A Bishop’s Limitations

Lenten Reflections 2016

“Unless the Lord build a house, they labor in vain who build it” (Ps 126[127]:1). It’s the Lord, then, who builds the house. Our Lord Jesus Christ is building his house. Many labor in building it, but if he doesn’t build it, the builders have labored in vain. Who are the laboring builders? All those who preach the word of God, the ministers of God’s mysteries. We all run; we all labor; we all build now, and before us others ran, labored, built, but unless the Lord built the house, in vain did those builders labor. And so, when the Apostles saw people going to ruins, Paul in particular said, “You are keeping days and years and months and times: I’m afraid that I have labored among you in vain” (Gal 4:10-11). Because he knew that he was being built up within himself, he was weeping over them because he had labored in vain among them. We ourselves speak outwardly, but it’s the Lord who builds inwardly. How you are listening we can notice, but what you are thinking only he knows who sees your thoughts. He it is who builds, who warns, who frightens, who opens understanding, who brings your minds to believe. Still, we ourselves are laboring like workers, but unless the Lord build the house, in vain do they labor who build it. ...

That city is Jerusalem. It has guardians: just as it has laborers to build it, so it has guards. That’s the guarding that the Apostle was doing when he said, “I’m afraid that just as the snake seduced Eve by his cunning, so your minds too might be corrupted away from the chastity that is in Christ” (2 Cor 11:3). He was on guard; he was a guardian: he was watching as much as he could over the people he was in charge of.

Bishops do this, too. The reason that bishops occupy a higher place [in church] is so that they can oversee and as it were watch over the people. The Greek word “episcopos” in Latin is “superintentor,” that is, supervisor, because he looks down from above. Just as a vintner has a higher place in order to watch over his vines, so there’s a higher place for bishops. And a dangerous account is going to be given about that higher place unless we stand here with the intent to place ourselves at your feet and to pray for you so that the one who knows your minds can watch over them. We can see your coming and going, but we don’t see what you are thinking in your hearts and neither do we know what you do in your homes. How can we keep watch, then? Well, as men, as much as we can, as much as we’ve received. And because we’re only human watchmen and cannot guard you perfectly, are you without a watchman? Of course not! Where is he of whom it is said: “Unless the Lord guard the city, in vain does he labor who guards it”? We labor to guard you, but our labor is in vain unless the one who sees your thoughts guards you. He guards you when you are awake, he also guards you when you are asleep. He himself did once sleep, on the cross, but he sleeps no more. Be yourselves Israel because “he will not slumber nor sleep who guards Israel” (Ps 120[121]:4). Yes, brothers and sisters, if we want to be guarded under the shadow of God’s wings, let us be Israel.

We are guarding you because that is our appointed office, but with you we too want to be guarded. We are shepherds for your sake, but with you we too are sheep beneath that Shepherd. From this place we are like teachers for you, but we too in this school are your fellow students under that one Teacher. (EnPs 126[127], 3; PL 37, 1669)

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

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