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from issue no. 01/02 - 2012

What we need most of all is prayer

Witness of Cardinal Roger Etchegaray       

by Cardinal Roger Etchegaray

Roger Etchegaray with Paul VI during the first Synod of Bishops, after the Council in Autumn 1967 [© Roger Etchegaray]

Roger Etchegaray with Paul VI during the first Synod of Bishops, after the Council in Autumn 1967 [© Roger Etchegaray]


I was invited on 13 February 1976 to Rome to give awitness of my ‘daily life as a bishop’ in a meeting at the Centre Saint-Louis de France. For six years I had been leading the diocese of Marseilles, entrusted to me by Pope Paul VI. I was ordained bishop at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, Paris, on 27 May 1969. That day in Rome I began my own witness by rereading to those present, but with the intention of revivifying them again in my heart, the commitments expressed in the Ritual of Episcopal ordination.

Those commitments are always with me. Likewise I have also always considered my ‘mission order’ – not least because of a coincidence of dates – to be the apostolic exhortation Paul VI addressed to all bishops five years after the close of the Council (the Quinque iam anni of 8 December 1970).

Pope Paul VI asked us to consider the serious and urgent duty to preach the Word of God to people, so that they grow in faith and understanding of the Christian message and bear witness with their lives to the salvation of Jesus Christ. “We had to be”, said the Pope, “determined that no impediment halt the wave of abundant heavenly graces which today gladdens the City of God”. Mankind expects, so Paul VI expressed himself, “not a surplus of words as much as a word in tune with a more evangelical life”.

Here, I shall resume for you excerpts of my witness of back then, but I ask the reader not to forget that it was 36 years ago!


The Bishop in his particular Church ...

Every bishop knows he must be in the service of the ‘particular’ Church and the ‘universal’ Church. They are two categories that make appeal to the light of one reality that encompasses them, that is the catholicity of the Church. A catholicity that Vatican II expressed in a surprising way when it declared that it is from the particular Churches that the Church exists, “in quibus et ex quibus una et unica Ecclesia catholica exsistit”, (Lumen Gentium n. 23)... In the eyes of a bishop of the early centuries the Church was in fact first and foremost local: not in the geographical sense of the term, but in a vital sense, where around the bishop a portion of the people of God sees the most complete manifestation of the mystery of the Church.

My diocese,completely urbanized, is made up of Marseilles and the immediate suburbs, and yet it is easy to discover its cosmopolitan character, through the presence in such a small space of minorities as important as the Jewish, Muslim and Armenian Orthodox; and even theMarseilles Catholics who were the ‘majority’ lived in harmonywith these minorities in a city called the ‘Athens of the West’ and that, evangelized from the beginnings of Christianity, had given the Church a pope, Urban V.

Marseille was already experiencing the advance of secularization: Sunday churchgoing wavered between 10% and 0.5% of the working-class neighborhoods. Few have a correct idea of ​​the daily life of a bishop. Father Bouyer, in his book L’Église de Dieu, writes that a bishop today “ordains priests to make them suitable for apostolic functions that in fact, he himself, for the most part, no longer performs!”. A pungent observation, from a celebrated theologian who loved exaggeration. I did not recognize in it the reality of what I habitually lived: all the days started with prayer and ended in the silence of Eucharistic adoration, which conferred all its cohesion and paschal dynamism on the fragmentation of a truly apostolic day.

My life in the diocese was made up of contacts and personal communications and that means a great deal in a Mediterranean city, where however, allowing oneself to become over-exposed, one risks letting oneself be devoured... It was necessary to defend oneself a bit, but without imposing a rigid agenda, however, that leaves no room for the unexpected. So every week, I allowed myself a whole morning to receive anyone who wanted to see me, with no need of appointment. I assure you that I learned a great deal from those meetings.

Speaking of priests, we live in a period when a bishop has to dedicate much of his time to them. Finding themselves as they do on the crest of the double evolution of the world and the Church, they need to be acknowledged, comforted,reassured, by their bishop first of all. I had to keep the bishop and his episcopal council from getting bogged down in a maze – increasingly more complicated – of nominations, that sought not only to meet objective needs but also take into account consultations with the teams of priests and groups of Christian militants... I wonder if certain internal issues do not absorb too much of a bishop’s efforts at the expense of his apostolic work and the ever fresh renewal of the Gospel.

