The role of the bishop now and then


Cunningham_formal_robes A few weeks ago, a fine young college student in our diocese who has been studying the Church Fathers innocently asked me what I thought the difference was between the role of a bishop today and in the time of St. Gregory the Great (540-604). I think he was politely asking me what I did all day!  I thought about his question for a few minutes and then responded.

I told him that in many ways the ministry of the bishop is the same from century to century. As Catholics we believe that this role includes teaching, governing and sanctifying God’s holy people. Just as the bishops of the 6th Century, and Gregory himself as abbot and later pope, fulfilled this role for the people of their day, the bishop today is called to do likewise. The difference lies in how it is done.

As Bishop of Rome St. Gregory fulfilled his ministry through his preaching and writings which have been handed down to us and which have been read and studied through the years. He is noted for the reform of the Roman Liturgy, the wise management of the Church’s patrimony (land, finances, etc.) boundless charity toward the poor, negotiating peace with warring factions and his extensive missionary zeal. The means of communication in his day, however, were vastly different from what they are today. Travel was not as commonplace. The distractions that crowd into our lives in this technological age were unknown. Ideas and opinions did not travel as quickly as they do today. But nonetheless the situations with which he had to deal sound very familiar to the situations and concerns that a bishop of today faces.

With the passage of time, the Church has developed a vast array of institutions and services which are overseen by the bishop and meet the pastoral, educational and charitable needs of the people of our day. Other vehicles were present in St. Gregory’s day, but in our day, here in the Diocese of Syracuse, let me tell you how I have seen God’s work and God’s grace in abundance during the past month.

At the start of the new school year the educational mission of the Church is evident. Early in the month, on the day before most of our Catholic schools opened, I celebrated a Mass of the Holy Spirit  with about 750 teachers of our diocese. I rely upon the teachers in our Catholic schools to participate in the mission of the Church to educate and form our children and young people. I also had the great joy during the month to celebrate Mass with the students at Bishop Ludden Junior/Senior High School here in Syracuse; at the newly-merged school, Seton Academy at All Saints in Endicott and with the students at Notre Dame Junior/ Senior High School and Elementary School in Utica.  On each occasion, I was impressed with our students’ eagerness to learn about the place of God in their lives; with faculty and staff who have dedicated their lives to this important ministry; with parents who as the first teachers of their children in the ways of faith entrust their young to us and to our pastors and parishioners who enable the work of Catholic education to continue and flourish.

I had the good fortune to celebrate the beatification of John Henry Cardinal Newman at Newman House at Binghamton University. During this Sunday evening visit, over 200 young people came for Mass and for the social hour which followed. It was a great encounter that I enjoyed immensely. The presence of campus ministry and Newman centers on our secular college campuses, as well as at Le Moyne College, continue the educational mission of the Church.

I also celebrated the annual Journey of Faith event with our catechetical leaders and catechists as they began the new year of faith formation programs for the young people of our diocese and indeed for people of all ages. Faith formation is a lifelong process. Journey of Faith provided the opportunity to emphasize the importance of continued growth in the faith.

The Bishop today provides for the pastoral needs of the people of the diocese primarily through parishes. Two outstanding celebrations held on the same day, Sept. 26th, were the 100th  anniversary of the Consecration of our Cathedral Church and the 100th  anniversary of Sacred Heart/St. Mary, Our Lady of Czestochowa Parish in New York Mills. Both celebrations were witnesses to the enduring faith of immigrant parishioners who came to this area of our state and built lives firmly rooted in the Catholic faith that sustained them.

The past month included days of special grace as the priests and deacons of our diocese gathered in Alexandria Bay for our annual convocation. Bishop Matthew Clark of Rochester, Father John Rose of our diocese and Dr. Patricia Kelly of Philadelphia shared with us interesting and insightful presentations about the joys and challenges of ministry in the Church today. It was a great gift for me to be with my priests and deacons during these special days. Hopefully, we all returned to our parishes and ministries with renewed fervor for the message of the Gospel.

I also participated in a meeting with representatives and superiors of the religious orders of women serving in our diocese. Through their lives and their ministry in schools, hospitals and parishes, these women are a great gift to the people of our diocese as they assist me in meeting the needs of our people. I had the opportunity as well to visit Lourdes Hospital in Binghamton where the Daughters of Charity and their collaborators in the healing ministry serve the needs of the people of our diocese.

Today’s Bishop also has the responsibility to attend national and state meetings with his brother bishops. I am privileged to represent New York State on the Administrative Board of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops as well as its Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People. The New York State Bishops also met this month to discuss issues of common concern in our state.

Various events outlined above, together with meetings with individuals and groups in the diocese, fill the days of the bishop. The speed of travel and the availability of nearly instant communication make it possible for the Bishop to tend to the needs of his people in a far different manner than St. Gregory did. The methods have changed but the involvement and oversight of the bishop is the same today as it was in the days of St. Gregory. The bishops of the 6th century and the 21st century have the same mission: to teach, govern and sanctify the people entrusted to their care.

I concluded my comments to the young college student by assuring him that the bishop’s most important role, however, remains praying for his people, supporting them in the journey of life and encouraging them to live the common vocation we all have —  holiness of life. May it always be so!

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