Eight Habits of Highly Effective Bishops

In this Crisis Magazine classic, Mary Jo Anderson looks at the qualities that make a great bishop… and points to those strengths in action.

Notwithstanding the sex-abuse scandal that has buffeted the Catholic Church in the United States, Catholics genuinely admire bishops whose courage and dedication have made a difference in their dioceses. Adversity tends to sharpen the contrast and clarify the picture of Catholicism in America. And the recent presidential election added another dimension to any reflection on the American Catholic identity, as many of the most crucial issues intersected Catholic teaching on the sanctity of life, sex, and marriage.
Never before have Catholic Americans watched more closely what happens in their chanceries. They want to know what sort of man their shepherd is, this “successor to the apostles” who comes down to us from St. Peter. How does he discharge his responsibility? Is he an example of personal holiness? Is he courageous? Increasingly, Catholic commentators locate the mission of the contemporary Church at the epicenter of a global culture of death. And while it is true that bishops have pastoral care over the “portion of the people of God assigned to them” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 886), they also work for the good of the universal Church. The Church in America is undeniably free enough to function without persecution or legal impediment. But is it prepared for the fight?
“We need a thorough cleansing in house if we are to battle the culture of death right outside our doors. It’s up to the bishop to set the example, to lead us in the fight-beginning with public prayer. Nothing short of a bishop who is willing to publicly confront evil will inspire us to take on the world,” wrote one university chaplain. “Seen as a battle, each bishop leads a division.”
His observation echoed Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, then-prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who noted that the most pressing enemy of the Faith is the militant secularism that has engulfed much of the Western world. French Cardinal Paul Poupard, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, decried the loss of a Christian culture — a casualty of the virulent secularism of which Cardinal Ratzinger warned. The cultural patrimony of Christians must be re-taught to Christians, “For without it, how can they appreciate the full value of Bach’s St. John Passion, Handel’s Messiah, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, or Michelangelo’s Pietà?” asked Poupard. European correspondents, stung by the rejection of Christianity in their Parliament, frequently warn American Catholics to guard their own Christian history.
Pope John Paul II himself raised the alarm, calling all the faithful to defend the Church from those powerful forces that seek to privatize religious practice. Metaphorical wolves — abortion, euthanasia, cloning — threaten Christ’s flock. Now is the time for the shepherds to make their stand.
What qualities best equip today’s bishop to fight the culture war? That’s the question I posed in a survey of Catholic authors and activists, priests and scholars. It brought a flurry of thoughtful responses. Correspondents were quick to note that each diocese — like each family — has its strengths and weaknesses. One may be strong on liturgy but lag on catechesis. Another operates in the black, its fiscal house in order, but lacks vocations. Renewal — fostering a Catholic renaissance — is a long-term process, and our own impatience shouldn’t ignore sure but gradual progress.
A review of the responses revealed eight basic good habits that were cited often by respondents. If we as lay people are to exhort our shepherds, we must have a clear idea what we’re exhorting them to do. This list offers a point of reference for that effort.
One important note: This survey was strictly informal — more concerned with identifying strengths and qualities than with specific bishops or dioceses. But names inevitably arose; they offer helpful, concrete examples of these habits. There are many other examples of bishops who exercise their office faithfully and are deserving of recognition, but space and the boundaries of the article limit a listing of all of them. Readers should make no assumption about a bishop simply because his name is not included in this piece.
1. A bishop must be personally holy.
David Tennessen, author of Dave’s Digest, a pro-life news summary, identified several important qualities that serve a bishop at the crossroads of the culture war. One stood at the forefront, however: “The first and most fundamental quality any bishop must have is personal holiness.” Tennessen believes that bishops who pray the Divine Office, make regular retreats, and schedule regular confessions for themselves are better equipped to serve as Christ’s emissaries.
