What Is a Bishop?

Too often our bishops today are legal, financial, sacramental, and practical administrators, but that is not their fundamental divine calling.

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A couple of months ago, I watched the Daily Wire What Is a Woman? documentary on Twitter while it was available for free. I wasn’t going to at first; I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not a huge Matt Walsh fan. But he did a really good job with this piece; he was respectful and not inflammatory, and the production was top-notch. Walsh was mostly just asking fundamental questions (i.e., the title of the documentary) that people seem to have trouble answering today. 

Like Pilate, it comes back to the issue: What is truth? What is reality? Is there an objective reality? Objective truth? The title of the documentary was plain and fundamental, and that’s because for people of reason and common sense, the issue of “what is a man/woman” should be equally plain and fundamental as well. Should being the key word, given the culture we find ourselves living in today.

A couple of weeks after I had watched this documentary, Bishop Strickland of Tyler, Texas, was in the news leading a protest at Dodgers’ stadium with the support of the local faithful. Los Angeles was not his diocese, though. Why was he there? Where was Archbishop Gomez? 

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Bishop Strickland’s presence there was admirable, and I found myself, like Walsh, asking questions—but in an interior play-on-words in the realm of my faith as a Catholic layman. There is a question that is not quite clear to me at this point in my life, and that is: What is a bishop?

What I really am trying to get at is less etymological and more pragmatic—what role do they serve? How are we to view them from our vantage point as laymen? Just as I looked up the definition of a “woman” in the circa 2006 print edition of Webster’s dictionary on our bookshelf to get to the bottom of what Matt Walsh spent months exploring (spoiler: the best answers to the questions came from the tribe he visited in Africa), I turned to the Catholic Encyclopedia to learn more about the role of a bishop in the Church. I came across this

The authority of the bishop was even greater after the barbarian invasions; among the Germanic peoples he soon became an influential and powerful personage. He inspired confidence and commanded respect. He was beloved for he protected the young and the weak, he was the friend of the poor, was accustomed to intercede on behalf of the victims of injustice, and especially on behalf of orphans and women. Through his influence, in many spheres, he became the real master of the episcopal city.

I also found an article written by a former archbishop online describing the role of a bishop:

The Bishop’s role is one of father, educator, consoler, and friend. Kindness, courtesy, meekness, gentleness, humility, patience, prudence, and eager concern are the virtues which must describe the pastoral ministry of the Bishop. Bishops must, before all else, be men of faith, outstanding witnesses of the life of the Holy Spirit. They must be dedicated to prayer and the constant reading of Scripture. Only by drawing upon the wealth of the interior life of grace can the ministry of the Bishop effectively take form.

In their pastoral guidance, Bishops need to be more and more present, in a heartening way, to those entrusted to their care. The truth must be proclaimed with the compassion of Christ, and, like Christ, the Bishop must embrace the joys and sorrows of his flock, so that all might approach him with confidence and hope. While striving to embody the Petrine mission to love, listen and encourage, “one of the most important properties a Bishop must have is time”—time to think, to pray, and just to be with those whose needs are so often met by a simple word of encouragement and hope. As to their priests, Bishops should conscientiously attend to their spiritual, intellectual, and material needs. This means being present to and spending time with them, fostering a relationship which allows them to be regarded as sons and friends, and which transforms “obedience” into a spontaneous and mutual bond of charity. It also means promoting learning by means of various forms of continuing education and a continual preoccupation with their spiritual progress.

Now, I enjoy sausage for breakfast; but then again, I don’t work in a sausage factory. If I did, maybe things would be different—I would know more than I want to know about how sausage is made. From these articles, this role and duty of the bishop sounds pretty good, noble, true. 

As a twenty-five-year convert to the Faith, much of the early part of my life as a new Catholic was tinted by rose-colored glasses. I decided to pursue a graduate degree in Theology because I was idealistic and wanted to “serve the Church” and “learn to be a better disciple,” though looking back now I would have been better served just by reading the Catechism and studying the early Church Fathers on my own. 

I got involved in teaching RCIA and various other ministries at various parishes, not realizing how much resistance I would encounter from those who taught things contrary to the faith, or downplayed that which was important in faith and morals. My wife and I joined an Engaged Encounter group through the diocese only to be disillusioned with the format of marriage prep and support. I applied for diocesan jobs, but never secured a position because I think my guardian angel was putting in overtime sparing me from seeing the inner-machinations of such offices and chanceries. 

I even wrote a charitable but impassioned letter to our local bishop (who was new to the diocese), pleading with him to address the scandal of our current president’s reception of Holy Communion in direct contradiction to Canon 915. He (the bishop) is the shepherd of souls, responsible for clear teaching and filial correction. I surely thought he would be appreciative of one of his flock addressing this elephant in the room; that if he were to have the courage to address the issue, it would invigorate the faithful just like Bishop Strickland seemed to do in Los Angeles (which was not even his diocese!). I never received a reply, so I can’t confirm he even received the email (though it was sent directly to him). I was sort of stunned by that. But again, rose-colored glasses.

What about the priests in our country, those who are the factory workers and see firsthand whether the ideals of a bishop meet the reality? According to a survey conducted by The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America last year, less than half of priests trust or have confidence in their bishop. And although ninety-two percent of bishops said they would help a priest with personal struggles “very well,” only 36 percent of diocesan priests said this of their bishop. 

Even laymen who seek to live an authentic and orthodox Catholic life and raise their family in the Faith seem to not be able to count on the diocese to back them up with even a modicum of support when their necks are on the chopping block. This poor pro-life father of 15 children, for example, appealed to the bishop of the diocese where he was fired from his job as a Catholic School principal for the crime of…trying to make the school more Catholic. I don’t know if his letter (like the one I wrote to our bishop) was ever even answered, but one thing seemed clear: he was on his own.

And this is not even to mention the countless (countless!) instances of cover-up of abuse and gaslighting of the faithful that bring it to the attention of diocesan bishops. In instance after instance, the faithful are presented with the stark contrast of the ideal of the duties of a bishop (“protecting the young and the weak…a friend of the poor…interceding on behalf of the victims of injustice, and especially on behalf of orphans and women”) and their actual function.

And what is that function? If I can confess, from the vantage point of a simple layman here on the ground, our bishops in the Church today do not act as caring spiritual fathers, shepherds of souls, zealous defenders of truth and orthodoxy and the oppressed. They are simply legal, financial, sacramental, and practical administrators. Were I to use the word “witness” in the same sentence as the word “bishop,” I would think even that the association would be interpreted as “one to take the stand in a courtroom” (rather than as it should be—a witness to the Faith). Our bishops in the Church today do not act as caring spiritual fathers, shepherds of souls, zealous defenders of truth and orthodoxy and the oppressed.Tweet This

Is it normal to be able to count on one hand the number of “good” bishops we have in this country? And by good I mean that they are fulfilling their nominal duties as a bishop—that they possess the aforementioned virtues of “kindness, courtesy, meekness, gentleness, humility, patience, prudence, and eager concern…men of faith, outstanding witnesses of the life of the Holy Spirit…dedicated to prayer and the constant reading of Scripture.” I don’t know. It doesn’t seem normal. It seems…deficient.

I pray and fast for the good work of all those priests who believe and are in the trenches laboring for souls day in and day out, even when half of them feel that their bishop is more of a parochial administrator than a caring spiritual father. I also respect the authority of our bishops, just as I respect the authority of our Holy Father; for that authority is part and parcel to being Catholic. 

But remember, too, Jesus’ words to His disciples regarding the Pharisees, “All things therefore whatsoever they shall say to you, observe and do: but according to their works do ye not; for they say, and do not” (Matthew 23:3). To respect is not the same as to trust, for trust demands assurance, collateral. Witness, transparency, honesty—these inspire confidence and trust, not “strongly-worded” pastoral letters, or cold PR legalese. 

Like half the priests in this country, I really don’t have that assurance. Not because I don’t want to but because there is a glaring lack of evidence to prove otherwise or inspire. I pray for our bishops, the rightful successors of the apostles, that they be not only good administrators and prudent financial stewards, but that they leave a legacy of bold witnesses to their flock. By God’s grace, it can happen…but not without faith, prayer, sacrifice, and, yes, scars. Let them not hear those frightful words when they have finished their charge: “you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting” (Daniel 5:27).

[Image Credit: Shutterstock]


  • Rob Marco

    Rob Marco is a married father of three. He holds a MA in Theology from Villanova University. He has appeared on EWTN’s “The Journey Home” and his writing has been featured at OnePeterFive, Catholic World Report, Catholic Stand, Catholic Education Resource Center, SpiritualDirection.com, and other Catholic publications. Rob’s upcoming book Wisdom and Folly: Collected Essays on Faith, Life, and Everything in Between will be released in January 2024 from Cruachan Hill Press. He blogs at Pater Familias.

tagged as: Church episcopacy

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