Old soldiers never die,” said retired General Douglas MacArthur, “they just fade away.” Retired Roman Catholic bishops, however, do not just fade away. They begin a “new phase of their ministry,” according to The Bishop Emeritus, a study by the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops that became available in English last August (originally published in Italian in 2008).
In the introduction, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, the congregation’s prefect, observes: “In the 2,000-year history of the church, bishops emeriti are a new reality just a little more than 40 years old. They represent an innovation in the life of the Catholic Church.” Today the number of retired bishops worldwide is around 1,150.
After acknowledging these bishops’ valued ongoing service to the church and their rights and duties, the document takes up some of their personal experiences. It should come as no surprise that retirement, described as “a profound change of life…a break with one’s previous life experience” and a “severing of the network of relationships that constitute one’s life,” can lead even a bishop to a sense of “isolation and even create a sense of emptiness on a psychological and relational level.”
In days gone by, bishops, priests and religious typically died “with their boots on.” Then Canon 401 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law followed up on “the earnest request” of the Second Vatican Council’s “Decree on the Bishop’s Pastoral Office in the Church” (No. 21) that “bishops resign from their office if on account of advanced age or from any other grave cause they become less able to carry out their duties.” As a result, bishops are required to submit their resignation at the age of 75. The wisdom of the requirement is based on the need for alertness and energy on the part of the bishop. It also takes into account that bishops emeriti (a term first used officially in Canon 402) can still serve and minister to the church in significant ways.
The document makes two theological points in explaining why the bishop emeritus can and should still serve the church:
1. The bishop is, like Christ, a servant and not a master, and his sacred ministry is a response to love. It is an “office of love,” one that continues throughout his life.
2. The obligation and privilege of the bishop through his consecration is to build up the church through a threefold office: that of teaching, especially by preaching the word of God; that of sanctifying, by celebrating the Eucharist and the other sacraments; and that of governing. Though a bishop emeritus ceases to possess any power of jurisdiction (and that to most bishops comes as a blessing), he “collaborates in the governance of the church” by his wise counsel, works of charity, instruction, defense of the weak and unremitting concern for the people of God.
Bishops emeriti retain “a certain bond of spiritual affection” with the particular church each man governed as pastor. That is why they have the title of “bishop emeritus” of the diocese they served. This is something quite new. Prior to 1970, the retired bishop of a diocese was assigned one of the 1,860 or so titular sees, dioceses that for one reason or another no longer exist. Pope Paul VI decided on Oct. 31, 1970, that “diocesan bishops of the Latin rite who resign are no longer transferred to a titular church, but instead continue to be identified by the name of the see they have resigned.”
The Bishop Emeritus takes pains to distinguish between the secular understanding of retirement and the status of emeritus: “Retirement concerns a person’s employment status.” It is an administrative act whereby a person loses all rights except the right to a pension for support. “With the status of emeritus, on the other hand, there is only cessation of jurisdiction over the office held, which becomes vacant [until a new bishop is appointed]. A bishop emeritus, while losing the latter competence, retains other bonds, especially those of affection that link him to the particular church, while remaining a member of the college of bishops.”
Within the Diocese and Beyond
The bond the bishop emeritus retains with his diocese has a lot to do with how he and his successor relate to one another. The two bishops are urged “to live in mutual fraternity and to cultivate a spirituality of communion,” a demand arising from “membership in the same college of bishops, from their sharing in the same apostolic mission and from affection for the same diocese.”
The diocesan bishop is to be “appreciative of the good done by the bishop emeritus in the church in general and especially in the diocese” and the bishop emeritus must “take care not to interfere directly or indirectly in anything to do with the leadership of the diocese.”
When both bishops work at it, their “fraternal relationship…will be edifying to the people of God and particularly to the diocesan presbyterate.” The document quotes the biblical admonition: “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” (Heb 13:7).
Beyond his diocese, the bishop emeritus also can be invited to the general assembly of the bishops’ conference (in the United States that is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops), cast a consultative vote in it, take part in study commissions and, if the conference president decides, serve on a commission for which he has special competence. In that case he is granted a deliberative vote, though solely within that commission.
The document also recommends something new, that the conference president appoint a bishop emeritus for a three-year term to quietly watch over the life of the bishops emeriti within the conference, “to serve as a ‘point of reference’ for the bishops emeriti.” The U.S.C.C.B. has polled retired bishops on the matter.
In many such ways a bishop emeritus who has the necessary health and stamina can continue to serve the church. But every bishop blessed with added years has not only the responsibility but also the privilege of praying for his diocese and the church universal. His is the “prayer of a pastor.” His is the “ministry of intercession.”
To have an intimate friendship with Jesus Christ is what Pope Benedict XVI calls the greatest goal of every disciple of Jesus, but especially of bishops and priests. Working to deepen one’s friendship with Jesus is a lifelong challenge and joy. If in the process of cherishing that friendship the bishop emeritus is able to continue some form of the apostolate, so much the better.
The Vatican document ends with a prayer of St. Martin of Tours: “Lord, if your people still need me, I do not refuse the task; your will be done.” With respect to the ongoing vocation of a bishop emeritus, we can say that life is changed, not ended.