In his homily at the ordination of Bishop Udo Bentz as auxiliary bishop of Mainz, last Sunday, Cardinal Karl Lehmann drew heavily on St. Augustine, and especially on his thoughts on the office of bishop, and the dangers of it. The cardinal wants to emphasise the fact that a bishop always remains a part of the faithful, with whom he shares a common Christianity.
There is also a personal element in the homily, towards the end, as Cardinal Lehmann reflects on his many years as bishop of Mainz and the people he shared that time with. It is hard not to read this in the light of his upcoming retirement. Aged 79, it is a safe bet that Cardinal Lehmann will retire between now and his 80th birthday, on 16 May next year. He has been the bishop of Mainz since 1983, and as such he is the longest-serving German bishop, and one who is still the ordinary of the diocese he was ordained for.
Here is the cardinal’s homily in my translation:
“Honourable sisters and brothers in the Lord!
Dear brother Dr. Udo M. Bentz, about to be ordained as bishop!
Dear co-consecrators Karl-Josef Cardinal Rauber and Archbishop Stephan Burger!
Dear brothers in the office of deacon, priest and bishop!
What is a bishop? Why and how do we have such an office in the Church? An initial answer can already be found in the word for this service. “Episcopus“, from which the word bishop comes, is one who “oversees”, and a “guardian”, a “supervisor”. From the Bible, the word also derives from “shepherd”. Incidentally, the liturgy of ordination, the act of ordination, with its ancient signs and gestures, words and hymns, so eloquent and filled with meaning, that any preaching can be but a small introduction to these events. I will mention but one especially impressive image: during the entire prayer of ordination two priests hold the Gospel book above the head of the ordained. The bishop should be completely under the Gospel and serve Him.
Today I choose another path and will discuss some words from Saint Augustine. As is well known, as bishop of Hippo on northern Africa, he would always speak about the office of bishop on the day of his ordination. He would certainly also have done so at bishops’ ordinations in the African Church province. Sita, the titular see of Udo Bentz, in north Africa, belonged to it. One can already learn much from these homilies. I want to try and do so with you.
For that purpose I have chosen a text from the homilies, which is incidentally also quoted in the great text about the Church from the Second Vatican Council (LG 32): “What I am for you terrifies me; what I am with you consoles me. For you I am a bishop; but with you I am a Christian. The former is a duty; the latter a grace. The former is a danger; the latter, salvation” (Serm. 340, 1: PL 38, 1483).
During the Second Vatican Council this text was cited as an important point in relation to the statements concerning the laity. That may surprise, since there is a separate chapter on bishops. Here in relation to the laity, they and the holders of offices become in a very fundamental way like brothers, yes, like a family of God, through which the new commandment of love in realised. At many points, especially in the second chapter of the Constitution on the Church, the Second Vatican Council strongly emphasised this fundamental commonality. That is why it is a very fundamental decision of the Council to concentrate the understanding of the People of God on the commonality of all believers, and not in advance on any distinction between the various charisms, services and offices. A “true equality” can then be established in building up the Body of Christ and in the call to holiness. As LG 32 puts it: “And if by the will of Christ some are made teachers, pastors and dispensers of mysteries on behalf of others, yet all share a true equality with regard to the dignity and to the activity common to all the faithful for the building up of the Body of Christ. For the distinction which the Lord made between sacred ministers and the rest of the People of God bears within it a certain union, since pastors and the other faithful are bound to each other by a mutual need. Pastors of the Church, following the example of the Lord, should minister to one another and to the other faithful. These in their turn should enthusiastically lend their joint assistance to their pastors and teacher” (Constitution on the Church “Lumen gentium”, Chapter 4, par. 32). It is understandable that these words from Saint Augustine have often been repeated very often in recent years and decades, together with the remarks from the Constitution on the Church about the laity.
Certainly, one should not take this text as noncommittal expression of a mere personal modesty. This is about a true theology of office and at the same time about the unity of Christianity in the variety of tasks.
“For you I am a bishop…” Augustine does not see the office as contained in itself, in its value and power. Her understands it entirely in relation to the task entrusted to him. The office of bishop is entirely a service to the sisters and brothers in the faith. Augustine also says this in another way, that the guidance and leadership are only fulfilled in the fruitfulness and “usefulness” of his service to the people.
As we know, Augustine considered the task of being bishop a burden on his shoulder and which often also depressed him. From that comes the anxiety and doubt if he really did justice to his task, especially in the eyes of others, and fulfilled it adequately before God. This is in sharp contrast to many homilies at a first Mass or anniversary of a bishop, even in our time. For Augustine wonder if this high office, which certainly demands much of him, is not a great danger to himself. We often think differently and often believe that a high official is already closer to God because of his position, and has so many merits that God will automatically save him and give him eternal life. For Augustine, the office is no relief, but a danger to his salvation, as becomes very clear in the sermon quoted at the beginning. In the Middle Ages they thought similarly. One need only think of Dante.
What comforts the bishop of Hippo in the face of this danger, is the shared Christianity with all sisters and brothers. Here the bishop is part of “normal” Christian life. There each is first responsible for himself when this can also be freely extended to others. So Augustine can say, in short, “Learning is dangerous, but students are safe”. He who stands “above” others, must be judged and addressed according to the measure of his task. The terror of this diminishes when one completely becomes a part of the flock of believers. This unity is even more important than the office alone.
Many burdens of office become light when one is quite humble in relations with the normal and simple People of God. I personally often like to speak in this regard of belonging to the “foot soldiers” of God. It then also becomes visible what has been given and asked of others and does not overestimate oneself. This unity in Christianity with many other makes more modest and humble. It is in any case contrary to all overconfidence of office.
Nevertheless, Augustine is very much aware about the own responsibility of the office, which he does not underestimate. He also does not deny it. He talks about the office as a duty (officium). He agrees with Pope Gregory the Great that the bishop is the “watcher”, the one who looks ahead and so has to lead the way. He must be ready for conflicts if the Gospel demands it. Like Jesus he must also be willing to give his own life. This can result in a profound loneliness. That is why the unity with all the faithful is, once again, so important.
That one statement by St. Augustine, “What I am for you…”, which reflects, with many similar insights in his work, a deep grounding in the Triune God, says more about the office of bishop and its execution than many great treatises about the theology of office. I am in any case grateful to St. Augustine for these words. For me they remain valuable and helpful.
As bishop, I have been able to experience this mutual support, this shared Christianity and life in various duties here in Mainz for a long and rich time. I thank the many women and men, young and old for the solidary way with which they supported our service. Time and again, I was able to gratefully feel this foundation, together with my predecessors Bishop Stohr and Cardinal Volk, and the auxiliary bishops Joseph Maria Reus, Wolfgang Rolly, Franziskus Eisenbach, Werner Guballa and Ulrich Neymeyr. This applies to both voluntary and paid staff. Because of it I was able to always do my duty with joy and gratitude. A prerequisite is certainly that one listens to others and remains in dialogue with them and that one acknowledges what others say until the end, as Saint Benedict teaches us in his rule, and that one is also willing to accept corrections. Only in this way unity is possible without blurring the differences in responsibilities.
With this gratitude I also ask that we maintain this valuable heritage of a good tradition in the Church, for which Saint Augustine stands and which once again comes to life in the Second Vatican Council, through our working together, not only today, but also tomorrow, as an indispensible element in the construction of the Church of Mainz. I also wish this spiritual and pastoral heritage for you, dear Udo M. Bentz, in the name of all present on your ordination day and for your service. Carry the torch of faith onwards. The fire still burns under the ashes. Amen.
Karl Cardinal Lehmann, Bishop of Mainz”