We are all familiar with the popular riddle, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” Although this riddle has no real answer, I would like to propose another riddle along the same lines that does have an answer: “Which came first, the archdiocese or the parish (or the school, or the Catholic institution, etc.)?”
We have a problem in the universal Church these days, and I have experienced it here in our archdiocese in western Oregon. It is a problem of ecclesiology. OK, that’s a big word. What does it mean? Ecclesiology is best defined as the study of the Church. Ecclesiology studies the nature of the Church. What is the Church? Who are we?
Before getting into the heart of the question, I wish to make a distinction. A priest of our archdiocese came up to me at the pastoral assembly last fall and said that he did not like the way we used the word “archdiocese.” He believed the way we used it seemed to infer that the “archdiocese” was the archbishop and his staff, which works with him in the central office of the pastoral center in Portland. That is not the archdiocese.
I think we need to make this important distinction. WE are the archdiocese — all of us together who make up the people of God in western Oregon. All of the faithful, the parishes, the schools and other Catholic institutions make up the archdiocese spread across nearly 30,000 square miles. Perhaps it is better to use the phrase “pastoral center” to refer to the staff which assists the archbishop in leading the archdiocese, and reserve the word “archdiocese” in its proper sense as just described.
Too often people use the word “archdiocese” in a way that implies that the archdiocese is something external to the parishes and faithful that make up this local Church. It is seen as an entity somehow separate and even competitive or sometimes even hostile to the local parish. That is wrong and an impoverished understanding of the Church.
So properly understood, which came first, the archdiocese or the parish? The answer is the archdiocese. The archdiocese does not derive from the parishes that together make up this local Church. Rather, the parishes derive from the local Catholic Church in western Oregon, which is the archdiocese — all of us together.
This is a subtle but important distinction. Parishes come, and sadly sometimes go, but the archdiocese remains as the essential manifestation of the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church.
The Catholic Church is present in western Oregon because the Holy Father has placed in our midst a successor to the apostles, who is the archbishop. He is the chief shepherd of the flock entrusted to his pastoral care. The Church defines a diocese as “a portion of the people of God, which is entrusted to a bishop to be nurtured by him, with the cooperation of the presbyterium (the priests), in such a way that, remaining close to its pastor (bishop) and gathered by him through the Gospel and the Eucharist in the Holy Spirit, it constitutes a particular Church. In this Church, the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of Christ truly exists and functions.” (Code of Canon Law, c. 369)
Why am I making a point of this important distinction and definition? It is because there is too often a spirit of rugged individualism that sees my parish, school, Catholic social service agency, or other institution as the primary Church, and the archbishop and the rest of the archdiocese as foreign or even hostile to local Catholic life. That is simply not “Catholic.”
We are in this together, and the more we work as united brothers and sisters under the leadership of the archbishop, the more we fulfill the mission entrusted to us by our blessed Lord to spread the Gospel message and lead others into deep communion with Christ, ultimately leading them to eternal life. When we are divided and individualistic, we hamper the work of evangelization that is before us.
The night before he died, Jesus prayed that his disciples be one, so that the world might believe that the Father sent him. The early Church is described in the Acts of the Apostles as being “of one mind and heart.” My own prayer is that we unite ourselves in our own time around our shepherds in a deep communion of love and life for the glory of God and the salvation of souls. Let us love and respect one another, as Jesus commanded us!
The writer is archbishop of Portland.