Editor’s note: This is the fourth of a series of eight Lenten columns.
Fourth truth: Shepherds in Christ’s Name.
A young couple asked me once about the church’s teachings on sexuality and marriage. They were perplexed and wanted some explanation. I referred to the positions of the church as the teachings of Christ. The gentleman stopped me and asked how I could argue that these were from Christ. Aren’t these just the opinions of the church?
The above encounter raised important questions: What is the relationship between Christ and the church? What authority and responsibility did Christ give to the shepherds of his church? What is the church’s role in contemporary society?
In his earthly ministry, we know that Christ arranged for the community of his disciples to be served and led by the apostles, their co-workers, and the deacons. The Lord Jesus intimately formed the apostles and bestowed upon them his own offices of priest, teacher and shepherd. Jesus established a hierarchy and assured the apostles: Those who hear you, hear me; and those who reject you, reject me.
From the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of St. Paul, we see this constitution and internal structure of the body of Christ on earth. The church would be led by weak human beings empowered and guided by the Holy Spirit.
As the apostles died, successors were named and the apostolic office instituted by Christ continued. It will remain in existence until the Lord Jesus returns in glory.
These successors of the apostles are bishops, and the successor of St. Peter is the pope. The apostolic office, held by these shepherds, solemnly teaches, sanctifies and governs in Christ’s name and by his authority. It interprets, applies and celebrates the mysteries of faith given by Jesus.
As shepherds of Christ’s flock, the pope and bishops speak and act on behalf of God and of the whole body of Christ. Oftentimes they are simply referred to as “the church” since they encapsulate, unite and summarize the whole Christian community.
The voices of these shepherds are the voice of Christ, who is our chief shepherd, and the disciples are called to listen and adhere to their teachings and instructions.
The disciples of Christ are called to give the obedience of faith to all dogmatic pronouncements of the church, such as on the dogma of Christ’s divinity; they are called to give religious assent of mind and will to all areas of the ordinary teaching authority, such as in the realm of artificial contraception; and they are called to give religious respect to all prudential judgments of the church, such as the church’s view on the war in Iraq.
The apostolic office is an extension of Christ’s service to his body and to humanity until he returns in glory.
The shepherds of Christ’s church are not perfect or flawless, but they have been chosen and blessed by God to teach, govern and sanctify in his name. Disciples of the Lord Jesus are called to draw close to their shepherds, listen to them and adhere to their teachings, which are the teachings of Christ.
Father Kirby is the parochial vicar at St. Mary Help of Christians parish in Aiken.