(Letter to Sue Quetta continued)
“What,” you may well ask, “is a cardinal, if not a brightly colored bird?”
A cardinal is the pastor of one of the Cardinal churches of the diocese of Rome, Italy.
“But,” I can hear you say, “ I thought that cardinals were bishops from all around the world who outranked other bishops.”
This, dear Sue, is not the case. The structure of the Catholic Church is actually very simple in its basic design. All the bells and whistles, the cool hats and the great art are human tradition. Nice. Very useful. But very human. St. Peter did not wear a little white beanie. St. Bartholomew, one of the “Twelve,” was probably never called "Your Eminence," and it is improbable that St. Paul, an apostle, though not one of the “Twelve” was never addressed as “Your Excellency,” though he certainly seems to have fulfilled the role of bishop.
When people hear this they become indignant. “Why should we have cardinals and cassocks and all these things if they aren’t in the Bible?” My answer would be “Why not?” Over two thousand years these structures have developed and proven useful as vehicles for the Holy Spirit. They are changeable traditions with a small “t.” They may be human, but is human so bad when it serves the divine? I rather think that’s the way the Lord has designed things. There are traditions that can change, such the color of zucchettas. There are Traditions which cannot change such as the reality of the Papacy.
It is very clear that Jesus established a government for His Church. It is unfortunate that he had only sinners like the disciples to choose from, sinners like John and Andrew who had tempers so bad that Jesus nicknamed them “the Thundersons.” (Mark 3:17) Simon Bar Jonah was made “the Rock” (Cepha in Aramaic.) He more resembled a bowl of caramel flan when he betrayed Christ three times. And what was Jesus thinking when he made a thief, Judas Iscariot, the treasurer of the group? (John 12:6) Jesus really showed poor judgment in some of his personnel choices. Let’s not be too hasty. Poor Jesus had only sinners to choose from then as now. Jesus thought that things human were not all that bad. In this He disagrees sharply with the devil, who thinks that the very creation of humanity was a bad decision on the part of the Almighty.
The art and beauty of the human traditions of the faith draw people to its central message. All of the administrative traditions of the Church have not shaken the Sacred Tradition handed down to us from the apostles even one little bit. God had only weak and sinful people to choose from then and he has only weak and sinful people to choose from now, and he has done a remarkable job with the material he has to work with.
The world defines hierarchy as a chain of command. They look at the Church through their own foggy lenses. Journalists, who are only as deep as the teleprompters they read, are pretty much clueless about the nature of the faith, but we still make the mistake of paying attention to them. They will tell you that the Church is like an army, you’ve got your pope, your cardinals then your archbishops, bishops, monsignors priests, deacons, and at the bottom of the heap, doing all the work are the nuns. No one can quite figure our what a monk, a brother and a friar are. The people of God are just supposed to pray, pay and obey. The pope gives an order and it filters down to the mass of the faithful and 1.2 billion people are expected to obey without thought or hesitation. One morning, the pope gets up in a bad mood and says, “From now on, no jelly beans on Thursday!!!” And bang! Jelly bean sales plummet and there are riots in the jelly bean manufacturing centers of the world.
If only this were so! I remember a few years back when a bishop who will remain nameless removed the tabernacle from the main body of his old and much loved cathedral and replaced it with an organ and choir stand. The bishop was an organist. The people of the unmentioned city begged him not to do it and the Vatican repeatedly asked him not to do it. His response to the Holy Father’s pleas on behalf of the people was, “With all due respect, your Holiness, go take a flying leap!” People think the pope has all this power. It jut isn’t true. I have previously pointed out that the Vatican budget is smaller than that of Notre Dame University. The glory that was Rome pales when compared to the splendor of the Indiana cornfield in which Notre Dame placidly sits.
The structure of the Church is not a military chain of command. It is meant to be a family and is a very simple structure. Bishops don’t gain their authority from the pope. They received it from Christ by the laying on of hands of other bishops who in their turn were ordained by bishops before them in an unbroken chain that goes back to Christ himself. Francis Cardinal George is a bishop, the archbishop of Chicago because he was ordained by Agostino Cacciavillan, who in turn was ordained by Jean-Marie Villot who in turn was ordained by Maurice Feltin who in turn was ordained by Henri-Charles-Joseph Binet, who in turn was ordained by Louis-Henri-Joseph Luçon who in turn was ordained by Charles-Émile Freppel. This gets us back to the middle 1800's and it got tedious about three bishops ago. You get my point. This sort of thing takes us all the way back to Jesus, the Carpenter of Nazareth.
