Earlier this month, Bishop Douglas Crosby was installed as the ninth Bishop of the Diocese of Hamilton. One theme that was repeated constantly throughout the celebration was “collaboration.” On a number of instances, Bishop Crosby expressed his desire to get to know the diocese well so that he can work together with the priests, religious and lay faithful.
The words “collaboration” and “working together” may make some Catholics uncomfortable. After all, the Church is structured as a hierarchy – not a democracy. For many people the concept of “collaborative ministry” seems just another way to blur the distinction between bishop, priest and laity, surrendering the fate of the Church to endless committees.
Yet a proper understanding of the hierarchical nature of the Church demands collaborative ministry.
This is particularly true of priests. The subheading for the section in the Catechism that deals with priests calls them “co-workers with the bishop.” The Bishop, as successor of the apostles, has the responsibility for the transmission of the faith and celebration of the sacraments in his diocese. The role of a priest is to assist the bishop in carrying out his mission of teaching, sanctifying and governing the people of God. As a priest, my ministry is an extension of the bishop’s ministry. Ultimately, I am called to “collaborate” in his ministry. If I am not collaborating – I have no ministry.
There are two practical ways in which this is demonstrated.
First, it is the bishop who gives to a priest his assignment. In his parish, a pastor may initiate a new project of particular interest to him – a youth group, adult catechesis, Mass in the extraordinary form – his special “ministry”. At any moment, however, the bishop may ask him to transfer to another parish. His “ministry” is now left at the mercy of the next pastor.
Second, a priest cannot preach or celebrate any of the sacraments without the bishop’s delegation. Confession and marriage are invalid without this delegation. I can be the most wonderful confessor in the world, but without the bishop’s delegation the only words that matter – “I absolve you” – are emptied of their meaning.
The nature of the laity’s collaboration with the bishop is not as rigid as that of priests – you don’t need the bishop’s permission to share your faith with family and friends, or start associations to promote the practice to the faith (see canon 211, 215, 216, 225). Nevertheless, our apostolates, however independent they may be, must always be at the service of Christ and His Body, the Church. The local bishop represents Christ, head of the Body, within his diocese. He is our link with the universal Church and our link with Christ. It is by collaborating with our bishop that we collaborate with Christ’s work of salvation.
It is here that we discover the origin of collaborative ministry – God’s own plan of salvation. Indeed God does not need any of us to carry out His plan. All powerful and all knowing, He could save each of us without any need of intermediaries. Yet, He invites all of us – each in our own way – to collaborate in His plan. We must play a part, not only in our own salvation, but also in the salvation of our brothers and sisters. Ultimately all ministry is collaborative ministry because all ministry is a sharing in God’s work of salvation.