When you stop and think about it, parents are a sort of “bishop” – an overseer of the family unit entrusted to them by God.
This has been quite an eventful week. On Monday I attended the episcopal ordinations of the two new auxiliary bishops of Westminster Canon Paul McAleenan and Mgr. John Wilson. 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 priests 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 “the 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.
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 when we reflect upon the awesome responsibilities, rights and duties of parents not only to feed, clothe, educate and protect their children but also to transmit the Faith to their offspring, one can begin to appreciate 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. “Fulfill 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 a very, very, hostile, anti-family, anti-parental rights, anti-Christian environment. So we need models of extraordinary heroic virtue to look up to and emulate in some small way. So in this week of Holocaust Memorial Day, look no further than the courageous witness and love of Wiktoria and Józef Ulma from Poland who together with their 6 children and a 7th unborn one were murdered by the Nazis in 1944 for sheltering two Jewish families in their home. 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 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.
Director, Office of Marriage and Family Life – Diocese of Westminster