This is the kind of bishop that I long for as a priest

A few years ago I unexpectedly found myself as the guest of an archbishop whose diocese was a large bustling city in Bolivia. Not only did I get a shock at the sight of so much poverty in Bolivia, the poorest country in South America, and feel helpless when confronted with it, but I was also immensely surprised at the manner and lifestyle of the archbishop. He lived in a very small house with a corrugated iron roof and situated up a dirt track, in which the water supply was erratic and in which he personally occupied just two small rooms. He also dressed and ate utterly simply, did not possess a car and travelled everywhere by public transport.

As the archbishop travelled around his diocese he was invariably surrounded by and greeted with great joy by his people who clearly both knew him on a personal level and loved him. They sought his advice and answers to their problems, but above all welcomed the way he brought the light of the Good News into their poor lives. To them, his behaviour and manner reflected the Gospel and were a form of apostolic evangelisation.

After a subsequent visit to the United States and then to different countries in Europe I returned to England, but was unable to refrain from contrasting the lifestyle and manner of many of the bishops I met with those of the archbishop in Bolivia.

It is indisputable that many of the Catholic bishops in both North America and Europe are conscientious, devout, often self-effacing and saddled with huge problems, ranging from diocesan financial problems, often caused by the deployment of expensive diocesan bureaucracies, which it is considered necessary to run things, to shrinking Mass attendances and the need to reorganise the parish system in the face of the decline in priestly vocations. In many places morale among priests also needs raising, given the fact that the scandal of clerical abuse has left many of them feeling tainted by the activities of a minority.

This is not to mention the additional state of affairs in the United States, which the Pope recently spoke of to its bishops on their ad limina visits, as ones where there are “powerful new cultural currents which are not only directly opposed to core moral teaching of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but increasingly hostile to Christianity as such”, including what he termed radical and reductive secularism.

Similarly, in Europe last December we were reminded in the discussions between the Pope and Lord Sacks, as well as in a lecture the Chief Rabbi gave at the Pontifical Gregorian University, that “we must help Europe rediscover its soul”, otherwise it has a grim future.

In view of these and other problems, the reality is that too many of the bishops in North America and Europe persist in functioning rather as managers than as pastorally minded shepherds, as executives of diocesan structures rather than as those who put people before plans, and as fundraisers rather than as spiritual leaders concerned for what Blessed John Henry Newman called “the apostolic rock” on which their authority is built. Some are also prisoners of their training in the turbulent 1960s and have not moved on in their thinking.

By contrast, it is common knowledge that Pope Benedict XVI does not view the Church in sociological terms as a network of power structures. One commentator says that the Pope “is completely hostile to this mentality”, arguing: “He does not see the Church as one large multinational corporation with franchise operations across the globe, the bishops as the executive staff, the pope as the CEO, and the laity as the shareholders.” Rather than viewing the Church operate along the lines of a corporate institutional model, the Pope sees the Church as the Body of Christ and as communion functioning within the existence of a unified network of different spiritual missions.

It is to be hoped that bishops of the future will always be rigorous in their thinking and able to face head-on the manifold issues facing our society. Above all, it is surely desirable that they be dynamic spiritual leaders of their flocks, giving priority to their role as evangelists. Quoting Vatican II and obviously utterly aware that a bishop’s traditional role is to teach, govern and sanctify, the Pope has nevertheless declared that “first and foremost, the bishop is an evangelist and we might put it this way: it is as an evangelist that he is a successor of the Apostles”.

Given that in an average diocese the teaching function of a bishop (apart from issuing pastoral letters) has nowadays been taken over by educational and catechetical professional persons, that in his governing capacity a bishop is usually assisted either by vicars general or episcopal vicars, and that in his sanctifying role a bishop essentially relies on priests to administer the sacraments for the laity, in theory this should release him to personally get to know and move among the people of his diocese and daily evangelise them, as my Bolivian host archbishop does.

How often, however, does an ordinary lay member in a diocese these days even personally meet his or her bishop, let alone find him as someone who can at least empathise with their situation in life? Many bishops are remote from the problems and lifestyle of those for whom they have been called upon to serve as shepherds.

More importantly, people don’t often experience bishops as evangelists, imbued with the Holy Spirit and as successors to the apostles in their zeal to convey the Gospel to others. Instead, too often they are seen as administrative functionaries who are usually only actually encountered when visiting a parish for Confirmation.

It has to be said, indeed, that many bishops seemed relieved, delighted and glad to be freed of their usual duties at the last World Youth Day in Madrid when called upon to catechise and actually convey the Good News of the Gospel at first hand to the young people attending. It isn’t only young people at these admirable events however who would value meeting and being evangelised in this way by their bishop, but all others too.

Perhaps it is time we returned to a new – in reality, more ancient – version of the episcopate.

Fr David Forrester is a priest of Portsmouth diocese