I have written here on St. Thomas More as a role model for laypeople in the Catholic Church. The bishops, too, need a role model, however, particularly in these times. They are after all responsible for helping their flocks grow in holiness and for clearly teaching the laity the truths of the Catholic faith.
They bear responsibility for what is taught in the Catholic schools in their dioceses and – critically – in the diocesan seminary. They also oversee the work of the priests in the diocese, and if necessary have the duty of disciplining them.
Even if a member of the laity never personally hears the bishop speak, he or she should experience the effects of the bishop’s guidance and supervision of the priests in the diocese, and his careful response to egregious examples of false preaching, poor example, moral laxity, error in expounding Catholic theology, or a dangerous and destructive permissiveness in tolerating within the members of God’s Mystical Body unwholesome lifestyles and scandalous behavior.
Clarity in teaching the Gospel, faithfulness in living it, and courage in speaking the truth in season and out of season should be the hallmarks of all bishops. This is achieved both by proclaiming truth and denouncing falsehood.
As shepherds of Christ’s flock, bishops nourish the faithful with sound doctrine and guard against the wolves that threaten them. Given the grave importance of their role – and its difficulty even in the best of times – we should pray for our bishops daily.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church has much to say about the crucial role of the bishop in the Christian life. As members of the Magisterium, they are to “preserve God’s people from deviations and defections and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error. Thus, the pastoral duty of the Magisterium is aimed at seeing to it that the People of God abide in the truth that liberates.” (CCC 890)
The Catechism also emphasizes the bishop’s mission to exemplify the Christian life: “The bishop and priests sanctify the Church by their prayer and work, by their ministry of the word and of the sacraments.” (CCC, 890)
Although administrative talents and the ability to manage an industrial-size budget can prove useful in managing the multitude of people and projects that are part of today’s dioceses, they do not appear in the original job description of a bishop, and will not make up for any failure in charity, self-sacrifice, nerve, or accommodation to the spirit of the age.
This is especially important today because the spirit of the age in our own country is now so antithetical to Christian faith and practice. The powers that be seem increasingly bent on forcing confrontations with the Church over matters of morality and religious liberty.
And that is where the example of St. Thomas Becket comes in. Becket, the confidant and chancellor of Henry II, was intelligent, ambitious, and – until he became archbishop of Canterbury – gave little indication that he would wind up a martyr for religious principle.
The particular political challenges the Church faced in his era stemmed from the state’s determination to have a hand in naming bishops and governing their relations with Rome. St. Thomas Becket knew just what he would be getting into when, as a result of Henry II’s insistent backing, he was chosen to be archbishop of Canterbury.
Within a few years he was in exile for resisting Henry’s curtailment of the ecclesiastical courts and restriction of the bishops’ rights and freedom. After several years an uneasy reconciliation occurred and Thomas returned to England. But his continued spirited defense of the rights of the Church led to Henry’s famous explosion, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”
What Henry’s precise words were and whether he intended murder –especially murder that could be traced so directly back to him – may be contested. But four knights took off after Thomas, confronting him in Canterbury Cathedral, where three delivered mortal blows to his head.
As he fell to the ground, he was heard to say, “Lord, into your hands I commend my spirit!” And then, “For the name of Jesus and in defense of his Church I am willing to die.” What a fitting end for a successor of the apostles!
Many bishops throughout the centuries have given their lives as martyrs, although none yet in the United States, where we have been blessed with a high degree of religious liberty. We must all be ready to recognize, however, our own moment of truth, if it comes, and respond courageously.
Christendom longer exists. Europe has repudiated its long and fruitful marriage with Christianity, and its former colonial offspring are doing likewise.
Although our situation is still much better than that of Christians in Syria, Iraq, and many other parts of the world, it is fast deteriorating. For that reason it is so important for bishops today to study the example of St. Thomas Becket and so many other martyrs, many of them members of the episcopacy. For the faithful Christian, the best always lies ahead, since heaven awaits us.
It’s worth watching the old movie version of Becket, which was nominated for twelve Academy Awards and starred two great actors: Richard Burton as Beckett and Peter O’Toole as Henry.
Meanwhile, let us pray for our bishops – and ask St. Thomas Becket’s intersession – that whatever is in store, our bishops will have the courage to be faithful witnesses to the end.