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10/22/2008 7:54:00 AM Email this articlePrint this article 
Where the bishop is, there is the Church
By Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl

On one occasion when Jesus was teaching, he spoke of how he intended to give his own Body and Blood for "the life of the world." Some, who found this teaching difficult, disputed it and walked away. As Saint John tells us: "Many of his disciples, when they heard it, said, 'this is a hard saying; who can listen to it?'" (John 6:60). But Jesus did not change his teaching because some of the disciples disagreed. He did not amend it. In fact, the Gospel says Jesus repeated it. He affirmed that he intended to give us his own Body and Blood for our salvation. Tragically, the same narrative recounts: "After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him" (John 6:66).

Our Lord did not back down. He is the way, the truth and the life. He reveals God's plan. We come to him for grace, enlightenment and redemption. We do not set the rules. We are not the ones who fashion the way in which we are saved, redeemed and granted a share in the glory of God's kingdom Ð God does.

When confronted with dissent, Jesus said to the Twelve, "Will you also go away?" Simon Peter, who understood, answered him, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God" (John 6:67-69).

Christ committed to the apostles the task of preaching his word in his name, that is, with authority. He assured them of the assistance of the Holy Spirit who would guard them in all truths (cf. John 14:16-26). He commanded them to teach his word to all nations, binding the hearers to the duty of believing their words as the word of God, and he promised to be with them in their preaching until the end of time (cf. Matthew 28:20).

The bishops are the successors of the apostles. As the Church has always taught and again reaffirmed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, they have the God-given task of teaching in the name of Christ, sanctifying by the power of Christ and governing with the authority of Christ: "By ordination to the episcopacy, bishops receive the fullness of the Sacrament of Holy Orders and become successors of the Apostles. Through this Sacrament, a bishop belongs to the college of bishops and serves as the visible head or pastor of the local church entrusted to his care. As a college, the bishops have care and concern for the apostolic mission of all the churches in union with and under the authority of the Pope Ð the head of the college of bishops, the Bishop of Rome and the successor of St. Peter" (Chapter 20).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church holds up for us a clear view of Church leadership. "The bishops, as vicars and legates of Christ, govern the particular Churches assigned to them ... by the authority and sacred power ... of their Master" (894).

The bishops also have responsibility for the liturgy. Citing the Second Vatican Council, the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us "that the bishop is 'the steward of the grace of the supreme priesthood'" (Lumen Gentium 26) (893). The current liturgical norms approved by the Holy See and the bishops of the United States for the Church in this country are binding on all of the faithful. To invoke a personal preference and set aside liturgical norms is to vest oneself with an authority that one does not have.

There is today, as there has always been, a temptation by some people to treat the Church as if it were incidental to salvation. This theory places the individual's personal feelings and preferences at the center. Yet, Christ founded his Church to be the gift to lead us to eternal life. We walk away from that gift at our own peril. Given Christ's identification with his Church, which is his body, it is not possible to walk away from the Church without in some way stepping aside from Christ.

Perhaps so much attention has been devoted to the function of bishops in recent times because the concept of authority given to the bishops by Christ is a "hard saying" in a world where individual freedom and personal interpretation is assumed to be above all else. Nevertheless, it is clear that it is the bishops with the assistance of the Holy Spirit who have the responsibility for the guidance of the whole Church and particularly for the local Church entrusted to their individual care.

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