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The Church Will Endure: It’s All in the Ring

Robert Philip Reed an auxiliary bishop of Boston has issued a letter [1] announcing a day of personal prayer and penance on September 24. It is moving to see a shepherd of the Church on the front line, doing penance and prayer.

But there is something else that caught my attention in the bishop’s announcement relating to the current crisis in the Church:

A couple years ago, on a Monday morning, I was informed that I had been named a bishop. When I accepted, I was conscious of the fact that, I also would have to accept whatever the future held with a complete openness to God’s will; much like in a marriage, or when I was ordained a priest.

There is some deep theological meaning and thinking here: Bishop Reed is comparing his promise to the diocese to marriage vows in full openness to God, promising to lead and support the faithful in good times and in bad times, in sickness and in health.

Indeed, the bishop is bound to his flock, the clergy and laypeople of his diocese, in a sacramental-intimate-nuptial way. The bishop is bound to all in the diocese, to bear the burden of all, to be a father to all, as St. John Chrysostom commented [2] in his Homily 3 on the Acts of the Apostles.

As spouses, in a sign of fidelity to the people of the diocese, a bishop wears an episcopal ring, which, as for married people, represents a bishop’s marriage to his diocese and the people he is serving.

Moreover, the episcopal ring is a sign of a bishop’s double fidelity to the Church and to preserving the purity of the faith. The ring investiture in the liturgy captures beautifully the nuptial nature of the relationship between bishop and diocese: “Take this ring, the seal of your fidelity. With faith and love protect the bride of God, his Holy Church.”

The ring is a daily call to loyalty and fidelity, a constant reminder for bishops to ask: did I give myself totally and unreservedly to my bride, the Church? Did I do enough for my diocese, community, families, elderly and young people, and for the unborn?

So, the bishop, as Pope Benedict XVI clearly stated in his September 2010 address [3] to recently appointed bishops, “is not a mere ruler or a bureaucrat or a simple moderator and organizer of diocesan life.” Instead, he is a father married to his diocese; he is a father and brother in Christ to the people he is serving, and these unique relationships “give the person in charge the ability to create an atmosphere of trust, of welcome and of affection but also of frankness and justice.”

But there is still more: the episcopal office also expresses the unbroken link between the local bishop and the Apostolic College, the Twelve Apostles, who, from the beginning of their mission lived side by side with Jesus, became witnesses to his Resurrection, and were sent by Jesus to proclaim the Gospel to the world.

It’s all in the ring: the ring, connected to other rings, is in a chain that goes to the well in Christ and the Apostles

For this reason one of the gestures of reverence that is done to the bishop is that of kissing of the ring: the faithful do not kiss his hand, but the ring. So, it is out of reverence for the faith carried in the ring, that the faithful bow and kiss.

Catholic Tradition is so rich and imbued with tradition that solutions to problems are to be found in the tradition and dictated by tradition. There have been 152 archdiocesan/diocesan public statements released by archbishops and bishops denouncing Theodore McCarrick for his sexual abuse and expressing shock, anger, and pain caused by the recent Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report.

That’s not an insignificant number of American bishops. Did the bishops fail to protect the flock? Did the bishops fail to keep the sacred trust invested in them by the apostles? Did the bishops fail to keep their vows that are symbolized by their nuptial ring? The simple answer to all the above is: Yes.

Among the sins and moral offenses of which human beings are capable, betrayal – and, in this case, betrayal by clergy, including bishops – is the most difficult to forgive.

Usually, betrayal involves cunning, or a conscious decision to cause division or harm to the Mystical Body of Christ. The current crisis the Church is facing is a crisis of betrayal, but even more it is a crisis of faith. “I do not think there are many among Bishops that will be saved, but many more that perish: and the reason is, that it is an affair that requires a great mind,” commented St. John Chrysostom.

Those of our shepherds who know the pain and the smell of the sheep are responding with prayer and penance and by renewing their “nuptial” vows to the people entrusted to their care and to the faith of the apostles. Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger of Albany, NY, is calling [4] for renewal: “At Mass we will renew the promises we made at our ordination along with a public restatement of commitment to all that we have been ordained to preach, teach and live by.”

When St. Francis of Assisi was passing by the church of San Damiano, which was in ruins, he heard a voice coming from the cross, telling him three times: “Francis, go and repair my house which, as you see, is falling into ruin.” St. Francis did; he repaired the Church and it survived and thrived.

Many people fear for the future of the Church in these troubling days. But the Church will recover again when clergy and faithful renew the vows of ordination and baptism. The Church, founded by Him, watched over by Him, and guided by Him, will always survive, because Jesus has said so. And God keeps his promises.

Ines Angeli Murzaku is Professor of Church History at Seton Hall University. Her extensive research on the history of Christianity, Catholicism, Religious Orders, and Ecumenism has been published in multiple scholarly articles and five books. She edited and translated with Raymond L. Capra and Douglas J. Milewski, The Life of Saint Neilos of Rossano, part of the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library. Dr. Murzaku has been featured frequently in national and international media, newspapers, radio and TV interviews, and blogs. Her latest book is Mother Teresa: Saint of the Peripheries.