Shortly after I was named a bishop, but before I was ordained, I returned to my work as a pastor of St. Ignatius in Chicago. Part of my pastoral ministry was conducting a Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) class, an intimate group that met after Mass in preparation for their reception into the Church at Easter. It was important to know the faith, and we used the catechism to assist us. There was a good deal of faith sharing, so we were all comfortable with each other.
Needless to say, the announcement of my selection as a bishop drew interest from our RCIA group, as might be expected. They hit me with their inquiries: “What’s it like to be named a bishop?” “I mean, you’ve been named a bishop,” one person said. “That’s really something!” I tried to downplay the public sensationalism that surrounded the announcement, but I guess that I inadvertently made it sound just too commonplace. Especially when I explained that I would just be assisting Cardinal Francis George in his duties as the ordinary of the Archdiocese of Chicago. Mr. Burt Hoffman, a very distinguished man who was a retired high school teacher at Gordon Tech High School, and a devoted Roman Catholic in his practice and understanding, was part of our group. He grabbed my arm and said emphatically, “No! Father Jerry, you are a successor of the Apostles.”
Now in my mind from the advanced theological training I received, I understood the role of the bishop in terms of the “Apostolic Succession.” It certainly is doctrine and teaching of the Church. Bishops in the Roman Catholic Church receive their commission traced back to the Apostles, in communion with the Holy See. Orthodox bishops are recognized as validly ordained but not in collegial union with the Roman Catholic hierarchy. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines “Apostolic Succession” (page 867) as the handing on of apostolic preaching and authority from the Apostles to their successors – the bishops – through the laying on of hands as a permanent office in the Church.
Other Churches outside the Catholic Church often use the term ‘bishop.’ Their roles are frequently established by an election, but they are not viewed as validly ordained, and therefore do not possess Apostolic Succession. The sacrament of holy orders, validly conferred, is necessary for one to assume the Office of Bishop. Interestingly for the Catholic Church, this must be done by a mandate that comes from the pope, who occupies the Chair of Peter. Peter, the first pope, began the line of succession.
It suddenly came to my realization that I must come to grips with the understanding that the call of the Apostles was directly related to my call as a new bishop. There was an authentic union that was to be celebrated in my ordination as a bishop. An ordination that would unite me to the call of the first 12, as well as the union with Peter and his successors – in my case, John Paul II, as head of the Roman Catholic Church. In my attempt to downplay the significance of my election as a bishop, it occurred to me that I was also downplaying the significance of the apostolic relationship.
I was taught a valuable lesson that day. Namely, that it was not about me. It was about the Church and her teachings, traced back to the very beginning of Apostolic life. This gives all of us great consolation that we are historically connected to the very words of the Creed that we confess every Sunday: I believe in “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.”
Last Friday after the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Christophe Pierre read the Papal Bull, appointing Fathers Jeffrey Haines and James Schuerman auxiliary bishops, both men took the Papal Bull and processed throughout the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, holding the documents in view for the entire congregation as a demonstration of the authenticity of their selection.
A Papal Bull, according to Father John Hardon, S.J.’s “The Modern Catholic Dictionary,” “…is the most solemn and weighty form of papal letter. The name is derived from the Latin ‘bulla’ the disklike leaden seal attached to such a document. It is used by the Pope in appointing a bishop.” The document also gives the mandate to ordain the man to the episcopal order, signed of course by Pope Francis.
The ordination takes place by the imposition of hands. I have been privileged to ordain Bishop Donald Hying, then auxiliary bishop of Milwaukee (now currently the Bishop of the Diocese of Gary, Indiana) and Bishop James Powers, the current bishop of the Diocese of Superior in Wisconsin. As I imposed my hands on the heads of Father Jeffrey Haines and Father James Schuerman, I realized through that action, the “Apostolic Succession” was continuing. I watched as co-consecrators, Bishop Richard Sklba and Bishop Donald Hying, also imposed their hands, followed soon after by Cardinal Blase Cupich, Archbishop Christophe Pierre and all the other bishops in attendance. They were affirming and acknowledging the Church’s choice in the continuance of the Apostolic line and welcoming new brother bishops to the episcopal college.
It was also fitting that in the stained glass windows surrounding the congregation and the ordination of the bishops, was stained glass depictions of the original apostles. I couldn’t say for sure, but it looked like they were smiling, knowing that these witnesses would soon assume their roles in furthering the mission entrusted to them for the salvation of souls.