may have to tell people things they don’t want to hear. But he must do this out of love for his people and with a view to the good of the whole Church that has been entrusted to him. All his actions and decisions must in some way be an implementation of the command: “feed my sheep.”
Much of this wisdom of course applies in one way or another to all Christians and to all priests but, as I said, my interest was in distilling some particular indications for the ministry of bishops, and I’d like to stay with that focus and with the scriptural indications I’ve mentioned and take it a little further by recalling some of the teaching about the episcopate that we find in the Catechism. Before focussing on the three specific charges that are given to bishops, it begins by referring to St Paul’s question in the letter to the Romans: “How are they to hear without a preacher?” It is given to the bishops to be that preacher. He is chosen and anointed for that. No one can take this work on himself. It simply doesn’t work that way.
Another preliminary point made in the Catechism, but one that is of fundamental importance, is that the bishop is called and chosen to be a member of the College of Bishops. That is an interior dimension of the vocation itself: being a bishop in communion with Pope Benedict, the successor of St Peter who, as we have said, was the first to respond to the call “feed my sheep.” In practice the extra tasks and responsibilities that come from being a member of the College of Bishops and a member of a Bishops’ Conference can seem like an added burden but they are part of the reality, part of what a bishop is called to do and to be.
But what of the three specific charges that are given to a bishop: the three areas in which he is to fulfil the mandate “feed my sheep”?
Well, a bishop is first and foremost a teacher, a teacher of the Catholic faith. It falls to him to provide and deliver the fullness of the Catholic faith as handed on through the Church’s magisterium. But what that cannot mean is a dull repetition of something that has been learnt. The bishop has been personally called to mediate that teaching and what the people need is his own reception and appropriation of the truth. Secondly, a bishop must sanctify his people and this means that his own spiritual journey has a very public aspect to it. His prayer, and particularly his celebration of the Eucharist, is for the whole body of the local Church. Peter is being ordained in the Year of the Eucharist, the Eucharist which is the heart of the life of every Christian, every priest, every bishop, and is the heart of the life of the Church. And thirdly, the bishop must govern: he has responsibility for the management and administration of the diocese and today he exercises this in times of change, with questions, challenges and worries that are new. As I said standing here myself four years ago, this is the best time to be in the Lord’s service because it’s our time and our opportunity. And the Lord uses everything we have, our strengths as well as our weaknesses to fulfil his purposes in these times.
So the calling, the anointing of our new bishop is for all of these things and it brings with it a new challenge for him and a new chapter for the diocese of Northampton for which, as I said at the beginning, we give thanks to God. Recently, I went to see The Tempest at the Globe Theatre and was struck by the words of Miranda towards the end of the play when she meets strangers who have been shipwrecked on the island; people she has never seen before but who are in fact her own people, those to whom she belongs and she says: “Oh brave new world that has such people in it.”
We pray that as our bishop-elect embraces his new world he will find his home, that he will be greatly blessed and that those entrusted to him will be blessed through him.