In fact, it could be argued that the other habits of an effective bishop flow from this first habit. “The second quality necessary to be a good bishop,” Tennessen offered, “is the ability to teach, which is his primary obligation…[and] reading the lives of the saints has shown me that the bishops who are holy make the best teachers.”
And so, holiness must be the foundation of any successful bishopric. “If a bishop has personal holiness,” Tennessen concluded, “God will fill in anything else that might be missing.”
Tennessen wasn’t the only one to observe that a bishop is most effective when his commitment to personal prayer is strong. One Atlanta priest noted, “How does one follow Christ if one is not on his knees? Think of Christ on His knees in Gethsemane. The Catechism is clear, ‘Although Christ’s ministers act in communion with one another they also act in a personal way.’” The citation continues, “Each one is called personally: ‘You follow Me’ in order to be a personal witness…to bear personal responsibility….”
2. A bishop must promote and defend the authentic Catholic Faith.
One frequently mentioned quality of a strong bishop is his willingness to stand up for the truth, no matter the cost (often paid in media uproar). Indeed, for 2,000 years, bishops have been among the chief defenders of the Faith — from the early Church, through the Reformation, and to the modern era. Our contemporary shepherds must continue that venerable tradition.
Happily, respondents offered some excellent examples. Francis Cardinal George of Chicago was often praised for his “devastating” and repeated critiques of dissent. Professor Gerard Bradley of Notre Dame observed that Cardinal George is also “extraordinary and exemplary for his untiring and fearless and unblinking intellectual engagement with the challenge of militant secularism.”
Many others recalled Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz’s refusal to permit Catholics in his diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, to be members of Planned Parenthood, the dissident Catholic organization Call to Action, or to maintain any Masonic affiliation and still be considered in good standing with the Church.
“What I find most admirable in him,” said Phil Lawler of the Catholic World Report, “is his willingness directly to acknowledge and confront the most serious problem in the Church in America today: the manifest failure of the bishops, as a group, to provide pastoral leadership.”
Maintaining doctrinal fidelity must occur not just among Catholics in general but also among those who work in the parishes themselves. Bishop Robert F. Vasa of Baker, Oregon, was mentioned often for his strong example in this area. In April 2004, the bishop issued “Giving Testimony to the Truth,” a document addressed to the lay ministers of his diocese. Included was an oath of fidelity, “Affirmation of Personal Faith.” The affirmation is required of any position — catechist, teacher, liturgical reader, cantor, minister of Holy Communion, director of youth activities, and others — “which entail a presumption of orthodoxy,” because the Church “teaches that anyone commissioned to lay apostolate in the Church should be fully accepting of all Catholic teachings.” Bishop Vasa notes that “it is ultimately the Bishop, as chief shepherd of a Diocese, who commissions persons to exercise these works. It is also the Bishop’s responsibility to establish clear qualifying or disqualifying criteria of who may serve.”
3. A bishop must be committed to Catholic education.
A bishop is, first and foremost, a teacher. As such, a truly effective bishop must be committed to faithful Catholic education. Kevin Schmiesing of the Acton Institute pointed to Archbishop Elden Curtis of Omaha as an exemplar of this conviction and noted, “He compelled Creighton University to comply with the mandatum.”
Ronald J. Rychlak, law professor at the University of Mississippi, likewise observed, “While Ex Corde Ecclesiae undoubtedly causes certain difficulties for some faculties and administrators, it is not a violation of academic freedom for the Catholic Church to make demands of any entity that professes to be Catholic. These schools contribute to the diversity of America’s higher education by filling their role as Catholic institutions in an excellent manner. They should embrace that identity.”
One particularly exciting method for handing on the Faith to young adults as well as seasoned laity is illustrated by the Wyoming School of Catholic Thought under the leadership of Bishop David L. Ricken of Cheyenne. Intense concern for the future of the Church in an ever-more secular society drives many to look for a deeper understanding of their faith. The Wyoming annual retreat is designed for “current Church leaders and future leaders…to learn and reflect on the most important truths of faith and reason. This will help them prepare for their leadership roles in Wyoming as they participate in the future restoration of Catholic culture, which is the mission of the School.”
