Herald of Hope

Everyone should have a sense of responsibility for someone other than oneself. A deeply Catholic conviction, often at variance with the radical individualism of our current American culture, is that we are both born from a family and baptized into a community. For that reason, we always find our identity in relationship to others. That obviously includes our physical birth family first of all, but the circle of our relationships is also expanded by God’s gracious generosity to include the larger faith family that we call “Church.”

No Catholic Christian exists without a relationship to other human beings. That takes shape in the community of people — first our parents, and eventually with others with whom we pray and worship every time we share the Eucharist. Those called to some form of leadership as parents find themselves in daily relationship with their spouse and family. Those who enter religious life are embraced by a community of vowed religious who share a common spirituality and mission of service. Others who may seek sacramental Ordination are deeply and sacramentally related to the parish community to which they are assigned.

A Catholic bishop is appointed to a diocese whose population he promises to love and serve at the time of his Ordination.

Catholic tradition and practice insist that every bishop have a diocese, and every diocese have only one bishop. In the sixth century, there was a time when some people were ordained for life as bishops in the emperor’s court in Constantinople, but without a pastoral community. The Holy Father in Rome at that time eventually reacted and insisted that every bishop have some “family of faith” for which he is responsible. The pope even declared that anyone so ordained in isolation — that is, not in a relationship of service to a specific community for which he is responsible — is invalidly ordained.

If the size of the Catholic population demands it, moreover, others may be assigned to assist the pastoral care and administration of that community and its assets. They are called “auxiliary bishops.” Such auxiliary bishops, however, must also have their own diocesan community, even if only canonically and merely on paper. Often, the diocese of an auxiliary bishop is a community that once flourished in past centuries, but which is no longer practical because of shifts of population or changes in climate. Communities in North Africa, for example, once were active and vital, but fell victim to shifting Saharan sands.

Those historic communities, scattered across the then known world, are often assigned as titular dioceses to contemporary auxiliary bishops. Such an auxiliary bishop spends his time and energy in active pastoral care in someone else’s community in which he lives and under the authority of the assigned bishop of that place.

Meanwhile, he also prays for the historical community assigned to him.

Back in December 1979, when I was ordained a bishop in the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, I was appointed to assist Archbishop Rembert Weakland here in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in southeastern Wisconsin. At that time, I was also appointed by Rome as the titular bishop of Castro in Apulia, an ancient diocese in southern Italy that no longer functioned as an independent diocese. Apparently in the early 1800s, its bishop had decided that it was too small and too limited in resources to function independently, and the area and its population was absorbed into the neighboring Italian diocese. Castro was subsequently resurrected canonically, however, about 100 years ago and became a titular diocese assigned to an auxiliary like myself, but it actually functions under someone else’s current pastoral care.

By tradition, a titular bishop is not supposed to visit his canonical diocese. Someone else has been assigned to those people, and the sudden arrival of a bishop, no matter how genuine his concern, could be problematic. I confess, however, that I very secretly and quietly visited my Castro for two weeks in the spring of 2017.

I prayed each morning in the pews of its ancient 12th century, but recently renovated, church, now the parish for the 2,700 folks who live in the town. It was early spring, and the weather was splendid.

Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki is, of course, the bishop of our archdiocese of Milwaukee in southeastern Wisconsin. Like myself, Bishop Jeffrey Haines has a similar titular diocese by the name of Thagamuta, a city in northern Africa in the territory now known as Tunisia. Bishop James Schuermann also has his titular diocese of Girba on an island off the coast of Tunisia in North Africa. Although for the most part, these are canonical realities rather than signaling any direct or enduring pastoral relationship, they do signify a personal relationship with some group of people with whom a bishop journeys into God’s Kingdom. We never travel through life alone or unaccompanied.

All of these details may be merely canonical lore or historical trivia. They do signal, however, that the life of any and every priest is deeply related to a community of fellow pilgrims. I cherish the members of each of my communities, those here in Wisconsin as well as across the ocean in Castro. By universal canonical law, I was requested to submit my resignation from administrative archdiocesan duties at the age of 75 (more than 13 years ago), but I never ceased caring for and praying for all for whom I was ordained so many years ago. My relationship to my titular community remains with me until death. I even have an oil painting of my titular cathedral in Castro hanging on the dining room wall here at Old St. Mary in Milwaukee.