July 7, 2006

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Together, all of us are the
Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis

In his encyclical “God is Love,” Pope Benedict XVI spoke of “the local community, the particular Church and the Church universal.”

By “local community,” he means the parish community or religious community. The “Church universal” refers to the Catholic Church spread all around the world.

Who or what are the “particular Churches?” The term “particular Church” refers to the dioceses and archdioceses of the world. Sometimes a diocese or archdiocese is referred to as the “local Church.” In a series of reflections, I hope to explain that the Catholic Church is not comprised of arbitrary social structures.

One time someone said to me, “I can see why we need a bishop, but why do we need the diocese? And why do we need a cathedral?” Recently, I received a lengthy letter from a couple who are active in one of our fine parishes. The substance of the letter was to ask why they should have to help people and causes in other parishes. We take care of our parish, they asserted. Why don’t other parishes just take care of themselves? It is not unusual for me to hear questions like these.

We need to know who we are as the Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis. The meaning is profound, and it is not easily explained. In a series of reflections over the next few weeks, I hope to address the question in plain language: What is the Archdiocese of Indianapolis? Perhaps what I write will be helpful as a resource for our religious education programs for all age groups. It is important to realize that our parishes are not independent congregational churches loosely federated with a bishop.

Back in 1834, the word “diocese” became a more common word among the few Roman Catholics and everyone else in the state of Indiana and eastern Illinois. Since that time, no longer would Roman Catholics and their missionary pastors relate to a bishop hundreds of miles distant. For demographic reasons, in 1898, the diocese of Vincennes became the diocese of Indianapolis located in the state capital. In response to further developments in Indiana, in 1945 it became the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. (I will explain the difference between a diocese and archdiocese later in this series.)

In the Catholic Church’s way of doing things, there is closer supervision and more central control that comes with being a diocese or archdiocese than is usually the case in other churches or faith organizations. Because that is the case, when a lot of people hear the word “archdiocese” it has come to be synonymous with an office in downtown Indianapolis.

When the bishop was hundreds of miles away, pastors and parishes seemed more independent rather than tied to a central network, even though a connection was always necessary and required by Church law.

With a faraway bishop, Catholic identity could more easily develop like independent Protestant neighbors when it came to a sense of church. To be sure, church boundaries were drawn and the structure and shape of each parish in Indiana was according to law, yet Catholic self-understanding had some isolationist, rather than relational, features in terms of the diocesan Church.

Even though we have been an archdiocese for many years, the meaning of what was created in 1834 and subsequent years still is not always clear in the popular Catholic mind; in fact, understanding the diocesan Church remains a challenge for many Roman Catholics.

Some still understand “the diocese” primarily as an administrative division. A bishop in charge of a certain number of parishes and priests in a given geographic area. Or many still think of “the archdiocese” as “that office at 1400 North Meridian [Street] in downtown Indianapolis.”

A bureaucratic office is not the Church. A voluntary federation of independent, “corner congregational churches” we are not.

Diocese or archdiocese is the term the church gives to a local or “particular Church.” In fact, a diocese or archdiocese is not just part of a larger Church; the archdiocese of Indianapolis is the Church alive and made visible here and now in 39 counties of central and southern Indiana. The primary unit of Church is the diocese.

The Universal Church is the communion of all the “particular” Churches, the dioceses of the world.

I am not the archbishop of an office or building. Together, all of us, the Roman Catholic archbishop, clergy, religious and lay people of central and southern Indiana are the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis. By God’s grace and papal decree, we are the people of God made visible as the apostolic Church here and now in these 39 counties.

To understand better what really was created in Indiana 172 years ago, over the next several weeks I will reflect on the meaning of diocesan Church. †


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