Bishop Ricken, taking John Cardinal Newman as his inspiration, wrote, “It is my fondest hope that, after reflection and prayer, Catholics in Wyoming will accept my invitation to enroll in this School. Here, they will be formed both spiritually and intellectually, which will enable them to play their part in a new Catholic Renaissance. This must come if the secular world is to be transformed into the image of Christ through evangelization as Vatican II prescribed.”
Catechists often pointed to Archbishop Daniel Buechlein (Indianapolis) and Archbishop Alfred Hughes (New Orleans) as model defenders of a more faithful presentation of Catholic teaching. “Both did an excellent job of pointing out the flaws in the modern religion textbooks,” wrote Margaret Whitehead, director of religious education at Holy Spirit Church in Annandale, Virginia. She also praised Arlington, Virginia, Bishop Paul Loverde for ensuring that local retreats sponsor speakers faithful to Church teaching. “It seems obvious, but few do this kind of thing. [Furthermore,] he is very pro-life and prays every month at a different abortion clinic. He reads and teaches from Vatican documents; he put in place a child-protection program which is respectful of parents and children and based on Catholic teaching.”
4. A bishop must work to strengthen the Catholic family.
One Catholic TV personality — who asked to remain anonymous — suggested that the fault line in the culture war cuts through the family. She found the actions taken by a bishop in this area to be more persuasive than his pastoral letters or instructions. “Sick families breed sick societies,” she said. “The cost in human misery is incalculable. You cannot convert the culture unless you first defend families.”
“Our bishops must foster authentic marriage and family life. In the heart of the family the dignity of the human person is taught and the future is nurtured. Healthy families are the source of a moral people, ethical citizens, and vocations,” she concluded.
One bishop who does just that is Robert J. Baker of Charleston (which encompasses all of South Carolina). The shepherd of one of the oldest dioceses in the United States, Bishop Baker drew praise for his determination to build visibly Catholic families through programs such as Family Honor, which originated with laity in his diocese.
He outlined Family Honor as a program that helps to “form in young people a proper Christian perspective to human sexuality and family life. A wrong turn early in life in this area will have major consequences later for marriage and family life. Family Honor emphasizes parental involvement in the process of sex education, a critical component lacking in many programs.”
Archbishop John F. Donoghue of Atlanta and Bishop Victor Galeone of the Diocese of St. Augustine, Florida, also promote the Family Honor programs. Bishop Galeone is the episcopal moderator for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Diocesan Development Program for Natural Family Planning. His pastoral letter, “Marriage: A Communion of Life and Love,” was also praised highly by pro-family educators.
5. A bishop must foster vocations.
Seminarians — the priests of tomorrow — are the future of the Church. For this reason, one of the primary responsibilities of a bishop is to encourage vocations in his diocese, so that tomorrow’s Catholics have pastors to lead them.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the health of a diocese is often reflected in the number and quality of its seminarians. In fact, it appears to be the case that when a diocese is faithful to Church teaching, vocations arise naturally. One clear example of this is the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, where Bishop Bruskewitz serves only 85,000 Catholics and yet has more than 40 men studying for the priesthood. To underscore that success, the diocese had to respond to the crush of vocations by building Saint Gregory the Great Seminary in 1998.
Similar good news for priestly vocations (as of 2005) can be found in Arlington, Virginia (Bishop Loverde); Omaha, Nebraska (Archbishop Curtis); Denver (where Archbishop Chaput lives on campus with his seminarians), and Atlanta (Bishop Donoghue).
Andrew Yuengurt of Pepperdine University raised provocative questions about the relationship of the bishop as a leader to the health of his diocesan vocations program. His article, “Do Bishops Matter? A Cross-sectional Study of Ordinations to the U.S. Catholic Diocesan Priesthood,” was published in a 2001 issue of the Review of Religious Research. By using a business model measuring the effect of leadership on personnel, Yuengurt concluded, “An effective leader not only influences the goals and strategies of an organization…but also influences the identity and the culture of the organization, as well as the commitment of its members to it…. If leadership matters in other organizations, where the required commitments are less stringent, it must matter at least as much in the priesthood…. A potential recruit to the priesthood will be more likely to make such a costly commitment if the vision presented to him is clear, and stated in such a way that the benefits are unique to the priesthood. Visions of the priesthood that are ambiguous, in which the value and leadership role of priest [are] unclear, may be less successful….” One bishop often mentioned for his strong mentoring relationship with priests was William Lori of Bridgeport, Connecticut.
Archbishop Curtis is noted for his rebuttal of the vocation “crisis.” He has written that “religious life loyal to the Magisterium” is part of the formula for a thriving vocations program. Omaha has more than 35 seminarians, and the diocese expects an upward trend in the near future.
Archbishop Curtis, himself a former seminary rector, explained, “Young people do not want to commit themselves to dioceses or communities which permit or simply ignore dissent from Church doctrine.”
American bishops can take comfort from this truth — vocations flourish where a sacrificial commitment is expected.
6. A bishop must love the Mass.
As with Habit No. 1, a love for the Mass and the Eucharist is a sign of — and means to — personal holiness. Sadly, much of today’s liturgy is faddish or downright irreverent. The fruit of this is clear for all to see: declining Mass attendance, increased dissent, and a migration out of the Church. When liturgy looks more like a gimmick than a transcendent experience, people lose interest.
For this reason, a reverence for and love of beautiful liturgy ranked among the top qualities for many respondents. (Some, like Janet Smith of Sacred Heart Major Seminary, also mentioned the promotion of Eucharistic Adoration as an important characteristic.) While liturgical mediocrity is still much too common, the number of exceptions to this rule is growing: “Francis Cardinal George deserves our gratitude for returning sanity to liturgical practice,” according to one Chicago-area priest. “Justin Cardinal Rigali [of Philadelphia] is another whose attention to the liturgy is making a difference — it is the old truth, ‘lex orandi, lex credendi’ [as we pray, so we believe].” The priest insisted, “Wherever the liturgy is made to serve the trend du jour, you can bet that most everything else in that diocese is off by 90 degrees.”
7. A bishop must be willing and able to start from scratch.
The simple reality is that there are some dioceses in the United States that are in difficult straits. Any bishop who takes on that challenge must be willing and able to rebuild, virtually from the ground up. This is a tremendously difficult task, as it requires several unique attributes.
One New York City pastor offered a list: “A preacher who can convert souls; a prudent administrator and disciplinarian, shrewd in finances and not governed by human respect; honest; experienced as a parish priest — not symbolic, but real, lifelong pastors; highly intelligent and learned in theology and scripture, fluent in Latin; familiar with secular culture and able to address it in its terms, like St. Ambrose; and effective with, and not intimidated by the media.”
A tall task to find such men. But we’re not without examples. Rev. Phillip De Vous wrote, “Two Bishops here in Kentucky deserve to be profiled in a big way — Bishops Roger J. Foys of Covington and Ronald Gainer of Lexington. Both have done much to re-Catholicize their Dioceses. Bishop Foys has focused heavily on the reform of the liturgy and vocations, yielding positive results…. Bishop Gainer…has taught Catholic orthodoxy clearly…. Because these men are off the beaten path, they may not be recognized…. Bishops going to rural dioceses off the beaten path have often had to create something out of nothing.”
8. A bishop must be vocal in the public square.
The bishop’s role as a teacher is generally a public one. And as such, his office frequently requires him to take a public role — sometimes in the political arena. We saw this in the 2004 election.
