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Hume: Bishops’ role to lead, not suppress

The late Cardinal George Basil Hume of Westminster, shortly before he died and knowing that death was imminent, videotaped by invitation an address to the U.S. bishops’ summer meeting held June 18-22 in Tucson, Ariz. The theme was a bishops’ relationship to the church and his fellow bishops. Excerpts follow.

The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) did not cast the pope and bishops in the roles of chief executive and branch managers, nor did it see the pope as simply the first among equals. It stressed papal primacy and collegiality. The challenge today is for these two to live side by side.

What is at the heart of this relationship between pope and the college of bishops is the unity of the church. In his diocese the bishop is the vicar of Christ for his people, but he also confirms the pope’s universal jurisdiction. This relationship between the universal church and the particular church is expressed and mediated in various ways. One of the structures to facilitate this relationship is the Roman curia, which I notice is the focus of one of your workshops. For my part, I would like to acknowledge the help and support I have received from the curia in many situations. But it would be naive to presume that all relationships with the curia are ideal.

If now I proceed to sound a note of criticism, it is out of fraternal charity and a love of the church. For instance, some of us would have been surprised by the form and tone of some letters from curial offices. There are concerns about the manner of some episcopal appointments, and the length of time taken to make them. Not all appointments have been satisfactory. There is often unease about the way in which theologians and their writings have been investigated. There can be a sense of frustration at not having been consulted on issues that are important to us as local bishops. In an institution such as the church, where human beings are entrusted with varying tasks, there are bound to be misunderstandings and tensions and a certain clumsiness in dealing with things on a worldwide scale. All such difficulties can be resolved by good will and common sense, but always within the context of openness and a willingness to dialogue.

This leads me to wonder about another important relationship in the church, that between the Holy Father and his curia. When an organization is very big, officials exercise greater individual power. That is why I have long thought it would be good if the pope were to call together all the presidents of the conferences of the world every two years or so, so that he could hear directly their collective advice. The development during this century of the role of the bishops’ conferences is surely a good example of subsidiarity. We know that in our practice as bishops we are often on our own. When I go into my study each morning after breakfast to open my mail ... it is not easy to be faced at that point in the day with a vitriolic attack on a parish priest because he had reordered the sanctuary. ... The second letter is equally angry. She wants to be ordained a priest and maintains strongly that the matter should at least be open to debate. I ask myself whether it is even sensible to stifle debate in the church. Personally I have no problem with what the Holy Father said about the ordination of women. I accept his authority obediently.

Wouldn’t it be sensible to lower the age at which we are expected to retire? Would there not be merit in stepping down after, say, 15 years as a diocesan bishop?

When my predecessor as abbot died at the age of 94 — he had ruled the monastery for 24 years — in his obituary was this striking observation: "A man who bears a heavy burden, as he has done for so long, must live by the ethics of responsibility. He is the king who must keep the kingdom together rather than the prophet who can think in freedom, express his thoughts and damn the consequences."

I am constantly being urged to suppress this group or that, drive out of the church this lot or that. I do not believe this is right. I believe that as a bishop I have to try to lead people from where they are to where they never dreamt they might go.

National Catholic Reporter, July 16, 1999