‘Bishop, know thy dignity!’

by a priest in good standing

In the year 372, when a “second wave” of Arianism was sweeping over the eastern part of the Catholic Church, an extremely powerful and aggressive man came to visit the bishop of a city in what is now called Turkey. The name of this powerful man, somewhat ironically, was Modestus. He was the praetorian prefect. This meant that he governed most of the eastern part of the Roman empire, having his seat in the imperial capital, Constantinople, and being second only to the emperor himself. Modestus had come to tell the bishop, whose name was Basil, that the emperor in person would soon be coming to visit him, and that he, the emperor, would no longer tolerate Basil’s insistence that Jesus Christ was to be called homoousios, or having the same substance, as the Father. Basil must accept the emperor’s decision on this matter, like everyone else. If Basil was recalcitrant to properly constituted authority, Modestus informed him, then he could expect to suffer; the majesty of the emperor would be obliged to inflict upon him confiscation of his property, followed by exile, and perhaps even by torture and by death itself.

Basil listened to the praetorian prefect with due courtesy, and then gave him this reply:

“You must think of some other threat – these have no influence on me. He who has nothing to lose, except some poor garments, and a few books, is not in danger from confiscation! Exile is not a threat to someone who is at home wherever he is, or rather who dwells everywhere in God’s home, whose pilgrim and wanderer he is. Tortures cannot harm a body that is so frail that it would break under the first blow: if you struck me only once, I should die. And that would but send me sooner to Him for whom I live and labour, for whom I am already more dead than alive, and to whom I have long been journeying.”

The praetorian prefect was rather taken aback. “No one has ever dared to speak to Modestus like that before”, he sternly told him. “Perhaps,” replied Basil, “that is because you have never met a bishop before.” 

The bishop in question is celebrated by the Church as St Basil of Caesarea, sometimes called St Basil the Great. His encounter with Modestus is related, though at greater length, by his friend St Gregory Nazianzen, in the funeral oration that he preached after Basil’s death.1

St Basil knew very well that most bishops in his time had allowed themselves to be intimidated into some degree of compromise with Arianism. But in his humility, rather than ascribe his own resistance to an unusual degree of virtue, he preferred to say that his behaviour was simply that which became any member of the episcopal order. “Though we are obliged by our law to be modest and submissive to all”, he told Modestus, “and to treat no man haughtily, let alone so great a person as yourself; nevertheless, where the interests of God are at stake, we care for nothing else, and make these our sole object.”

All Christians, of course, are obliged to profess the orthodox faith in public when it is threatened: this is what the sacrament of confirmation is for. But this duty is incumbent most of all upon those who are the “high priests” of the new covenant, and the successors of the apostles. “When bishops come among men,” declared the last council, “let their words about salvation be outstanding for their clarity” (Christus Dominus, 13).  

To this end, our Lord endows His bishops with an abundance of graces. They have received the fullness of the sacrament of orders. He even gives them, as He did on earth to the twelve and to the seventy-two, power over unclean spirits. This is why a diocesan bishop is the principal exorcist in his own diocese.

Bishops are subject to the bishop of Rome, of course. Yet they are not his vicars. That is to say, although a pope may, where necessary, appoint or even depose a bishop, as well as legislate for the universal Church, their task is not to copy his preferences or to adopt his policies in contingent matters. A bishop must put on not the mind of the pope but the mind of Christ. When Bismarck, chancellor of Germany, protested that the first Vatican Council had reduced the world’s bishops to the rank of papal spokesmen, the German episcopacy strongly denied this, and their denial was seconded by Blessed Pius IX himself.

