It was Wednesday June 17 2020, around noon, at Ta’ Pinu Sanctuary in the sister Island of Gozo, when his nomination by Pope Francis was solemnly proclaimed. The response was the one that was expected to be, especially when one considers what Mons. Alessandro D’Errico, the Aposotlic Nuncio for Gozo, had said in his message before this important moment: “Well-known and well-liked by everyone for his distinct human and pastoral skills. It’s about the dearest Don Anthony Teuma” The entire congregation, made up of Gozitan priests, gave a round and prolonged applause.
Hailing from the sister diocese of Malta I was touched by the joy these priests experienced now that their new bishop was finally made known. From what Mons. Alessandro D’Errico said I could gather that the selection of someone who will enter the apostolic college as bishop is not a joke. It implies serious discerment and scrutiny. In this day and age to be a bishop carries with it a huge amount of responsibility. So, that is why that we, as members of Christ’s flock, are to support by our prayer, insight, collaboration and fraternity our bishops.
In the Instruction of August 15 1997, entitled On Certain Questions Regarding The Collaboration of the Non-ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priest, we find some very interesting areas wherein the lay faithful can collaborate in the apostolate which falls under the bishop’s care.
“The faithful, especially members of Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life can be invited to collaborate, in lawful ways, in the exercise of the ministry of the Word” (4. Article 2 §2). “The non-ordained faithful, as happens in many worthy cases, may collaborate effectively in the pastoral ministry of clerics in parishes, health care centres, charitable and educational institutions, prisons, Military Ordinariates etc” (4. Article 4). “The non-ordained faithful already collaborate with the sacred ministers in diverse pastoral situations since ‘This wonderful gift of the Eucharist, which is the greatest gift of all, demands that such an important mystery should be increasingly better known and its saving power more fully shared” (4. Article 4).
Such a collaboration has a long apostolic tradition behind it. In fact, the great bishop of Antioch and Apostolic Father, St. Ignatius of Antioch, spoke at length concerning the importance of being in harmony with, obeying and collaborating with the bishop. In his Letter to the Magnesians he writes to these Christians:
“Take care to do all things in harmony with God, with the bishop presiding in the place of God, and with the presbyters in the place of the council of the apostles, and with the deacons, who are most dear to me, entrusted with the business of Jesus Christ, who was with the Father from the beginning and is at last made manifest” (ibid., 6:1)… “Take care, therefore, to be confirmed in the decrees of the Lord and of the apostles, in order that in everything you do, you may prosper in body and in soul, in faith and in love, in Son and in Father and in Spirit, in beginning and in end, together with your most reverend bishop; and with that fittingly woven spiritual crown, the presbytery; and with the deacons, men of God. Be subject to the bishop and to one another as Jesus Christ was subject to the Father, and the apostles were subject to Christ and to the Father; so that there may be unity in both body and spirit” (ibid., 13:1–2).
In his Letter to the Trallians St. Ignatius keeps harping on the theme of obeying one’s bishop as tantamount to Christ himself: “Indeed, when you submit to the bishop as you would to Jesus Christ, it is clear to me that you are living not in the manner of men but as Jesus Christ, who died for us, that through faith in his death you might escape dying. It is necessary, therefore—and such is your practice that you do nothing without the bishop, and that you be subject also to the presbytery, as to the apostles of Jesus Christ our hope, in whom we shall be found, if we live in him” (2:1-3).
But how can the bishop live up to this immense trust that the Church’s tradition encourages the faithful and priests alike to put in him? Pope Francis gives the following five pieces of advice which for the bishop, including Mons. Anton Teuma, can prove certainly decisive.
First, union with God. “Closeness to God is the source of the Bishop’s ministry. God loves us. He drew closer than we could have ever imagined; he took on our flesh in order to save us. This proclamation is the heart of faith. It must precede and inspire our every initiative. We exist to make this closeness palpable. But one cannot communicate closeness to God without experiencing it, without experiencing it every day, without allowing ourselves to be infected by his tenderness. Each day, without sparing time, we should be before Jesus, bringing him people, situations, as ever-open channels between him and our people. With prayer, we made the Lord a citizen of the place where we live. Like Saint Paul, let us feel as tentmakers (cf. Acts 18:3); apostles who allow the Lord to dwell among his people (cf. Jn 1:14).”
Second, closeness to his people. “Being close to the God of proximity we grow in the awareness that our identity consists in drawing near. It is not an external obligation, but an internal need inherent to the mindset of giving. We say ‘this is my body, given up for you’ at the culmination of the Eucharistic offering, for our people. From here our life springs forth and enables us to become bread broken for the life of the world. Closeness to the people entrusted to us, therefore, is not an opportunistic strategy, but our essential condition. Jesus loves to draw near to his brothers and sisters through us, through our open hands that caress and comfort”.
Third, real availability. “The Bishop’s closeness is not rhetorical. It is not made of self-referential proclamations but of real availability. God surprises us and he often loves to upset our agenda. Prepare yourselves for this without fear. Proximity knows concrete verbs, the ones of the Good Samaritan: to see, that is, not looking away, not pretending nothing has happened, not leaving people waiting and not sweeping problems under the rug. Therefore, bringing yourself closer, being in contact with people, dedicating more time to them rather than to your desks, not fearing contact with a reality to be discovered and embraced. And then, to bind wounds, to assume burdens, to take care of, to expend oneself (cf. Lk 10:29-37). Each of these verbs of proximity is a milestone in the Bishop’s journey with his people”.
Fourth, attentiveness to the least and sobriety. “The measure of closeness is attentiveness to the least, which, indeed, is a proclamation of the Kingdom. Your sobriety will also be so, at a time when in many parts of the world, all is reduced to means in order to satisfy secondary needs that engulf and harden the heart. Making a simple life for oneself means bearing witness that Jesus suffices for us and that the treasure with which we wish to surround ourselves is made instead of those who, in their poverty, remind us of and represent Him: not the abstract poor, statistics and social categories, but real people whose dignity is entrusted to us as their fathers”.
Fifth, closeness to priests. “Lastly I ask you again to reserve the greatest closeness for your priests. The priest is the closest “neighbour” to the bishop. Love the closest neighbour. I beseech you to embrace them, thank them and reassure them in my name. They too are exposed to the difficulties of a world that, though tired of obscurity, spares no hostility towards the light. They need to be loved, followed, encouraged. God does not want half measures from them, but a complete yes. In shallow waters they become stagnant, but their lives are made for the open seas. Like yours. Therefore take courage dearest brothers!”
May these five pieces of advice, lovingly given to you by our Pope Francis, be of an immense courage, strength, guidance and protection for you and your episcopal ministry, dear Mons. Anton Teuma! Bless us! We pray for you! We welcome you!
Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap