From Sept. 6-14, Bishop Jim Schuerman and I participated in a special program held at the Athenaeum “Regina Apostolorum” of the Legionaries of Christ in Rome and dedicated to the training of bishops ordained within the past year. The “official” name of the program is the “Annual Formation Course for New Bishops,” but, informally, it often has been called by the humorous title “Baby Bishop School.”
Each day of the program featured four or five sessions of lecture and discussion on a wide variety of topics related to the ministry and life of a bishop, and I would like to take this opportunity to share with you some of the key themes which were presented.
“Discernment” is a word which describes a process of spiritual deliberation and decision-making. The process is meant to be prayerful, collegial and guided by the Word of God. The goal of discernment is to seek the Will of God, and this is to be the primary means by which a bishop provides leadership for a diocese.
“Closeness” is a term which frequently is proposed to capture the spirit of the relationship between a bishop and his priests. It is meant to emphasize the bridging of the distance which sometimes can negatively characterize the hierarchical organization of the Church. A bishop is asked to “come alongside” his priests and to work together so that the ministry of a diocese is collaborative and interdependent.
“Equilibrium” refers to the sense of balance which is to characterize the pastoral service and demeanor of a priest. This sense of balance is to arise from developing a center of gravity grounded in the love of God. A bishop is supposed to model this spiritual foundation, setting an example of cherishing the Lord above all, eschewing the material enticements which the world tends to offer.
“Protection” is meant to represent the priority which a bishop is to place on safeguarding the most vulnerable members of his flock. Of special note should be a tenacious defense of minors, especially in light of past failures to shield children and youth from the sin of sexual abuse. It is imperative that a bishop be ever-vigilant on this matter and never consider that this issue is something from the past which can be left behind.
“Dialogue” is an activity which should be prominent in the life of a bishop, reflecting more than a means of communication. The respectful exchange of ideas and pursuit of mutuality should be a way of forming and building relationships. This is an activity especially valued in ecumenical conversations. It is noted that one of the best ways to foster dialogue is to ask the questions “What can we learn from each other?”
A “digital mission” is a designation pointing to the need to proclaim the Gospel utilizing the rapidly emerging electronic media. A bishop simply cannot ignore the challenge of embracing the new technology, because while the truths of the faith are ageless, they must be articulated in new forms which speak to the contemporary mentality.
The “periphery” is a word which is meant to point to the place where a bishop is supposed to direct his ministry. It is meant to be both an invitation and a challenge. It calls pastors to “step outside the middle” of society and to enter into the dwelling where the poor reside. A bishop is encouraged to enter into solidarity with the poor and to share their struggle, ultimately coming to know them intimately, from “within.”
“Alignment” is meant to serve as the criterion which guides the efforts to renew or reform the administrative and juridical practices of a diocese and the broader Church. It denotes the expectation that the structures of the Church are not an end in themselves but a means of supporting and promoting the mission of Jesus Christ. The question which a bishop is supposed to ask in assessing the status of structures of his administration is “What shape is necessary for the mission? Do the administrative components synchronize with the mission and complement it?”
“Integral human development” is a collection of words which are meant to highlight the Church’s commitment to help the poor and needy. In the past, efforts to assist those in poverty targeted efforts to bring financial aid to those in third-world or developing nations. However, the new designation seeks to convey a much more comprehensive outreach aimed at providing for the improvement of the well-being of the whole person.
Well over 100 bishops from around the world took part in the formation program and benefitted from the instruction shared in the classroom setting. And, yet, even more valuable were the opportunities to gather to pray the Liturgy of the Hours and to celebrate the Holy Eucharist. It was in those moments of prayer that we truly felt the presence of the Holy Spirit striving to shape us as an episcopal body united in carrying on the mission of the Church as successors of the Apostles.