The Ministry of the Bishop in Relation to the Blessed Trinity | Cardinal Francis George, O.M.I. | Ignatius InsightThe Ministry of the Bishop in Relation to the Blessed Trinity | Cardinal Francis George, O.M.I. | Ignatius Insight

When Catholics say, "We believe in God," we mean our faith is in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is a Blessed Trinity; all our prayers and our teaching and our lives begin and end in the name of God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

It is Jesus, our Savior, who introduces us to his Father and makes it possible--because we are in him through Baptism--to call his Father our Father. "Lord, show us the Father," Philip said to Jesus, to which Jesus replied, "He who has seen me has seen the Father" (Jn. 14:8-9). To know the Father, we look at Jesus.

To know Jesus himself, we look at the record and the witnesses. We look at and live in the tradition, both written in Holy Scripture and oral in the liturgy and teaching of the Church, which links us to Jesus in the community he left behind. In the Church, Christ's body, we receive Scripture and are told it is God's holy Word. In the Church, the risen Lord touches and shapes us through the seven sacraments, which are his own actions in our space and time. In the Church, we recognize the Lord because we live by the Spirit Jesus sends.

To know the Holy Spirit, who is always self-effacing, we look at the results, the gifts, and the fruits that bear witness to the Spirit's activity in the Church. The Spirit is wind or force; the Spirit is fire or warmth and light. The Spirit is prophetic, always pointing to Christ and keeping us in Christ's truth.

Trinitarian Life

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one God. Each Person of the Blessed Trinity is totally given to the others. Their "sharing" is perfect. The presence of one divine Person means the presence of all three in our lives. Each is God, yet there is only one God, because each Person is perfectly and simply a relation to the other two. God is perfect self-giving, perfect generosity. God, as St. John says, is love (1 Jn. 4:8).

The Church is a network of relationships because she lives God's life, Trinitarian life. The Church, like the Trinity, is a communion of persons, each intrinsically related because all share the gifts Christ gives his people. The basic gift is sanctifying grace, which justifies us and enables us to live God's own life by freeing us from sin, healing our souls, and enabling us to act in a supernatural manner. If God's life is one of infinite generosity shared in a Trinitarian order, then so it is with the Church's life, because the Church reflects, causes, and makes visible God's life in us. The Church's life is one of grace and charisms, both institutional and personal, shared visibly in an ordered pattern called ecclesial communion.

The sacraments of the Church are the principal means for making this dynamic of shared gifts visible. As St. Paul says, it is Christ who baptizes; and it is Christ who confirms and forgives and heals and unites and ordains and gives us not just his Word but his very Self in the sacrifice of the altar. Christ shares his gifts and his very Self with his people until he returns again in glory.

Representatives of Christ

In the meantime, in our time, the Church is governed apostolically, by the successors of those whom Christ first commissioned to preach the Gospel to the nations and to establish local Churches. With and under the successor of Peter, the head of the Twelve, the bishops are charged to preach Christ's truth, to celebrate Christ's sacraments, to govern and love Christ's people, and to see that all Christ's gifts are available to his people.

In each particular Church or diocese, therefore, the bishop is the visible point of reference for all those who gather in Christ's name. The bishop makes Christ's headship visible in a particular Church. He is married to his people, which is why he wears a ring. He is the shepherd of his people, which is why he carries a staff or crozier. He is the head of his people, which is why he wears a miter or crown.

Like and in God the Father, the bishop as life-giver is the source of authority in his local Church. Like and in God the Son, the bishop as servant gathers the baptized into the Eucharistic assembly and sends them on mission to transform the world. Like and in God the Holy Spirit, the bishop unites, encourages, challenges, comforts, and strengthens the people confided to his pastoral care. Since God is love, the virtue that is preeminent in the ministry of the bishop is pastoral charity, which regulates and informs all other virtues in his life.

The spiritual life of the bishop reflects and strengthens his ministry. Our spiritual life--the believer's life in Christ--relates us to the Blessed Trinity internally and is visibly expressed in our prayer and works. The bishop, therefore, is most himself when he is at prayer, celebrating the Mass in his cathedral, surrounded by his priests and deacons, breaking open the Word of God for the holy People of God and bringing them with him into the sacrifice which unites us most perfectly to God through the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. The structure and prayer of the Mass is totally Trinitarian, beginning in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and ending with God's blessing. The Eucharistic Prayer is prayed to the Father, through the Son, and in the Holy Spirit. After the bishop or priest makes Christ's Body and Blood present in an unbloody manner, the whole assembly offers Christ's sacrifice to the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit. Only then, visibly in Christ, do we dare to say, "Our Father" and share the first gift of the Holy Spirit--peace--before receiving the Eucharist as our food and drink.

In his personal prayer and pastoral contacts, the bishop also lives and acts in Trinitarian fashion. The Liturgy of the Hours is as Trinitarian as the Mass and the other sacraments. The bishop's prayer for his people enables him to bring their deepest concerns into the heart of God's love. His work for his people draws him into the self-sacrifice that conforms him spiritually to Christ.

Because his vocation and mission in the Church are Trinitarian, so must be his personal spiritual life. But in his life with God, the bishop never lives alone. Because, as Saint Irenaeus wrote, "the bishop is in the Church and the Church is in the bishop," the bishop becomes holy only with and through his people.

The Directory for the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops reminds every bishop that he
should combine in himself, at one and the same time, the qualities of both a brother and a father, a disciple of Christ and a teacher of the faith, a son of the Church and, in a certain way, a father of the Church, for he ministers the spiritual birth of Christians (1 Cor. 4:15). [1]
Rooted in faith and growing in love, the bishop's Trinitarian life and ministry should give hope to his people so that they can be light to the world. He is called by God to this vocation and is sustained in it by the prayers of the people. Every bishop is grateful for his vocation, but every bishop also recognizes how fragile his own cooperation with God's grace can be. The Church encourages prayers for the Pope and other bishops because without them the risk is great that the bishop will begin to go his own way and forsake the saving embrace of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.


[1] Vatican Congregation for Bishops, Directory for the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops Ecclesiae Imago (1973), no. 14.

This essay originally appeared in the May/June 2001 issue of Catholic Dossier. It also appeared in Servants of the Gospel, reflections of American bishops on their role as bishops, published by Emmaus Road Publishing.

Related Articles:

"The Reality of God": Benedict XVI on the Trinity | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
• Faith in the Triune God, and Peace in the World | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger | An excerpt from Europe: Today and Tomorrow
• The Trinity and the Nature of Love | Fr. Christopher Rengers
Benedict on Aquinas: "Faith Implies Reason" | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
• God's Eros Is Agape | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Father, Son, and Spirit--So What's In A Name? | Deborah Belonick
Eternal Security? A Trinitarian Apologetic for Perseverance | Freddie Stewart, Jr.
• Jean DaniŽlou and the "Master-Key to Christian Theology" | Carl E. Olson
Understanding The Hierarchy of Truths | Douglas Bushman, S.T.L.

Cardinal Francis George, O.M.I., is the Archbishop of Chicago and, as of 2008, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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