As for the relationship with public authorities, I can say that in Marseilles I participated only sparingly in official events. That was not because of an attitude of detachment and much less of reservations toward the temporal power, but simply to defuse any possible ambiguity about the spiritual significance of the episcopal ministry. However I did wish to maintain a tradition unique to Marseilles: the Votive Mass – celebrated since 1722, following the plague of that year – and that since then brings together all the active city authorities for the feast of the Sacred Heart. I always took the opportunity to focus my sermon on some subject of interest concerning the political, economic and social responsibilities of Marseilles. On the other hand, I always very willingly met in private those in public office who, led by their faith, sought to deepen their understanding of their own activity.


<I>The risen Jesus and the apostles in Galilee</I>, 14th century polychrome sculpture, in the choir of Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris

The risen Jesus and the apostles in Galilee, 14th century polychrome sculpture, in the choir of Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris

... and in the Universal Church

One becomes a bishop by entering the communion of bishops. I cannot exercise my episcopal ministry except within a ‘We’, which alone can give sense to the individual ‘I’.

But how does one keep alive this reciprocal and communitarian bond? It was an ‘affectus collegialis’, according to the definition of Lumen Gentium. For me, it was realized primarily with the neighboring bishops, those of Aix-en-Provence and then those in my own region Provence-Méditerranéewhich grouped together 10 dioceses.Then there was the Episcopal Conference of France. Seen from the outside, this sometimes presented itself in the form of a new feudalism which, because of its effectiveness, seemed to be more than just a simple connection to the universal authority of the Pope. Cardinal Saliège declared with a lapidary definition:‘We certainly have an episcopate, but we no longer have bishops’.

In fact, I asked myself some questions. For example, how to give a more personal face to the collective statements? Because – this remains true – the word of a bishop still counts: I remember the pastoral letters of Cardinal Suhard, whose vigor of thought continues to give me comfort, or the personal letter from Paul VI to Cardinal Roy on the problems of justice.

Another question is that of the tasks of bishops. They are overburdened with commitments and must pronounce on a number of issues without the necessary detachment. Isn’t this ‘ever-presence’ in danger of becoming in reality an ‘ever-absence’?

A further question might be asked about how to remedy the greater risk, that is the lack of time devoted to doctrinal reflection, to a reflection so matured as to perceive everything from the starting point of a life constantly inspired by the breath of the Spirit. The teaching authority of the bishop must ensure that the witness that the Church gives to Jesus continues to be the same as that given by the Apostles. There is no statement of faith that is not the result of the intelligence of the faith within a given culture. A daunting task, much more so because study has become difficult due to the unification of the seminaries and the dwindling number of theologically and biblically well-trained teacher-priests...

Returning now to the episcopal communion, I would like to add that unity with the Bishop of Rome is what gives the individual bishop a Catholic dimension and at the same time a guarantee. Because the faith of the Successor of Peter comforts our own. All the local Churches have need of the Pope’s magisterium because they are often made fragile by countless pressures.


The bishop, servant of evangelical clairvoyance

Evangelical clairvoyance... has nothing to do with any form of “visionary activity”! This term was suggested to me by the ancient epitaph of Abercius, conserved in Rome, originally in the Lateran, now in the Vatican Museums that describes Christ as ‘the shepherd with big eyes that see everywhere’. It is thus that the (‘episcopus’) ‘bishop’ exercises his mission of spiritual discernment.

Poor and holy Church! There’s certainly never been so much talk about it as today, and in all tones, unlike the days when, instead, so many generations simply lived in it without even thinking that one could begin discussing the Church any more than a child could discuss its mother. Those who have faith can’t approach the Church as if it were a party ‘apparatus’ and not a living presence instead. God has taught us to contemplate it through the very simple images that the Bible shows us in great abundance, taken from our lives as living beings.

It is true that Vatican II favored the image of the ‘People of God’, as one of the most dynamic and, thanks to it, some realities of the Church that had been dormant for some time have found new momentum and a happy outcome. But there were those in the years following who wanted to give a political interpretation to this image and sought – within the Church – to exploit this theme, itself so theologically and pastorally rich, by over-stretching it. This led to criticism of the authority of the Church in the name of prophesying, and all this happened in a context in which the reference points tended to disappear.

But the liberating sense of the authorityof the Church has gradually begun to re-emerge, especially when the threat of more intolerant, tyrannical and ruthless pressure groups rather than the old, somewhat affable, voice of Holy Mother Church began to be felt!


Benedict XVI with Cardinal Etchegaray [© Associated Press/LaPress]

Benedict XVI with Cardinal Etchegaray [© Associated Press/LaPress]

The Bishop, servant of communion within the Church

There is a trait that characterizes the daily life of the bishop of our day, and it is being in the service of communion within the Church. As Saint Ignatius of Antioch wrote to the community of Tralles, ‘the Bishop, the man for unity’. The modern temptation of Christians is to measure the strength of their faith on the basis of how much energy they expend in living out their conflicts. If yesterday’s disease was the obsession with unity, today’s disease is the defence of difference.

