Worshipers who joyously and gratefully gather at the Cathedral of SS. Peter & Paul this coming weekend to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Diocese of Providence will notice gleaming amid the prelates and the pageantry a new episcopal throne, appropriately situated in an elevated position behind the church’s central altar. This majestic marble seat somewhat recalls the authoritative position of a Roman magistrate in a basilica where important public assemblies took place. But more important, and more Biblically significant, is the similarity between a bishop’s use of this central seat and the ancient Jewish practice of instructing the gathered congregation from a seated position.
This passage from St. Luke is instructive: “He came to Nazareth, where he had grown up, and went according to his custom into the synagogue on the sabbath day. He stood up to read and was handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.” Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down, and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him. He said to them, “Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing (4:16-21).”
The humble seat in a neighborhood synagogue from which Jesus authoritatively proclaimed the Word of God evolved gradually into the presidential chair or cathedra of a Catholic diocese’s principal church. This literal seat of a bishop’s authority eventually lent its name to the entire building, as this Sunday’s celebration in the Cathedral of SS. Peter & Paul testifies. Anticipating the parochial and diocesan structure of the Catholic Church, Roman provinces were administered within a larger unit labeled a “diocese,” derived from the Greek word for administration. At certain points in history, Catholic bishops in their dioceses even assumed some civic as well as ecclesiastical authority.
Today, a chancery office would seem to fulfill much of the administrative functioning of a diocese. Yet, Roman Catholic Canon Law wisely defines a Catholic diocese as “a portion of the people of God which is entrusted to a bishop for him to shepherd with the cooperation of the presbyterium, so that, adhering to its pastor and gathered by him in the Holy Spirit through the Gospel and the Eucharist, it constitutes a particular church in which the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of Christ is truly present and operative.” In spite of all the administrative transactions which emanate from its meetings and mailings, the real heart of a diocese is not the nearby chancery office, but indeed the cathedral church located next door. As canon law properly states, the main business of any diocese is preaching the Gospel and celebrating the Eucharist, and these two enterprises occur chiefly in church, amid the assembled faithful, gathered around their chief shepherd and supported by their local pastors.
The Diocese of Providence is particularly blessed to have a comprehensive three-volume history of the diocese researched by my priestly classmate, Fr. Robert Hayman. Diocesan memories here are thoroughly outlined.
The chief shepherds of the Diocese of Providence of recent memory have made their mark in admirable and diverse ways, making sure the message of the Gospel and the grace of the Eucharist have emanated broadly from the cathedral. In 1952, Bishop Russell McVinney inaugurated the last official synod held in the diocese and in 1970, he majestically remodeled the present cathedral in light of Vatican II. Bishop Louis Gelineau earnestly brought the Gospel message to the far reaches of the diocese, daily on the road to churches, schools and homes. Bishop Robert Mulvee enjoyed celebrating the Eucharist in the many parishes of the diocese surrounded by his fellow priests. Bishop Tobin has brought the Gospel message through his regular writings in the Rhode Island Catholic, his observations on Twitter, and his clarification of Catholic issues in the local press as well as through practical acts of charity for the homeless and the heatless. Currently Auxiliary Bishop Robert Evans readily assists the diocesan bishop in promoting the Gospel message and extending the grace of the Eucharist throughout the Providence diocese.
Certainly, the present century portends overwhelming secular challenges. Nonetheless, to the Diocese of Providence: Ad Multos Annos!
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