From a reader:
Recently, you had a post up regarding Archbishop Nienstedt’s defense of traditional marriage. As a curious person, I looked up the Archbishop’s background and discovered he once held the titular see of Alton, in Illinois, when he was serving as an auxiliary bishop. As you may or may not know, the “old cathedral” of the now defunct Diocese of Alton still stands and is still in use as a parish by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield, IL. From what I recall, the old “bishop’s chair” is still present in the sanctuary.
Now my question: If a bishop who is titular see, such as Archbishop Nienstedt formerly was, visits the old cathedral of his defunct diocese, or Alton in Archbishop Nienstedt’s case, would it be proper for him to use the bishop’s chair?
I had long thought most, if not all, of the titular sees were long defunct dioceses where there would be little remnant of the old diocese. But seeing Alton as Archbishop Nienstadt’s former titular see made me realize there are at least a few exceptions. Any details you can provide about titular sees would be appreciated.
You raise an interesting question.
The main point we must consider is that a bishop isn’t just a bishop on his own. He is a bishop of a Church and that Church must be somewhere. In ancient times there were very many more dioceses, which were effectively swept away either by invasion of Muslims or the erosion of demographics, etc. In more modern times, in the “propaganda” countries, Sees were sometimes established, but the town lost importance for one reason or another and it became impractical to maintain the see there.
I am reminded of the story about the Diocese of Lead, South Dakota, which was set up in 1902. Many bishops traveled from the East out to the wilderness to install the first bishop of Lead. They had a nice supper and everyone went back to the train station for their return to civilization. As the train pulled away from the platform and the prelates waving from the end car and windows could no longer be seen, silence fell. The new bishop turned to his secretary and said, “And they closed the tomb, and all withdrew.”
The great Bishop Perry, auxiliary bishop in Chicago, is now the Titular Bishop of Lead. Lead, however, was supressed and the Diocese of Rapidopolis (Rapid City) was created in its place.
There are a number of titular sees in the USA, and one is mentioned in the question. Off the top of my head I can think also of Walla Walla, Bardstown and Natchez. It can be rather diverting to look at the titular sees of some of the more interesting figures in the Church.
Keep in mind that Curia Cardinals, who don’t have a see of their own, if they were once diocesan bishops are now emeritus bishops of those dioceses. Card. Burke, for example, is the Archbishop Emeritus of St. Louis. He is also, however, the holder of the ancient Roman titulus Sant’Agatha dei Gothi. The Roman tituli were the first parishes and they were held by deacons or priests. This distinction in maintained in the College of Cardinals so that even today all Cardinal Deacons and Priests have titular churches in Rome. They don’t have much influence over those churches, because there are rectors or parish priests, pastors, assigned to them. There are also, however, Cardinal Bishops who are assigned titular dioceses very close to Rome. These ancient sees now have their own ordinary bishops. Once upon a time, the Cardinal Bishop really was the actual bishop of the diocese. Now, however, he is just the “bishop” in an honorary sense. This is the only situation, I believe, where there is simultaneously a titular bishop of a diocese which is still a real diocese which also has a bishop. Very odd, but wonderfully Catholic. We don’t have a problem with these niceties any more than we have a problem with two statues of Christ in the same church or multiple Hosts being distributed at Holy Communion. It all works.
Some of the titular dioceses have some real history. For example, just to stick to St. Louis, back in the 80’s the brand new auxiliary of St. Paul and Minneapolis Robert Carlson, now in St. Louis, was titular bishop of Avioccala, a remnant of the great Church of Proconsular North Africa, present day Sidi-Amara in Tunisia. This is as much in the middle of nowhere as you can get. There is an early 4th century Donatist sermon about the death of Donatus of Avioccala, who probably was not the more famous Donatus of Carthage, Donatus being a common name. Donatists were being expelled after an edit of Constantine to return churches to Catholics. Soldiers massacred some Donatists in their basilica, which because a cause célèbre for the Donatist schismatics. In another case, still in Proconsular North Africa, a fine auxiliary Bishop Lee Piché in St. Paul and Minneapolis has the Titular See of Tamata, under the See of Byzacena, which once had the Titular Bishop Franciszek or Frank Musiel once Auxiliary of Czestochowa, Poland, though that Frank Musiel was neither a Cardinal, nor in St. Louis.
Titular dioceses are in some sense preserved from being entirely obliterated, lost even in memory, by being maintained in a kind of “suspended animation”. They exist, but they are sleeping, rather like Briar Rose waiting for her prince to come.
But the fact is that these titular dioceses are not territorial in the sense that the true, presently established diocese is territorial. The titular bishop doesn’t have any jurisdiction in the sense that the local ordinary bishop has jurisdiction. If a titular bishop goes to his quondam cathedral church, he is just a visiting bishop as any other. To put this in terms of Thomistic philosophy, they have jurisdiction in potency but not in act.
However, one could imagine a situation wherein were there huge growth of Catholic population around, for example, Lead, that diocese could be revived. I know… I know… rather like the fairy tale with Briar Rose.
An interesting point about these titular sees. Until the late 1800’s they were identified as being dioceses “in partibus infidelium” (“in the regions of unbelievers”). This term was probably dropped because of any ecumenical concern. More likely was the fact of expansion into areas that were Christianized but still mission territories, as in the New World. That is my guess and I happy to be corrected on this point. Then again, in this age of the “New Evangelization”, that is, the re-evangelization of formerly Christian lands, it might be a good idea to go back to “in partibus infidelium” just to remind us of the steep hill we have to climb.
Finally, take this away from this entry.
While the Lord promised that the hell would in the end not prevail, He did not promise it would not prevail in, say, your home town, your country. Think of the mighty Churches of ancient times, in Turkey and North Africa. They are gone and now we have echos of their memory in certain bishops who serve the Church everywhere but where those sees were.
Whole regions of Churches can be broken and swept away like sand. Parishes close in dioceses. Jesus did not found your parish. He didn’t promise that it would last until He returned.