The Bishop and the Care of his Priests


Given as part of the 'Masters of Discernment' course for newly-ordained bishops in Rome on the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Friday 8th September 2017. 

My first word is one of thanks to His Eminence Cardinal Ouellet for the invitation to contribute to this course and to you, my brothers, for your generosity in serving the Church as bishops. 

One of the great characters of the English episcopate, Bishop William Ullathorne, a most colourful and dedicated man, known for the bluntness of his speech, said towards the end of his life in the 1880s that he had never congratulated a man on becoming a bishop but always promised him his prayers. May I repeat that sentiment towards each one of you this morning. 

This moment also reminds me of a story I heard of a newly appointed bishop gathering his family together to tell them of his appointment shortly before the public announcement. They were gathered around their mother’s bed. He told them that the Holy Father had seen fit to appoint him to be a bishop. His words were met by a stunned silence, broken only by a voice from the bed saying: ‘God help us all!’ 

I would like to begin this reflection on the subject of the bishop and the comprehensive care of his priests with a quotation from the book of Exodus, Chapter 3, just after Moses has approached the burning bush, not, perhaps, the most obvious of starting points. 

‘And the Lord said: “I have seen the miserable state of my people in Egypt. I have heard their appeal to be free of their slave-drivers. Yes, I am well aware of their sufferings. I mean to drive them out of the hands of the Egyptians and bring them up out of that land to a land rich and broad, a land where milk and honey flow…. And now the cry of the sons of Israel has come to me and I have witnessed the way in which the Egyptians oppress them, so come, I send you to Pharaoh to bring the sons of Israel, my people, out of Egypt.” And Moses said to God: “And who am I to go to Pharaoh?” “I shall be with you” was the answer.’  (Exodus. 3.7-12). 

I take this starting point because of a recent retreat given by Bishop Hugh Gilbert to the Bishops of England and Wales. He pointed out to us that the word episcope means ‘to watch over’ or ‘to contemplate’. He noted that at the heart of episcope is the word scopos, meaning ‘watchman’. So the bishop is one who is set to watch over, to keep a loving eye on all those in his care. But then Bishop Hugh stressed that episcope is precisely the activity of God. And this is what the quotation from Exodus makes so clear. 

Here is God as episcope: ‘I have seen the miserable state of my people’; ‘I have heard’; ‘I am well aware of their sufferings’; ‘their cry has come to me’; ‘I have witnessed the way they are oppressed.’  

These are surely the first lessons that we are to absorb as we approach our own ministry of episcope. And we know very clearly how this loving watch of God for his people unfolds and finds its fulfilment in the cross of Jesus. Our pathway is clearly marked out for us. 

1. With this as our starting point, there are five key topics I want to touch upon. The first is closeness

One of the great teachers in my life, especially in preparation for episcopal ministry, was Cardinal Basil Hume, Archbishop of Westminster for over 20 years until 1999. He was always keen to receive what he called ‘intelligence’. He always wanted to know what his priests were feeling, what they were saying, what troubled them. Unlike most of us, who are constantly seeking reassurance, his motive for wanting this information was not that he wanted some kind of feedback on his own performance. He did not want to know what the priests thought of him, whether his actions were being criticised, or whether he was ‘popular’. He wanted to know about his priests, not about himself. And listening, hearing, becoming aware, paying attention were the first steps in that task. Such fatherly episcopal intelligence gathering both informed and enabled his personal care for his priests. 

Pope Francis often emphasises the necessity of this same quality in us as bishops. During World Youth Day in Krakow, last year, he spoke to the bishops of Poland on the theme of pastoral closeness. He said this: 

'I think I must speak to you of the most important closeness: that “closeness” with priests. The bishop must be available for his priests. When I was in Argentina, I heard many, so many times from priests, when I went to give the Exercises. I said: “Speak with the bishop about this …” “Oh, I called him and the secretary said to me: ‘No, he is very, very, busy, but he will receive you in three months.’” But this priest feels himself an orphan, without a father, without closeness, and he begins to go down. A bishop who sees messages from a priest, in the evening when he returns, he must call him immediately that same evening or the next day. “Yes, I am busy, but is it urgent?”  — “No. No, but let’s come to an agreement …” The priest must feel he has a father. If we take paternity away from priests, we cannot ask them to be fathers. And thus the sense of God’s paternity is removed. The Son’s work is to touch human miseries: spiritual and corporal. Closeness. The Father’s work: to be father, a bishop-father.' 

So closeness is a key word for our episcopal ministry. Yet that is not so easy to get right. 

Priests come in all shapes and sizes, wrapped in every kind of character and temperament. Listening to them, one by one, or in groups, requires genuine discernment. Overwhelmingly they are good and prayerful men who give themselves generously in the service of the Lord and his Church and people. Some, however, will be more negative by character, speaking of their satisfaction and peace only after many minutes of complaint and negativity. Another may be marked more by a naive optimism, never dwelling on the real difficulties but talking about only those things which give him a sense of happiness or over-spiritualizing things so as not to face the facts. Then there are priests who have preoccupations and priorities which dominate their attentiveness: money, spirituality, ‘sense of community’, new initiatives, holidays, entitlements. They too are to be listened to and given time, but it must be a discerning listening, a purposeful time. Sometimes, and with reason, it is said by priests, that the mood of their bishop depends on the last priest he was with! 

Now we bishops have our preoccupations and priorities, too, probably no different to those of our priests. Sometimes it happens that a bishop ends up surrounded by priests who share his own particular preoccupations. Then that perspective dominates all others and the bishop, in listening to those closest to him, hears only issues concerning money, or spirituality, holidays or the need for new initiatives. Discernment is truly needed if we are to hear the voices of the wider presbyterate and, not least, those priests on the margins, in whatever way we might encounter them. 

So how are we to approach this key task of episcope, of being close to our priests? I have two main points to offer. 

The first is that we are to cultivate a love for our priests, for those in our care. And love means always being willing to see the good, the best in every person. At times this can be a struggle. Some talents remain deeply hidden! But we must work at this love and we must pray for the grace to love our priests, each and every one, with the love of the Good Shepherd’s heart. Then our pastoral care for each priest takes place in the context of this relationship, rather than in any other more formal or impersonal framework, although those frameworks, for example, of canon law, may well have to be invoked in certain situations. 

Establishing and sustaining such relationships always need our effort. Here there are aspects of episcopal ministry that, in my experience, make these relationships challenging. 

The first is a truism that the role of a bishop towards his priests is often dominated by 8% or 10% of the priests who are in trouble or crisis. (And I once heard it said that if this percentage was any lower, then the bishop was out of touch!). Time, effort and planning is needed if care is also to be given to the other 90% of priests who simply get on with their ministry. We cannot be totally absorbed by problems. 

Another aspect of our ministry in this regard, is that within a diocese priests can quickly acquire an ‘official reputation’, readily repeated in the councils of the bishop. A bishop, especially a new bishop, in my view, should not take these reputations as fixed or final. No doubt they are based on a degree of fact and experience. But we should always be ready to give a priest a new opportunity, as long as he is willing to face the problems that gained him the negative reputation in the first place, or even the successes that won him a glowing report but threaten to limit his ministry to that sphere alone. An alcoholic can recover and manage his life well; a first class hospital chaplain might also become a fine leader of a parish. So the task of the bishop is to get behind and beyond the reputation and come to know the man, and therefore, to let himself be known, too. The pastoral care of priests is not first and foremost a matter of organisation, but a matter of relationships. 

