Bishops must speak upalatable truths

First preliminary point. I have often suggested prayer not only for priests but for bishops. The Enemy of our souls hates priests, and hates bishops even more. Their burdens are very heavy and their mistakes can have grave consequences. They too have to cope with the world, the flesh and the devil, but their Judgement will be particular indeed.

Second. Some time ago, I wrote about the stir created by Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe.  He issued a pastoral letter on cohabitation which stated Catholic truth in clear terms.  Fishwrap whined that he was being a meeeeanie.  Far meaner would have been for the Archbishop to have said nothing and left his soul and the souls of his flock in danger on this point.

Third.  St. Augustine once addressed a stern message to his flock (s. 17).  He was conscious that he was being stern.  He said… and we have his words because he had swift-writing stenographers recording him…

“So I tell you, I am saving my soul.  I shall be in a position, not of great danger but of certain ruin, if I have kept quiet.  But when I have spoken and carried out my office, it will be for you now to take notice of your danger.  What, after all, do I want?  What do I desire?  What am I longing for?  Why am I speaking? Why am I sitting here?  What do I live for, if not with this intention that we should all live together with Christ?  That is my desire, that’s my honor, that’s my most treasured possession, that’s my joy, that’s my pride and glory.  But if you don’t listen to me and yet I have not kept quiet, then I will save my soul.  But I don’t want to be saved without you.”

Now I read in the UK’s best Catholic weekly, The Catholic Herald, this story:

It is not enough for our bishops to be caring. They must speak unpalatable truths

Our bishops are generally holy men. But we ought to distinguish between private piety and the public office

By Francis Phillips on Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Following my blog about the restoration of the Friday abstinence, thanks to our good bishops – who are now also “reflecting” on bringing back our transferred Holy Days of Obligation – a friend has sent me this email (she is the recent widow of a Catholic priest, formerly an Anglican minister):

“I had a lovely surprise yesterday afternoon. I was just sitting down when the Archbishop of Birmingham knocked on the door. He was on foot, and looked just like an ordinary Catholic priest with nothing to show he was even a bishop; he just came to see how I was, as the widow of one of his dead priests. He had not even known my husband, because he was appointed archbishop too recently. He had already spoken to me twice on the phone since my husband died and also called at the house shortly afterwards, when I happened to be away. He is the kindest, most approachable, and genuinely concerned priest you could possibly hope to meet. When you consider the size of the archdiocese and his immense responsibilities, I felt truly humbled by his visit. We talked about all sorts of things. We are so blessed to have such men as our bishops.”

This is praise indeed and I felt a twinge of guilt in reading it. Why? Because I have often joined in negative conversations with Catholic friends that have begun with “Oh, our bishops…!” and then proceeded to list their many perceived failings in exasperated tones.

However, I think we must distinguish between private piety and acts of personal kindness and the public office. I am sure that our bishops are generally good and holy men and that my friend’s anecdote could be multiplied many times over. Nonetheless, thinking of the bishops in general – and not in any way pointing to the Archbishop of Birmingham in particular – I am reminded of the writer Philip Trower’s analysis of our episcopate in his excellent book, Turmoil and Truth: The Historical Roots of the Modern Crisis in the Catholic Church.

In his chapter entitled “The Shepherds”, he writes, inter alia:

“Misconceptions about the right way of being a servant have unfortunately resulted in the autocrat too often being replaced by the bishop who wants to be loved. The bishop who wants to be loved is frightened of losing his reputation for being ‘caring’ and ‘compassionate’ by doing something unpopular, even when this is what real love demands. Or he tries to ‘serve’ like a politician. When his flock goes into apostasy and heresy, he keeps it together by saying contradictory things to please all shades of opinion, or when the going gets tough, hides behind his diocesan bureaucracy. Or he becomes a kind of religious salesman. If he wants to attract Communist voters, he makes the faith sound as much as possible like Marxist Leninism. If, on the contrary, he is aiming at prosperous or hedonistically inclined sheep, he will refrain from speaking too harshly or too much about vice…”

We need our bishops to be braver in the public arena, when politicians enact anti-Christian laws; to proclaim the hard truths of the faith, however unpalatable to our hedonistic ears; to care passionately about the salvation of the souls in their dioceses, so we know that Heaven, not niceness, is the goal; to love their sheep more than their good standing with the bishops’ conference. And so on.

There I go, grumbling again. Memo: pray for bishops as well as priests.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in "How To..." - Practical Notes, Brick by Brick, New Evangelization, Our Catholic Identity, The Drill, The future and our choices and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. mrose says:

    I, of the younger generation and a convert from Protestantism who converted due in large part to the “Authority” question, sympathize with this. I look to the hierarchy, a blessing from Christ rather than an oppressive mean-old-man regime, for truly pastoral leadership (I intend pastoral in its fullest sense, that the shepherd must guide his flock, which means searching out for the 1 even if the 99 are on the right path). I hope with an occasional fear that all our clamoring about the trouble in the Church is an honest hope for our shepherds to more faithfully guide us, rather than some bizarre conservative/traditional take on a democratic Church.

    In any case, an exhortation to prayer, especially for bishops, is always good. I remember the first Examination of Conscience ‘template’ I read, where “failure to pray for those whom you criticize” stuck out to me rather strongly.

    I would also add to this prayer for the Holy Father, specifically for his dealings with Bishops who give him difficulty and who are perhaps less than faithful to their vocation.

  2. shane says:

    It’s very hard to take a bishop seriously who doesn’t take himself seriously. They are entrusted with the care of Christ’s flock though all too many now see themselves as stewards of terminal decline. I suspect the sex abuse crisis has made many hesitant to speak out on ‘controversial’ topics for fear of vitriol in the newspaper columns.

    There was once a time when Catholic bishops were respected even by hard-line Protestants and atheists, even if they fiercly disagreed with them but that world is now gone.

  3. benedetta says:

    I do this often. Once in a while it presents some challenge. What I pray for is that a Bishop or all Bishops be led by God’s will for us. It makes it somewhat easier to be disinterested in “results” or “consequences” when one is aware that God’s will is what is paramount.

  4. Jason C. says:

    When I read St. Augustine (or St. Paul, or St. James, or St. John), there is profound mystery in how they speak. When priests and bishops talk today, there is no such sweetness and mystery. Today they usually just sound like pedantic moralizers.

    Example: What you quoted from St. Augustine. How beautiful. That’s a man I’d follow to the hereafter. Too bad nobody speaks like that anymore.

  5. dans0622 says:

    Edit in the title: “unpalatable.” Certainly, the pastor needs to exercise clear fidelity to the faith in his words and actions. This will, necessarily, include acts of charity/kindness. A shortcoming in personal charity is antithetical to evangelization, as is an unwillingness to preach with boldness.

  6. jacobi says:

    You are right, Fr., truths are often unpalatable. But priests as well as bishops should get back into the habit of speaking out.
    Ever since the late sixties there has been almost a conspiracy of silence on Catholic doctine, and that includes so-called Catholic schools, at least in my part of the woods. Instead, we have had the pastoral approach, little different from a Secularist “be nice to your neighbour” philosophy. Now I am all for being nice, but as you indicate and as St Augustine taught, that also can include unpalatable truths

    Since so many Catholic parents are deficient in their Catholic faith, and since so many schools are still teaching a watered-down form of catholicism, I personally think the time has come for not only bishops, but also all parish priests to switch back to a missionary role and teach specific Catholic doctrine, as well as the love of our fellow humans, from the pulpit

  7. From Padre Pio…

    “After love for our Lord, I would recommend to you that of the Church, his Bride. She is like a dove sitting on her nest and hatching the Bridegroom’s chicks. Always be thankful to God that you are a daughter of the Church, following that vast number of souls who have gone before us along this blessed way. Have a great deal of sympathy for all pastors, preachers and spiritual guides; they are to be found over all the earth… Pray for them to God, that in being saved themselves they may become fruitful in winning salvation for souls. Pray for the wicked as much as for the devout; pray for the Holy Father; pray for all the needs of the Church, both spiritual and temporal, since she is our mother. And offer a special prayer, too, for all those who work for the salvation of souls to the glory of the Father.”

  8. Supertradmum says:

    What beautiful thoughts, Father Z. Thank you.

  9. Sandmama says:

    I would add an encouragement to the faithful, that when our Bishops DO speak up against societal ills, evil, or even sin and DO clarify Catholic teaching publicly, that we have a duty to support them. Having written to our local Bishop in thanks for him stating that a politicians stance on abortion and other issues was inconsistent with Catholic teaching, I received a short note of thanks. In this note our Bishop expressed how heartening it is to hear positively from the faithful during such public and trying situations but also how infrequently it happens.
    The next time your Bishop speaks and ‘unpalatable truth’ send him a thank you note, along with your prayers.

  10. inara says:

    oh, how I needed this just now…I am still reeling from stopping in for Mass this morning at a church I’d never been to. I knew I was in trouble as soon as the priest scurried up to the altar wearing only an alb & Rastafarian striped stole & said “Hi everybody, thanks for starting your day with Jesus”…the vessels were all cheap glass, there was no crucifix anywhere to be found, & there was an abundance of interesting language (the entirety of the Sign of Peace: “Peace, folks…have a nice day”).

    I will stop grumbling & start praying…

  11. fxkelli says:

    I think this is a great sentiment that is too easily forgotten. I realize the importance of taking a stand on key moral issues of the times, which should unite all Christians, if not people of all faiths. My concern is how we do this, while at the same time not over emphasizing important, but less essential, elements of church traditions. With the ascent of secular materialism in our society, we have really big fish to fry, regardless of whether we choose to eat it on Friday.

  12. webpoppy8 says:

    +10 for Fr Z, the Catholic Herald, and St Augustine.

Comments are closed.