A blessed and holy Feast of St. Joseph to all my readers – especially fathers both natural and spiritual. I have just been watching [via livestream because of the Coronavirus restrictions] the Rite of Ordination to the Episcopate of Bishop David Oakley, the newly appointed Bishop of Northampton. Later this year on June 10 two new auxiliary bishops of Birmingham will be ordained. It’s always a privilege to witness an ordination, and seeing priests become Successors of the Apostles during a ceremony replete with historic weight and gravitas really brings home to you just how much God chooses to invest an awesome moral power and spiritual authority upon the hearts and shoulders of ordinary human beings.
All bishops are entrusted with a huge set of duties and responsibilities to teach, govern and sanctify their flock, the salvation of which they must one day give an account for face to face before God Himself. A fearful truth and one for which we must intercede on behalf of these men chosen by the Holy Father to lead us in discipleship of Jesus Christ.
All sorts of priests are selected to become bishops for all sorts of reasons and each in their own way have to bring what talents, gifts, faith, dedication to Jesus and experience they have. However, I think if I am honest, the ones chosen from among the ranks of ordinary parish clergy have a distinct advantage of having been ‘at the coal face’ of pastoral life and reality and that can only be a good thing in terms of their future episcopal insights and credibility. It’s bound to help them relate to fellow clergy more easily since they’ve known first-hand the kind of pressures and challenges on the ground. And their sense of the family being Flesh of the Church as Cardinal Nichols put it after the October 2015 Synod, probably means their preaching and teaching will resonate with families more easily in the long run; at least one can hope and pray so.
When you stop and think about it, parents are a sort of “bishop” – an overseer of the family unit entrusted to them by God. St. Augustine of Hippo, after reflecting on the influence of his mother St. Monica, said the role of a parent ‘was like unto a bishopric’ in terms of its eternal and supernatural significance in building up the Kingdom of God. And Augustine himself said ‘one soul is a big enough diocese for any bishop!’
So as many families gird their loins and prepare for indefinite “lockdown” in their homes to stay safe and well from this terrible pandemic, let is be mindful of the awesome responsibilities, rights and duties of parents not only to feed, clothe, educate and protect their children but also as Christians to transmit the Faith to their offspring. And clergy must try to begin to appreciate as well as help parents understand the comparison between these duties in the family and household and those of the bishop in his diocese to teach, govern and sanctify. As Pope St John Paul II called spouses the ‘priests of the domestic church’ in like manner, parents are commissioned in a sense to be the “bishops” of the domestic church. This is not a novel idea. Indeed it’s ancient. There is a famous homily of St. Augustine in which he refers to the fathers in his audience as “my fellow bishops.” (You can check the full reference HERE by Dr Scott Hahn). Augustine startles his congregation, which certainly included many busy fathers of families, by telling them to be faithful to the duties of the priesthood.
“Fulfil my office in your own homes,” he says. The word “bishop” means supervisor, and since “a man is called a bishop because he supervises and takes care of others, every man who heads a household also holds the office of bishop—supervising the way his people believe, and seeing that none of them fall into heresy, not his wife, or son, or daughter, or even his servant.”
What an awesome task priests have when consecrated bishops and what an equally daunting duty parents have to raise their children in such a way as they in their turn will work out their salvation to inherit eternal life. Sometimes we might feel overwhelmed by such a responsibility for our families. In the weeks and months ahead even greater perhaps even extraordinary sacrifices will be made of us. So we need models of extraordinary heroic virtue to look up to and emulate in some small way. In these weeks ahead of “self-isolation” I am going to invoke the prayers of Wiktoria and Józef Ulma from Poland who together with their 6 children and a 7th unborn one, sheltered two Jewish families in their home and were later murdered by the Nazis for doing so. What faith, what courage, what sacrifice and Christ-centred love for one’s neighbour. But also what incredible witness of faith to one’s children. The cause of beatification of the entire family is now underway and as Lent continues and Passiontide approaches, I for one will be asking for their intercession to reflect in my own life, in some tiny way, their discipleship of the Lord as spouses and parents – priests and bishops of the domestic church.
Tonight at 8pm GMT – the Holy Father is asking us all to join him in praying the Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary – meditating on the Luminous Mysteries bestowed upon the Church by the great “Pope of the Family” St John Paul II. Let us take to our knees [if we can] and join with that countless throng of our brothers and sisters all over the world.