Friday, August 5, 2011

The Bishop's House

Great systems, great programs and great schools do not make great men. Only great men can make great men. No one knew this better than the Catholic Bishops of the first millennium. In those early years it was in the house of the Bishop where priests and deacons were formed and educated. And to be sure, it proved to be a fruitful method of making great leaders, that is, holy pastors of the Church.

To begin with, out of 265 popes to have existed throughout Church history. The majority of them have been good men and good pastors; some prove to be great and only a handful turned out to be a real disappointment.

However, if one takes a look at the list of these 265 popes, one cannot help but notice something. If you were to divide the list of popes into two equal parts you will see that the first half of this list is front-loaded with Saints; the second half contains just a few Saints.

For example, in the first millennium of Christianity there were 74 canonized popes; popes who reached sainthood. In the second millennium, however, there were only 5 canonized popes. Out of all the popes of the first thousand years, about 54 percent of them were Saints (74 out of 139). In the second thousand years, however, there was a precipitous drop of saintly popes; a little over 4 percent of all the popes reached Sainthood (5 out of 119).

Whatever can be said about the popes of the last two millennia can be said of the Bishops and Priests as well. Like the father of a family, the Pontiff, the supreme head of the Catholic Church, quite often sets the tone for the rest of its members.

A book published in 1832 entitled, Of the Five Wounds of the Holy Church, points to one of the reasons for the difference in the number of canonized popes in the first millennium as opposed to the second millennium of Christianity. It was written by a Catholic priest by the name of Fr. Antonio Rosmini.

Arguably one of Fr. Rosmini’s most important points is this: “In the early ages of the Church, the Bishop’s house was the seminary of his priests and deacons.” He goes on to say the following:

“They, the early Christians, believed that the words of the Pastor…imparted supernatural life and energy to the doctrines taught, so that they made and indelible impression on men’s minds. As a result, there was a constant supply of great men…the Bishop of old diffused and reproduced himself in the young clergy…”

The Bishops of the first 600 years of Christianity merely imitated their Founder. Indeed, Jesus Christ personally formed his Apostles not only by preaching and giving instruction but through informal conversations and spending time with them. During his three year public ministry Jesus did not rely on the formal and systematic education which existed in Jerusalem. In other words, he did not send his disciples off to school. Rather, he took the responsibility upon himself to make them into his own image.

This is not to discount, in any way, formal education. Rosmini merely points out that the chief instructor in priestly formation- whether it was formal or informal –used to be the Bishop.

So that the Apostles and their successors could do the same as our Lord, a special power conferred on them. This power is none other than the Sacrament of Holy Orders. The fullness of this sacrament resided in the Apostles but was then transmitted to the Bishops. With this power, the Bishop not only educated seminarians and priests in the first several centuries but he personally inspired, formed and guided them. Truly, his house was the seminary!

Unfortunately, this responsibility of the Bishop ended up being delegated to other priests and professors towards the end of the first millennium. On this point he concludes: “All pastoral care of the people was little by little abandoned to the subordinate clergy…” and professors.

Seminaries and universities eventually took over what the Bishop used to do. Hence, the Bishop, who is endowed to form hearts and minds with the full force of Holy Orders, became less of a factor in this process of raising up the next generation of priests.

Perhaps Father Antonio Rosmini was on to something. Or better yet, maybe the early Church was on to something! The fullness of Holy Orders resides in the Bishop and among all of his duties, the most important, that is, “the pride of place,” is to preach and teach the Faith.

Therefore, the heavy reliance on this great gift by Christians in the first millennium just may account for the reason why there were 74 canonized popes in that that time period. It may also be the reason why there was a constant supply of great men!