On October 8, 2013, Pope Francis announced that in October 2014 there would be an Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on topics related to the family and evangelization. A year later, more than 250 participants, including 14 married couples from around the world, gathered in Rome to find ways to improve the pastoral application of church teachings, ways to explain it, and to help Catholics live it. The goal of this synod was not to reach definitive conclusions but rather set the agenda for a larger world synod in October 2015. Until then, the 185 bishops in attendance would share what was discussed in the Synod with their respective dioceses in preparation for implementation before sharing their experiences with and making recommendations to the Holy Father.
It is on such an occasion that we reflect on the office of the bishop, men who are “endowed with the authority of Christ” by virtue of apostolic succession to “exercise their pastoral office over the portion of the People of God assigned to them” (CCC 888, 886, cf. 2 Timothy 2:2). These men are much more than diocesan administrators of the Church— by virtue of their identities as the successors of the Apostles, they wield the same power and authority to govern the universal Church as that given to their predecessors by Christ. Together, with the Bishop of Rome (the successor of Peter), and assisted by priests and deacons, the college or body of bishops tend to their local Churches; by ruling them well, each bishop contributes “to the welfare of the whole Mystical Body, which, from another point of view, is a corporate body of Churches” (CCC 884-886).
The role of the bishop is threefold: to teach, to govern, and to sanctify. With priests as co-workers, the bishop’s first task is “‘to preach the Gospel of God to all men,’ in keeping with the Lord’s command” (CCC 888). In order to preserve the purity of the Faith first entrusted to the Apostles, Christ extends a share in His own infallibility to the bishops of the Church who are working in communion with the Pope (CCC 890). This Magisterium, then, is tasked with overseeing the spread of the Gospel and addressing any misunderstandings regarding the Church’s dogma; in matters of faith and morals, the extraordinary Magisterium is infallible, particularly when assembled in an Ecumenical Council or proposing a doctrine “for belief as being divinely revealed” (CCC 891). Secondly, each bishop governs his local Church (i.e. diocese) by his counsels, exhortations, and example. Though he has authority and sacred power, the bishop exercises them— in communion with the whole Church and under the guidance of the Pope— in a spirit of service to those entrusted to his care as well as the rest of Holy Mother Church (CCC 895). Finally, the bishop, “the steward of grace of the supreme priesthood,” along with the priests, sanctifies the Church through his “prayer and work, by [his] ministry of the word and of the sacraments” (CCC 893). By his example, the bishop helps his entrusted flock attain eternal life.
Just as our Lord is the often portrayed as the model shepherd, the bishop, like the “Good Shepherd,” must lead his faithful flock along the path of salvation, disciplining and protecting them as needed. To set them apart from other religious, bishops utilize special regalia distinctive to their Office, that is, the fullness of the Sacrament of Holy Orders: the pectoral cross, ring, the zucchetto and miter (hat), crozier (staff), and pallium. The cross, traditionally containing a relic, is attached to a chain and is worn on the chest. The ring symbolizes the bishop’s authority and traditionally is reverenced by kissing. The miter, unlike the zucchetto, is worn purely for liturgical functions and is referenced in Scripture as a headdress for the Judaic (high) priesthood (see Exodus 39:27-31; cf. Leviticus 8:7-9). The crozier clearly references the model Good Shepherd and symbolizes guidance, correction, and support. Finally, the pallium, normally reserved for metropolitan archbishops and the Holy Father, represents fidelity to Christ. These different regalia give a certain distinction to and inspire respect for the Office of Bishop and its authority.
Let us never forget about our bishops! As leaders of the Church, these men are always in need of our prayers! As Blessed Pope Paul VI said when setting up the first Synod of Bishops in 1965, bishops assist in providing for the good of the universal Church through “the consolation of their presence, the help of their wisdom and experience, the support of their counsel, and the voice of their authority.” May we always follow these men who continuously defend and guide the Church in the spirit of the Apostles.
Thomas Wong is an undergraduate at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.