Do bishops today always fully understand this, I wonder? Several years ago, I read some words from a bishop who has a certain reputation for orthodoxy. He was expressing concern over Catholic politicians who vote to permit abortions and then go to Mass to receive the body of Christ. He said that something should be done about this; but then he added, “Of course, I cannot act by myself, without the bishops’ conference.” My Lord, you can so act, and indeed, you must: for you are not the vicar of the bishops’ conference, but of Christ, within your diocese. It is not by our fidelity to any bishops’ conference that we shall be judged. When confronted with the praetorian prefect and his tortures, St Basil the Great did not fudge the question. He did not ask himself, for example, whether the doctrinal committee of the bishops’ conference of Cappadocia was recommending pastoral flexibility about the homoousios. He looked to the Master whom he served, and the faithful for whose souls he was responsible, and he told the truth. “When bishops come among men, let their words about salvation be outstanding for their clarity.”

Why is it that such clarity is so cruelly wanting today? In part, perhaps, from a lack of good education in seminaries. Yet by the time a man has become a bishop, he has had ample chance to make up for whatever was deficient in his teachers. Partly, no doubt, because of fear: but even today, in our western countries, a bishop is unlikely to suffer exile, torture or death because he tells the truth. Even Cardinal Pell was finally vindicated by his country’s highest court. Lack of holiness? But that is always true of all of us – if we were holier, we should do more good.

I suggest that there are two special causes of the diminishment of bishops which they, but only they, can overcome. I am not thinking here of modernist bishops, but of men who have the Catholic faith in their hearts and who have a love for Jesus Christ and His people, but who are not yet teaching and governing as they might. I suspect that such bishops often feel trapped by the present ecclesial state of things, but it is not so. The door is locked and bolted, but they have the key.

What are these two causes of which I speak? The first is the habit of always looking to Rome to give the lead, in other words, of thinking of oneself, albeit unconsciously, as a vicar of the pope. It is understandable that such an attitude should have grown up in the past century or so: it was occasioned by Vatican I, with its definition of the dogmas of papal infallibility and universal jurisdiction, and it was reinforced by the need for a strong central authority to deal with errors that can now spread rapidly through the Church, owing to modern means of communications. For as long as the popes themselves were generally dependable in their everyday (so called “merely authentic”) public utterances about faith and morals, such a policy didn’t work too badly. In the case of a pope who seems actively to dislike the Catholic religion, this policy of letting Rome take the initiative in teaching is disastrous. Even if the orthodox bishops of whom I am thinking cannot bring themselves to investigate Pope Francis for heresy, which I believe to be the correct action to take, they can at least issue declarations of true doctrine, require that all office-holders in their diocese subscribe to them, and send pastoral letters to their parishes explaining them. The Declaration of Truths issued by five bishops in 2019 could serve as a model here. But please, no pastoral letters just telling the faithful that racism is bad or that welcoming the stranger and caring for the environment is good; they can hear those things from the world. We need letters telling us that, say, IVF and heresy are bad, that virginity and prayer and fasting are good, that confession is the only appointed way for the baptised to get rid of grave sins, that life is short, eternity is long, and that heaven is real and near, but that so also is hell.

Yet I believe there is a second reason why our orthodox bishops do not wield their apostolic power as effectively as they might. They are not saying the Mass of ages, except occasionally, but the Mass of the 1960’s. It is not sufficient to say “the Mass is the Mass”, or “Christ is present whatever the rite”. Christ is really present in the Blessed Sacrament, and so the faithful receive sacramental grace in proportion to their dispositions when they receive Holy Communion, no matter what the rite. But the Mass as a sacrifice is not only the act of Christ, but also the act of the Church. As the act of the Church, this sacrifice will be more or less pleasing to God in function of the holiness of the rite, and in this way, it will bring down more or less grace and mercy upon each local church. Can it really be pleasing to God if His bishops use a rite that has been partly Protestantized, in comparison to the immemorial Mass? By contrast, if our bishops resolve to honour Him by offering Mass in the most perfect manner that they can, graces that He is now withholding from their dioceses will be unlocked, and places that are now like deserts will begin to flower anew.

  1. This is Oration 43 in St Gregory’s works.