The curious history of auxiliary bishops
My diocese is getting a new auxiliary bishop. This is the first auxiliary in the 30-year history of the San José diocese. There is a lot of energy and excitement all around the diocese about this historic event. And it has all made me wonder about why dioceses have auxiliary bishops and what an auxiliary bishop does.
What exactly is a “bishop”?
Before we get into that, let’s look at the role of the bishop in general. The office of bishop is one of three orders of ordained ministers in the church: bishops, priests, and deacons. Bishops have three primary roles. Their job is to:
- Encourage growth in holiness
- Lead (or govern)
All of these tasks are specific to a particular geographic area, which is called a diocese. Every bishop is assigned to a diocese, and within that diocese, he is the final authority on matters of holiness, leadership, and teaching in the church.
Isn’t the pope in charge?
Many people think the pope is the final authority. That’s sort of true, but it’s complicated. According to canon law, an individual bishop is the head of the diocese, and the only one above him is Jesus. However, a bishop is also bound to act in communion or unity with all the other bishops in the world. The person in charge of ensuring unity in the church is the pope. So an individual bishop cannot act outside of what the pope understands to be the unified vision of the church.
Where did “auxiliary bishops” come from?
So if that is the role of a bishop, what is the role of the auxiliary bishop? We can find references to “helper bishops” all the way back to Peter, the first pope. But the term, “auxiliary bishop,” wasn’t ever used until the 1500s. And Peter’s assistant bishops—Linus and Cletus—seem to be anomalies. The church didn’t have a widespread use of assistant bishops until the 600s. In that and the following centuries, Islamic leaders were taking over vast areas of what were previously Christian lands. As the Christian communities in the Mediterranean Basin began to collapse, many of the faithful and clergy—including bishops—fled to Europe.
Eventually, as these exiled bishops died, the church was faced with a decision. Should we simply accept the fact that a great many Christian dioceses no longer existed and move on with evangelizing new areas of the world? Or should we appoint new bishops to fill the vacant seats as exiled bishops died? The church chose to do the latter, even though these bishops could not actually perform the three-fold role of bishops in the dioceses to which they were assigned.
Too many bishops underfoot
By the 12th century, there were dozens and dozens of idle bishops living in Rome with little to do. The popes of that era began to assign some of these bishops to be temporary administrators of vacant dioceses in Europe—both to get them out of Rome and to provide short-term help to the parishes in European dioceses. In some cases, when a permanent bishop was finally assigned to a diocese in Europe, the previous administrator-bishop would remain on the scene as an assistant or auxiliary to the actual or “ordinary” bishop. That practice continued and grew and eventually became an official practice in church governance.
However, the ancient teaching of the church that one cannot be a bishop without being assigned to a specific place in order to encourage holiness, lead, and teach is still in place. So when someone in our time is ordained specifically to be an auxiliary bishop to an ordinary bishop, he is still assigned to his own diocese. However, it is always a diocese that has no Christians living there and sometimes no people at all. This kind of diocese is called a “titular diocese,” and a bishop assigned to a titular diocese is called a “titular bishop.” Assigning bishops to titular dioceses is a symbolic way of honoring both the ancient role of the bishop and the history of places that at one time were thriving communities of faith.
The job of an auxiliary bishop
The fact that an auxiliary bishop has no actual people to care for in his own diocese means that he is free to offer all of his services and gifts to the people of the diocese where he is an auxiliary. So he is still able to actually function in the three-fold role of a bishop—to encourage holiness, lead, and teach—but he does so under the guidance and authority of the ordinary bishop of that diocese.
The actual way that auxiliary bishops do that varies from diocese to diocese. Sometimes they work in the diocesan office, attending to matters the ordinary bishop delegates to him. In other places the auxiliary may serve as a pastor of a parish—often the cathedral parish. In very large dioceses, he may be placed in charge of an entire region of parishes. His exact role is ultimately determined by the ordinary bishop of the place in which the auxiliary serves.