In other eras, people in the world and Christians in the Church had previously established points of reference, which facilitated their behavior and united them in the face of what was recognized as essentialby all; and so they could fight without fear over minor things. Today everyone claims to have their own way forward, and grope to work out their own rule and doctrine of action. It’s from this that there comes that sense of religious war that envelops current conflicts: each individual or group of people, when they seek to endow themselves with their own dogma and their own ethic soon become sectarian and intolerant. In particular, nothing is more fearful than the absolutist claims of political action, especially at a time when the absolute of faith weakens; by acceding to them without reservations, men expose themselves to sacrificing their own integrity, as Solzhenitsyn on the occasion of the awarding of the Nobel Prize remembered with such anguish.

Faced with such reflections on unity in the Church we cannot but ask ourselves the big question which is that of faith. The Church is not a jigsaw puzzle of believers. The awareness that the church community is a fraternal and hierarchical communion brought together by Christ, the spontaneous communication in the confession of the faith, are things that today struggle to find expression. The experience of the first Christian communities is exemplary: when it was a matter of safeguarding or propagating the faith, unity came before everything else. St Paul dared to say that “even if we or an angel from heaven should preach (to you) a gospel other than the one that we preached to you, let that one be accursed!” (Gal. 1, 8). Christians or Christian groups that did not feel the necessary desire to check the unity of their faith through exchange and communication would be in danger of becoming sects or ghettos.

Let me say a word about unity between a bishop and his priests. Visiting first one then another group of priests, I sometimes had the impression of shifting from one continent to another... So great were the pastoral differences, the result of the different underlying human situations in which each priest was immersed. All this has a right to being recognized in a positive manner by the bishop, but on a condition: that the missionary proposals of a group should be open to comparison and be ready to be enriched by the discoveries of others, that there be something vital to communicate and that at the basis, in fact, there be a similarity of vocation and mission. Each real difference can only exist on a basis of unity.

Finally I would like to recall – it’s the last point but in fact it’s the first! – that the Eucharist holds the central place in the life and ministry of a bishop. It establishes and nourishes true unity, since all the particularities are overcome in the face of Christians who affirm their expectation in the Lord’s glorious return. The Eucharist is the place where the gratuity of God’s absolute love is fully revealed. The truth of mankind lies in this action of grace. The contemplative life and the prayer-praise groups that are forming today, especially among younger people, are for a bishop the points of reference and hope that he scrutinizes and protects as the heart of the life of the Church.

I conclude here, knowing however that a witness is never definitively concluded, and that the ‘martyrion’ of a bishop is a martyrdom on a low flame: they don’t cut off his head anymore, but he has become almost a target...

How the figure of the bishop has changed over the centuries, from the time of St Ambrose, St Gregory, St Charles Borromeo, St Francis de Sales... Each bishop is led to reflect on the fact that one is no longer judged by the idea commonly held of the episcopal function, but on what he himself gives of it. The function no longer covers the man or, rather, the bishop has become a public figure also in his personal life. Today more than ever he is asked to be a saint. It is certainly not too much to ask of him.

These pages will help me to deal with the ‘challenging time’ that the coming month of October will represent, with the three events of the Synod on the New Evangelization, the opening of the Year of Faith and the 50 years of Vatican II. I ask forthe alms of prayer, so that I may live in the image of the apostle Paul, as one who spreads the Gospel: impassioned with the proclamation of the Good News, a Jew with the Jews, a Greek with the Greeks, in solidarity with each man, according to his environment and his culture; everything to everyone, to save at least some; ready to interpret the signs of the Spirit, to run where I never thought to go; capable of founding a community of faith in the heart of the Ephesus and Corinth of our times, willing to tirelessly create new faithful to the Lord, supporting or correcting them if needed with watchful discernment; concerned to weave links between the communities in the Church, old and new, that they may bear witness of faith and prayer to each other; and finally, that I myself may incessantly praise the Lord for the fruit of the Spirit, that I see ripen in the innermost mazes of a city; that I may use my poor strength to reveal the Risen Jesus, fervently awaiting His return. And that I may be joyful, joyful through unfailing hope.

I thank Giovanni Cubeddu and the équipe of 30Giorni for wanting to resume an old text that highlights what has changed and what remains. I make myself more of a beggar than ever to implore the readers of 30Giorni to pray for me. What we need most of all is prayer.

Thank you.

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