If you think this kind or record keeping rather pointless you will be disappointed to know that the first Christians thought it quite important. I quote St Irenaeus of Lyon:
"We must obey the priests of the Church who have succession from the Apostles,... who, together with succession in the episcopate, have received the certain mark of truth according to the will of the Father; all others, however, are to be suspected, who separated themselves from the principal succession." Adversus Haereses (Book IV, Chapter 26).
"Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we put to confusion all those who... assemble in unauthorized meetings by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul... which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. It is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its pre-eminent authority (because) the apostolic tradition has been preserved." Adversus Haereses (Book III, Chapter 3)
Allow me to point out that St. Irenaeus was born around 130AD in Izmir, Turkey, formerly called Smyrna to which one of the letters of the Apocalypse is addressed. He was a disciple of St. Polycarp, who in his turn had been a disciple of St. John, who had been the Beloved Disciple of Christ. That means this idea of apostolic succession goes back to the very first days of Christianity.
You may not like it and you are free to invent your own Church, but the idea of a continuous Church government is not just an arbitrary decision of a bunch of power hungry fourth century politicians. It is an integral part of what Jesus established. The bishops of the modern Church have an unbroken connection to Christ, and thus their authority is derived from Christ, and not from the pope! St Irenaeus points out that the Bishop of Rome is the great guarantor of truth, but that he is not the sole source of authority. The first Christians believed this and we believe it. The pope may depose any bishop in order to insure the orthodox teaching of the Gospel, and he is centrally involved in the appointment of these bishops, but these things are done in cooperation with others. A bishop is almost never removed nor appointed without canonical procedures, though ultimately the pope, the Bishop of Rome, is the one who makes the decision. Remember that Papa, (pope in Latin, Italian and a whole lot of other languages) ultimately has to make a decision in the life of the family, at least the traditional family, but if papa is smart, he doesn’t make it without discussing it with Mama, in this case the Church, the Bride of Christ.
I can hear a distant roar even as I write these words. It is shouting, “Who are you kidding? The people making these decisions are all men!”
Au contraire, mon cher! The real power houses in the Church have always been women, St. Hildegard of Bingen, St. Catherine of Sienna, St. Faustina of Krakow, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta and countless more. In times past, religious women have represented motherhood in the church, and still do in many places. They were the primary formators of children. Who do you think taught all those cardinals their Catechism? In Europe and America, the masculinist movement has convinced us that we should dump spiritual as well as physical motherhood, but until recently the women of the Church were its very heart. The Church is a family. Can I help it if the women of the developed world have decided to redefine family? Where was I?
So you see, the Church is as simple and as complicated as a family. The essential structure that comes down from the times of the apostles is as follows: a bishop who is the servant and father of the Church in his diocese. He ordains priests to help him in his paternal role and deacons to help him in his role of service. He is the head elder (presbyter in Greek, priest in common English,) and he is the head deacon, (a Greek word for servant, translated minister in Latin.)
In the army any general can order privates around at any army base. This isn’t the way it works in the Church. A bishop from another city, can’t come and order me around, unless he is asked to by Francis George, the bishop to whom I am pledged. I cannot go to another parish and order the deacon around unless I am told to do so by the bishop to whom that deacon is pledged. Each diocese is a self-subsistent manifestation of the whole Church and each parish is a mini-diocese, though not a self-subsistent Church, with the pastor representing the bishop as his vicar in that parish.
The Bishop of Rome, as St. Irenaeus has pointed out, is the universal bishop, but he exercises that ministry according to the traditions that have been handed down. This Tradition of bishop, priest and deacon in its simplicity has come to us from the apostles, and is not negotiable. If the bishops of Wisconsin decide to wear orange zucchettas in deer hunting season, that is negotiable, and perhaps advisable.
I can hear you mumbling, “He promised to tell us what a cardinal is. I still don’t know the difference between a cardinal, a bird and a bishop!”
Be patient. I had to tell you what a bishop is and where he gets his authority in order to tell you what a bishop is not, and that is a cardinal, at least not necessarily. Have I thoroughly confused you? I will continue to ‘splain it all in my next letter.