On Sept. 3, Father Gregory Bittman was vested with the fullness of the priesthood through episcopal ordination. While remaining Father Greg, he becomes Bishop Greg Bittman.
What has changed? Although his dress code will change, the essence of the bishopric is sacramental: An episkopos is a visible presence of God among his people.
When Moses encountered God in the “burning bush,” his mission was charted out for him – set my people free. So Moses had the mission of a liberator; but that mission did not define his status.
Moses’ status was only defined when he got to Egypt; it was said of him, “God has visited his people” (Exodus 3.16). The presence of Moses was construed as the presence of God, albeit, in the person of Moses.
The Greek verb translated as “visited” is a perfect middle of episkeptomai, from where the noun episkopos was derived. To be an episkopos is to be the sign of God’s presence among his people.
There is a triple confirmation of this understanding of episkopos in Lucan writings, the Acts of the Apostles and Luke’s Gospel. The Benedictus uses the same verb (episkeptomai) twice to confirm the identity of Christ (Luke 1.68, 78), corroborated by another usage in Acts (15.14), and a third in Luke’s Gospel (7.16), in the context of resurrecting the son of the widow of Nain from the dead. As we know, the miracles in the synoptic Gospels reveal the divine identity of Christ.
The Greek Fathers of the Church, especially John Chrysostom in the fourth century, revamped the understanding of the status of an episkopos as a minister of presence, made manifest in episcopal visitations.
A bishop has the imperative to visit his flock, as Moses visited the Israelites in Egypt. The visitation of a bishop is salvific – he brings salvation and relief to his flock, as God’s viceroy. Canon 396.1 is inspired by this theological imperative in requiring a bishop to visit his entire diocese every five years.
Indeed, the song normally sung during procession in a Mass presided over by a bishop captures, to some degree, the quintessential role and status of a bishop. The song says, in part, “Behold the high (magnus) priest who, in times past, pleases the Lord. . . . He who comes in the name of the Lord.”
So, a bishop is a divine viceroy because he is known to have pleased the Lord in the past and present, with the hope that the future will be the same, counting on God’s grace.
A bishop’s ministry of divine presence does not, obviously, exhaust all the modes of God’s presence among his people. Vatican II, in Sacrosanctum Concilium 7, teaches liturgically that God is present in the presiding priest, the gathered assembly, the Eucharistic species, the Word and the altar of sacrifice.
However, Father Teilhard de Chardin, in his Hymn of the Universe, reminds us of God’s ubiquitous presence. The bishop’s role as divine viceroy goes beyond his presiding at the Eucharistic banquet: His status reminds us of the ever-presence of God to his people within and outside a liturgical assembly.
By extension, we are reminded of God’s intervention or visitation leading to liberation from Egypt, an act often associated with the foundation of the people of God. The image of a shepherd who leads his flock to and from pasture; who knows his flock and calls each one by name; who does not chicken out before ravenous wolves, but defends his flock through thick and thin; yes, who gives his life for his flock.
Behold he who is God’s presence among his people – an episkopos.
The entire people of God is a priestly, prophetic and holy people: Baptism makes us that. It follows that the presence of God among his pilgrim people – wayfaring to eternity, sacramentalized in a bishop, harmonizes divine presence with human polity.
We are not only a Church, but a nation of believers – the earth is our constituency. We need a rule – democracy – infused and suffused with the divine because God came to us as Emmanuel – God with us.
To adapt St. Augustine’s theology: With us, Gregory Bittman is a Christian; to the members of the presbyterate, a fellow priest; but by the special grace of God, a bishop – a minister of God’s divine presence among his people.
To a world battered by clerical scandals, he is a future of hope for better times to come because God is with us – ad majorem Dei gloriam (to the greater glory of God).
Spiritan Father Ayodele Ayeni is a sessional lecturer at Newman Theological College and pastor of Mary Help of Christians (Chinese) Parish in Edmonton.