Then there is another, more painful reality with which we have to cope. The abuse of minors by members of the clergy, which I see you will be considering in detail this evening, has introduced into the relationship between priests and their bishop a comparatively new element: that a priest will not necessarily tell the truth to his bishop. He may well, in fact, vehemently deny the reality which is dominating his life. I recall this realisation causing such pain to Cardinal Hume that in a moving sermon he recalled the passage in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 5.2) in which Ananias and Sapphira lied to the apostle Peter, and promptly were struck dead. The crisis of abuse within the Church is, in many places, creating a corrosion in trust between bishop and priests. Only ruthless honesty and unswerving integrity can help to repair this damage. 

The second point I wish to make about this closeness of a bishop to his priests is the need to get alongside the priest in his place of ministry. For most priests the parish is his field of work. This has to be uppermost in the mind of the bishop. If, for whatever reason, the bishop is thought to have little regard for the parish, then he can never be close to the majority of his priests. 

For most people the Church is experienced in the parish. The parish is a bedrock of the life of the Church. And the care of the parish is entrusted to a priest. That is where we have to be alongside our priests. The best place to get to know the priests of a diocese is to sit with them in the kitchen or dining room of their presbytery. Or, in another image, as their bishop we should walk with them through the section of the vineyard of the Lord that has been entrusted to them. With them we feel the soil, talk about the growth of the vines, see the infections, admire the new shoots of young growth and the new sections of earth that have been opened up in order to expand the vineyard. With them we can rejoice in the fruit. 

Speaking to the Polish bishops, Pope Francis also said this: 

‘We bishops must ask the priests this: “How is your parish doing? And do you go out? Do you visit prisoners, the sick, little old ladies? And what do you do with the children? How do you help them play? How are persons received? How are they heard? Is there always someone in the confessional?”  If there is a confessional with the light on, especially in city parishes, the people always go to confession, always! It's a welcoming parish. 

'There are those that say that the parish is no longer useful, because now is the time of movements. This isn’t true! The movements help, but the movements must not be an alternative to the parish: they must help in the parish, carry the parish forward. 

'Should one seek novelty or change the parish structure? The parish (as such) must not be touched: it must remain as a place of creativity, of reference, of maternity and all these things. 

'Invent, seek, go out, seek the people, engage in the people’s difficulties. If you don’t go to seek the people, if you don’t approach them, they don’t come. And this is a missionary disciple, the outgoing parish. Go out and seek, as God did who sent his Son to seek us.' 

This is our joint work, priest and bishop together in service of God’s people.  By sharing this work, having it as our first focus, each playing their own part, then we grow in the closeness that makes a true pastoral care of priests a reality. 

2. I now turn to my second theme: inter-dependence. This I would like to illustrate from the history of the Church in England and Wales in the centuries since the Reformation. 

You all know about the break brought about by Henry VIII between the Christian life of England and the Church of Rome. You will know, I trust, that from the second half of the 16th century it became a capital offence, punishable by cruel execution, to be present as a Catholic priest anywhere in England. This period of persecution of Catholics gave us many martyr priests and established a strong and wonderful tradition among Catholics of love for priests and for the Mass, and of loyalty to the Holy See. It also meant that for many, many, years, Catholic life existed only in an unofficial way, protected by resourceful Catholic families and conducted in secrecy and at great risk. Priests were brave and resourceful. As the period of active persecution waned, towards the later part of the 17th century, it was the priests and prominent lay leadership that slowly began to build up Catholic life again. There was no episcopal presence. Indeed, the first effort of the Holy See, in 1623, to appoint a bishop in England failed completely. Great uncertainty remained for the rest of that century and throughout the entire 18th century. It was brought to a close only in the 19th century with the restoration of dioceses and the appointment of diocesan bishops in 1845. 

I tell this brief story only to point out that I am from a Church which for the best part of 200 years operated and grew without the active involvement of bishops. Priests were trained and ordained abroad. And the life of the Church continued without any formal episcopal oversight. So we should not exaggerate our importance! 

A real challenge faced those first bishops appointed in the middle of the 19th century. Not surprisingly, their constant appeal was that priests foster 'a love for their diocese and loyalty to their bishop'. The call was heeded and still is to this day. But during that long period, priests had acquired characteristics, almost in their DNA, of independent, self-determined action, characteristics which bring many pastoral advantages, but some problems too. 

As bishops today, wherever we may be, we should welcome and encourage initiative and drive in our priests. Yet, for many reasons, we also have to encourage among our priests not simply a spirit of enterprise and independence, but also one of mutual regard and of practical and profound inter-dependence among them, in their work and in their way of life. 

This point has much to tell us about the kind of love in which a bishop must hold his priests, if his pastoral care of them is to be truly of service to the life and mission of the Church. Let me explain. 

In this love and closeness, there must be space for every priest to show and act on his own initiative. After all, the priest is entrusted with the care of souls. The priest is not simply an agent of the bishop, he is a co-worker. Overall plans and particular initiatives can require the cooperation of every priest, but good pastoral care and planning has to have within it space for the creative response of every priest to the situation in which he carries out his ministry. The priest’s discernment of what is to be done is a crucial factor in the mission of the Church and in the salvation of souls. 

This space for the initiative and personal creativity of the priest cannot be closed down into an over-dependence on the will, or whim, of the bishop. But nor can independence be given free rein. Rather, in the love and closeness between the priest and his bishop we need to cultivate a spirit and a practice of inter-dependence, a profound sense of ecclesial collaboration and interrelatedness. This, I believe, is crucial and in some circumstances a real challenge. 

At one level, our inter-dependence is rooted in our common identity in the Lord. It is one priesthood that is shared. We have only one Lord. We are all utterly dependent on the same source of life and grace. Actions and initiatives which help to deepen this shared dependence on Christ are crucial: retreats, occasions for deeper study, shared expressions of the sacramental nature of our one priesthood. There are many good initiatives designed to help to build up this sense of shared fraternity in Christ between priests who spend much of their lives on their own, facing the many demands of their ministry. These are an important part of our episcopal ministry. 

But it is also important that there is keen recognition that priests are inter-dependent, one on another, in the many practical aspects of their ministry and way of life. Their wellbeing and their ministry is always and inextricably linked to the wellbeing and ministry of their fellow priests. The practical recognition of this is not easy to achieve. Modern culture obviously has its impact on all priests, with its strong individualism reinforcing a desire to get on with one’s own tasks and cherish an independence of action. The wide range of responsibilities that most priests carry also adds to the temptation to just get on with the task and let those next door worry about their own problems. Often the demands of true fraternity can seem like a luxury for which priests can barely afford the time. Fraternity is fine for days of recollection and retreats, but not so important in everyday ministry. Yet inter-dependence is, I believe, a crucial part of the pastoral care to be given to the priests by their bishop, their Father in God. 

The importance of the inter-dependence of which I am speaking is seen most dramatically in its negative consequences. For example, in most places today there is a strong requirement for financial transparency. In my country, for example, all our financial accounts are open to public scrutiny. Serious irregularity, such as the use and transfer of cash before it has been fully recorded in accounts, brings serious consequences not only for the priest or parish involved but for all the parishes and entities of the diocese and for the diocese itself as a registered charity. The Church, in these circumstances, is as strong as its weakest component. No priest, or administrator, can think of himself as an independent unit, whose actions have no consequences for his fellow priests. 

The same is true of the moral behaviour of each one of us. We are the keepers of our brother priests. We hold each other’s wellbeing in our own hands. 

3. This leads me to the third theme I wish to highlight: that of koinonia

Fostering this kind of inter-dependence shapes the kind of love in which we are to hold our priests. One way of speaking about this love, or identifying its character, is to see it as a love of koinonia, a love that is all about inter-dependence, a love that springs from the heart of God, the koinonia of the Most Blessed Trinity. The word koinos refers to persons or things that belong together, of things shared by many. It is the love of koinos, or koinonia, that we are to foster as true communion. 

St Paul tells us that the fruit of the Holy Spirit is love (Gal 5.22), which then flowers in the various different fruits of the Spirit. This Spirit is breathed out by Jesus at the moment of his death (John 19.30) and is invoked at the beginning of every celebration of the Eucharistic. This ‘fellowship of the Holy Spirit’ is to be expressed in daily actions, not just reserved for retreats and liturgies. 

It is this love of koinonia in which the bishop is to hold the priests. This is the specific kind of closeness to which we are to strive. Yes, there is to be among us an agape, a desire to give of ourselves to those to whom we are sent. Yes, there is to be among us an eros, a desire to respond to the generosity of so many priests, and them to their bishop. But most of all there is to be the summation of these two kinds of love: the love of koinonia, that practical, daily commitment to the good of all, to our common good, through which I will guide and judge my own behaviour. 

The generation of this love of koinonia between bishop and priest and between priests themselves, is essential for some of the positive tasks that are being faced in many parts of the Church today, not least in Europe. The reorganisation of the patterns of parish life require a real shift in the way priests see themselves, and the relationship with those they are called to serve. These tasks are made endlessly more painful when the presbyterate lacks a spirit of koinonia and is motivated by a much more particular form of love: attachment to one particular parish, to the response of one particular congregation. When love of a priestly ministry is limited in this way, and fails to genuinely embrace the good of all, then the life of the Church suffers because of its limitations. In contrast, networks of inter-dependence may well be the key to our mission and to the witness we give: a willing and full inter-dependence between priests, and with their bishops in the leadership of parishes in processes of change; genuine inter-dependence between parishes in the use of resources and sources of inspiration; sustained and ready inter-dependence with the service offered by the diocese and in meeting the requirements that can only be fulfilled at that level. 

Our task as bishops, in our pastoral care of our priests, is to enlarge that love so that it can grow into a genuine, generous love of all, a readiness to bear with one another, to give life to one another (and not just to those with whom we happen to agree) and truly become one presbyteral body in the Lord. This, I am sure, is already a characteristic of presbyterates in many parts of the world, but for us, with our particular history, it is a challenge. I believe that what is required of us today is a genuine development of the independence of action that has served the pattern of priesthood well, into a network of willing inter-dependencies such as we have not before fully achieved. 

4. I began, you may recall, with a remark about the etymology of the word episcope. Let me take that a step further and in doing so come to my fourth theme, that of purity of heart. 

The word scopos has another meaning, beside that of ‘watchman’. It also means ‘purpose’, or ‘aim’ or ‘target’. In this we learn that part of episcope is helping to ensure that focus of our activity is kept on its proper aim, target or purpose. What is this aim? How can the sense of purpose which we are to encourage and sustain in our priests be best expressed? 

Here we must surely be profoundly evangelical. It is not enough to speak of the goals of particular diocesan or parish plans in measurable objectives: courses, numbers, impact of service to the poor, all laudable targets, of course. No, we are asked to be more perceptive about the daily target of our priests, and of ourselves. It must be much more to do with the search for God and our response to God in the fabric of daily life. 

In the retreat I mentioned earlier, it was put to us that we can think of ourselves and our priests as archers, taking part, perhaps, in a competition. The aim of the archer is, of course, to hit the bullseye with every arrow that is fired. And the bullseye we need to hit in all our daily actions is, in the terms of the Beatitudes, a purity of heart, for only then, as the Beatitude affirms, shall we see God (Mt 5.8).  

This target, or scopos, the desire to see God in all things, has to be sustained day by day. Yet it also has to be distinguished from the telos, or overall purpose of our lives, which is to gain the ultimate prize: the life of heaven. The archer wants to hit the bullseye not for its own sake but by doing so he or she will win the cup, the ultimate prize of the competition. 

We too know our ultimate prize, the fulfilment in God of our effort and of the work of grace in our nature. So what is crucial is that we keep in mind both this scopos and this telos, and the distinction and the relationship between them. 

Just as the word scopos is hidden in the word episcope so too helping priests to keep focussed on their true aim in life and ministry is hidden in our pastoral care. We are indeed to strive to serve our priests in ways which help them to keep focussed on the right and proper target in all their endeavours so that they too may attain their ultimate destiny. In short, we are to care for them in a way that leads them forward in holiness of life and ministry. 

This, I would suggest, brings us back to the overall theme of this course for newly-ordained bishops: ‘Masters of Discernment’. It suggests that at the heart of all our activity, and of the activity of our priests, is the discernment of what will best lead to that purity of heart through which we shall come to the vision of God. It suggests that we are constantly attentive to motivation: our own, that of our priests and of that of those to whom we minister. Discernment is about seeing next step can bring a person nearer to God, enable them to see God’s presence and respond to it. Such discernment depends on a purity of heart. Only the person truly seeking the face of God, honestly facing up to their own needs and preoccupations, admitting to the various layers of anxiety and mixed motivation that characterise our hearts, is in a position to be open to the will of God for them today. Fashioning a purity of heart is a core task in the process of pastoral discernment. 

As bishops we have to be constantly sifting our own motivations, striving to act out of the purest interests of the Lord, the good of his Church and the good of the person before us. In our pastoral heart we have to strive to be rid of irritation at the unacceptable behaviour of this or that priest, free from any sense of personal affront to our episcopal dignity that a priest might have provoked in us, above petty rivalries, above even differences of doctrinal emphasis or liturgical taste. We, most of all, need to keep an eye on the scopos at the heart of our episcope doing all we can to ensure that in our ministry we are as pure and as near as we can get to the heart and eyes of the Lord himself. 

5. So to my fifth and final topic. 

This purity of heart and intention, of course, only comes with prayer. It is a self-evident truth that our pastoral care of our priests must be rooted in our humble prayer before the Lord, in which we seek to be purified, in which we seek to be an open book before him, hiding nothing of our ambiguities and mixed motives but asking that through these our weaknesses his saving touch may reach those in our care. 

And for our priests, too, we will strive to create an atmosphere of prayer, a culture or ecology of prayer in which they too will be constantly aware of their need to act always out of a purity of heart and a freedom from self-absorption. 

Gatherings of priests, in my experience, are always enhanced by a time of prayer together, preferably silent prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, in which all the human distinctions which grow between us, like the barnacles on the hull of a ship, can be stripped away, leaving our passage together to God a little bit smoother. In that prayer together, which in a way goes beyond words, we show each other our weaknesses and our needs, the best way in which the Lord enters our lives, purifies our hearts and enlightens our actions. To pray together is to care for each other. To pray together is to demonstrate inter-dependence. To pray together is to refresh our true sense of purpose and the glorious goal of our existence. To pray with our priests is the most important part of our comprehensive pastoral care of them. 

The last lines of the quotation from the Book of Exodus, with which I began, shape a suitable conclusion for us. God said: ‘I send you to Pharaoh to bring the sons of Israel, my people, out of Egypt.’ And Moses said to God: ‘And who am I to go to Pharaoh?’ ‘I will be with you‘ was the answer. That is indeed the only answer to the anxiety in our hearts as the richness and demands of episcopal ministry slowly dawns on us. 

In his Journal of a Soul, St John XXIII recalls his thoughts in preparation for episcopal ordination. He wrote: ‘I have not sought or desired this new ministry: The Lord has chosen me, making it so clear that it is his will that it would be a grave sin for me to refuse. So it will be for him to cover up my failings and supply my insufficiencies. This comforts me and gives me tranquility and confidence’ (p 218). 

‘Who am I that I should go?’ And God said, ‘I am with you.’ 

Mary, too, whose birthday we celebrate today, knew what it was to be called by God and reassured by the words ‘the Lord is with you.’ She is a constant expression of that presence of her Son in our midst and in our hearts. To him, through her, we entrust our ministry. And may God bless you always.