When a father gives his child the gift of his first two-wheeler bicycle he really gives much more than a bike.  The father also demonstrates by this gift his trust and confidence in the child.  And the child, realising this, is only too eager to meet the challenge, and to show that his father’s confidence in him hasn’t been misplaced.

Now it may seem a strange thing to say, but in one sense the Church is a gift of this sort.  It’s a gift, which brings with it a special task and a special challenge.  Today’s readings talk about leadership and we can apply them to leadership in the Church, and so I would like to single out one man’s share in this gift and the responsibility it brings him.  I’d like us to reflect upon the role of the bishop in his diocese, in what we call the Local Church.

Think of the Church first of all as a gift and a challenge.  I think this is a good way to understand our own role as well as the role of the bishop.

The Church is a tremendous gift from God; as the Creed tells us: the Church is One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.  Christ is present in his Church.  The unity and holiness of the Church don’t have to be created: these elements are already present.  The Sacraments, the teaching of Christ, already exist and have always existed since the foundation of the Church.  This is all one gift.  The bishop’s share in this gift is that he represents Christ in his diocese.  As a successor of the Apostles he has been given the power and the authority to preach and teach and to bring people to Our Lord through the Sacraments.

And so the Church doesn’t exist as a mere human institution: the gift of the Church brings responsibility and a challenge, not only to those who lead it, but to all of us who claim to be Catholic.

Saint Paul says that the Church must so work that “God may be everything to all people”.  The Church must bring all things under the influence of Christ.  She must preach Christ to every individual and to every level of society.  The Church must build up God’s family everywhere.  This is the challenge that faced the Apostles, the same daunting challenge that now faces their successors the bishops.

We read in the scriptures that the Apostles couldn’t meet that challenge alone and neither can the bishops of today.  Like the Apostles the bishops share their responsibility with us, in varying degrees.

Christ comes to us, principally and supremely, in the Sacraments.  Through the Sacrament of Ordination, the bishop shares his power to make Christ present with others, with his priests.   But where are the men who will take up this challenge?  Do we encourage vocations to the priesthood in our own families?  Do we pray and work for vocations?  Do we encourage any young people we know to consider a vocation to the priesthood or the religious life?

Christ commanded the Apostles to “Preach the Gospel” and to “teach all the nations”.  Again, the bishop shares this power to preach and teach with others.  But who will come forward to teach?  The lay apostolate is an essential part of the Church, not an added extra.  We need more and more trained catechists and Catholic teachers in our Catholic schools if we are going to bring Christ to everyone.

Christ came into this world not only as Lord and Master, but as a Servant.  And in the simplest of terms the bishop is a servant: our servant.  His main concern is to bring Christ to his people.  And, as long as the bishop is in a place we have a sure sign that Christ is working there too.  And we can be sure that a bishop who remains in communion with the See of Rome will always teach the truth which we, if we are faithful, will accept with humility.  But just as Christ needed his Apostles so his Apostles and their successors the bishops need others too.

And so the challenge is there for us all to respond to, each in our different way, to “Preach the Gospel to all”.  The bishop, priests, deacons, religious and people, young and old, must meet this challenge together.

I have already mentioned on a couple of occasions that priests and religious don’t miraculously appear in a puff of incense every now and again in some dark corner of the sacristy.  They don’t just appear when we need them.  The same is true of catechists, Catholic teachers and others who participate in the life and ministry of the Church.  Priests, deacons, religious, teachers and lay-helpers: they all come from our own families and we all have a responsibility and an obligation to encourage our children and our young people to be involved in the life of the Church.  We should encourage them to, at least, consider a vocation to the Priesthood or the Religious Life, or to be a witness to the Gospel in some other way.  Perhaps now more than ever in the history of the Church we need men and women, young and old, who are dedicated to Christ and his Church to stand up for the Way, the Truth and the Life, by leading lives that will mirror Our Lord’s own life, so that the people with whom we share our lives may see Christ in us by means of what we say, but more by what we do.  Being a Catholic is not a part-time occupation reserved to an hour or so each Sunday when we go to Mass.  Being a Catholic is a vocation, it’s a way of life which we are all called to live out each moment of our lives.  Now, we are not all called by God to be priests or religious, but the Church needs our help in so many ways, and without which priests and religious could never be effective.  The Church needs men and women dedicated to the truth and to the infallible teaching of the Catholic Church to make a difference in the lives of our young people: to lead them along the road to truth, not along the road of confusion and questioning.

From time to time we need to step back for a moment and reflect upon the way in which we have responded to the call of God to follow him, and how we put our discipleship into practice in our daily lives.

We need to become a people more devoted to personal prayer and a sacramental life, a people who willingly and generously involve themselves in the life of the Church and the community.  Only then can we receive the innumerable graces and blessings which the Lord our God wishes to bestow upon us as members of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, the family of God himself.

The Rt. Rev. Philip Egan, Bishop of Portsmouth

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