Recall the example set by William Weigand, bishop of Sacramento, who did battle with the media over the status of Catholic pro-abortion politicians. Weigand stood his ground when former California governor Gray Davis sought to make a political point at the expense of the bishop’s teaching office. Bishop Sheridan also refused to be intimidated by CNN’s Anderson Cooper over the matter of the worthiness of pro-abortion politicians to receive the Eucharist. When a hostile Cooper suggested that Bishop Sheridan’s stance pushed Catholics away from the Church, the bishop replied, “[A]s a bishop I have the mandate to speak the truth.”
There were many other examples of this kind of public episcopal leadership. Dorothy Walker, a Florida catechist, cited Archbishop Raymond L. Burke of St. Louis “for his courage and the extremely well-thought-out defense in his recent pastoral letter that Catholics must vote” for the sake of their contribution to the common good. Walker reserved special praise for the bishop of Orlando, Thomas A. Wenski, whose 2004 editorial in the Orlando Sentinel was refreshingly blunt: “Today, some self-identified Catholic politicians prefer to emulate Pontius Pilate’s ‘personally opposed but unwilling to impose’ stance…. You cannot have your ‘waffle’ and your ‘wafer’ too.”
Similar challenges to the culture are standard fare from Archbishop Chaput and Archbishop John Myers of Newark, Walker said. Phil Brennan of Newsmax admired Archbishop Myers and Archbishop Burke for their promotion of Catholic teaching on the sanctity of life in the public square. Bishop Samuel J. Aquila of Fargo was also honored for his courageous public comments.
The late Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, then-Eléonore Raoul Professor of the Humanities and Professor of History at Emory University, had her own favorite examples of episcopal leadership in the public arena: “My candidate, who may not have occurred to others, is Archbishop John Francis Donoghue, who, together with Bishop Robert J. Baker of Charleston and Bishop Peter J. Jugis of Charlotte, issued a statement in August, ‘Worthy to Receive the Lamb: Catholics in Political Life and the Reception of Holy Communion.’”
It’s noteworthy that faithful Catholics are especially concerned with their bishops’ upholding the pro-life teachings of the Church. Perhaps this is due to a new awareness that our votes really do matter. The American Life League estimates that 70 percent of the Catholic members of Congress cast pro-abortion votes. If the bishops of the United States fearlessly preach and teach the truth to Catholics in the pews and to the nation that watches what the Church does, that number could change dramatically. And so could the face of America.
Witness the domino effect: Those who vote for abortion will vote for other anti-life measures — embryonic stem-cell research, cloning, and euthanasia. Furthermore, the attack on marriage by the homosexual lobby counts pro-abortion politicians as their most reliable allies. These realities are operative already in Europe. If Catholic Americans — led by their shepherds — confront that death march on the political and cultural battleground, a culture of life can be rebuilt.
The stakes have never been higher. Already in Europe a “soft” persecution of the Church has begun. It will waste little time jumping the Atlantic if Catholicism in America is weak-kneed and accommodation-minded. Sadly, it’s hardly unknown for bishops to choose the easy path — recall the bishops of France just prior to the Revolution.
Yet there is hope. A renewing breath is blowing through the Church in the United States — the indications are everywhere. And a number of the bishops ordained in the last ten years — joined by some of their faithful elders — see clearly their obligation to challenge the lay faithful to holiness. They also know and live this fact: The transformation of culture and society must begin first in their own sees.

Mary Jo Anderson is the co-author of Male and Female He Made Them: Some Questions and Answers on Marriage and Same-sex Unions and is a frequent contributor to InsideCatholic.com. Visit her blog at maryjoanderson.net. This article originally appeared in the February 2005 issue of Crisis Magazine.

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  • Mary Jo Anderson

    Mary Jo Anderson is a Catholic journalist and public speaker. She is a board member of Women for Faith and Family and has served on the Legatus Board of Directors. With co-author Robin Bernhoft, she wrote Male and Female He Made Them: Questions and Answers about Marriage and Same-Sex Unions (Catholic Answers Press, 2005).

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