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The spiritual lives of bishops

Most Rev. Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.

This article originally appeared in the December 1999 issue of Lay Witness magazine.

More than 15 centuries ago, Augustine wrote a prayer which every bishop should have near his pillow:

I beg of you my God,
let me know you and love you
so that I may be happy in you.
And though I cannot do this fully in this life,
yet let me improve from day to day,
till I may do so to the full.
Let me know you more and more in this life,
that I may know you perfectly in heaven.
Let me know you more and more here,
so that I may love you perfectly there,
so that my joy may be great in itself here,
and complete in heaven with you.
O truthful God, let me receive
the happiness of heaven which you promise
so that my joy may be full.
In the meantime,
let my mind think of it,
let my tongue talk of it,
let my heart long for it,
let my mouth speak of it,
let my soul hunger after it,
let my flesh thirst after it,
let my whole being desire it,
until such time as I may enter through death
into the joy of my Lord,
there to continue forever,
world without end. Amen.

What appeals in these words is not their surface piety, but their deeper urgency and longing. In fact, they're filled with a yearning very close to David's in his Psalm 63: "O God, thou art my God, I seek thee, my soul thirsts for thee, my flesh faints for thee, as in a dry and weary place where no water is."

David, who prefigured Christ, wrote from the Judean wilderness. Augustine, configured to Christ in the Sacrament of Orders, wrote from a different but equally harsh kind of desert. Himself a bishop, Augustine lived in a time of vast social change and sharp theological debate. And he understood from personal experience that a bishop has no hope at all to succeed as a pastor without immersing himself, losing himself completely, in God.

In every eucharistic sacrifice, the bishop acts in persona Christi "in the person of Christ" and God made it so for a reason. Only Christ can accomplish what the bishop is called to do. Vatican II, in its decree on the office of bishops in the Church, enjoins bishops ". . . to teach all peoples, to sanctify men in truth, and to give them spiritual nourishment" (Christus Dominus, 2). No man can achieve this on his own. So in the course of his vocation, the bishop either becomes all Christ, or all straw. He can't give spiritual nourishment to others unless he draws it from the intimate presence of God in his own spiritual life. And that happens not just through a personal habit of praying, but by allowing God to refashion him into a man of prayer.

Every bishop is called first to be a witness of Christ among his people, not just through words that's the easy part but in the outline of his entire life. We tend to dwell on the "active voice" when it comes to the verbs describing the role of bishops: They teach, they preach, they govern, they guide, they correct, console and encourage. But above all, like a good father in any family, they must model a surrender to the demands of love, to the people they love, and to the God who is love.

A friend once described the spiritual life in this way: Each of us is a child with an instinct for beauty, and God, who is the beauty behind all beauty, is the hidden presence we naturally sense and seek to touch. Our lives are spent reaching for that beauty. But creation is so very great, and we're so very small . . . until God stoops down to provide us with the stool to stand on, so that we can stretch out and touch His face.

The legs of that stool are faith, hope and love -- and these are what I pray God will fill me with as a spiritual father, as a pastor, as a bishop. I will tell you why.

Faith gives meaning. Man was made for a purpose; only faith provides it; and without it the soul dies. Faith is not doctrines, though these are essential. Faith is not sentiment, or knowledge, or law, though all these play a vital role in our life of faith. Faith is the certitude that God exists and loves us, because He has revealed Himself in the one vocabulary which doesn't leave much room for disagreement: His palpable presence in our lives. Bishops preach this good news. But the irony, as C.S. Lewis once wrote, is that the hardest thing to believe is that which we have just preached or defended to another. Giving the truth away leaves an empty place in the heart. And the only way to refill it, as Augustine did, is to turn back to God and beg Him again for His presence. Bishops, for all the grace of their office, are just as prone to formal faith and practical unbelief as any Christian in the pew. And history might argue: maybe more so. This is why I pray.

Hope gives joy. Every bishop sooner than later discovers that his own skills are too poor and his own sins too stubborn to be the man his people need . . . unless the Gospel is true; unless Jesus Christ is real and present in our lives. Hope sinks its roots in faith and flowers in joy. At the end of the day, there are no unhappy saints. St. Leo the Great, who became pope not long after Augustine's death and in times no better, wrote that "there is no room for sadness on this, the birthday of life." He was talking about Christmas, but since Bethlehem, we are all living in the morning of Incarnation every day. We're part of an endless birthday of life -- a birthday which sets itself, in this world, against a culture of death. The task of every believer, and above all a bishop, is to be an agent of hope. This is why I pray.

Finally, love gives life. All love is fruitful. Every person's life animated by love is fertile and creates new life according to his or her unique vocation some in the flesh, some in the spirit, but new life nonetheless. The better we love, the more we become the hands of God, sculpting the new beauty of a new creation. Love draws us into God Himself. And from our hearts, love calls out two other virtues which depend on it: humility, which allows us to forget ourselves and cherish the dignity of all God's children; and courage, which enables us to live and speak the truth . . . not as a weapon, but as a gift. It is not enough to speak the truth. We need, as Paul wrote, to speak the truth in love. This is why I pray.

The spiritual life of bishops must be driven by that hunger, thirst and desire for God which Augustine captured with such power so long ago. When we love with this intensity -- as the apostles did; as every bishop is called to do -- so too will our people.

Such love changed the world once. It can do so again. It will do so again.



Copyright 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved