Teaching our faith – What is an archdiocese?

Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz

This series of teaching editorials defines the role of our local Church, the archdiocese, and how it serves from a variety of perspectives.

As I meet people at parish gatherings, I experience a keen interest about our diocese. Parishioners want to know what is an archdiocese and what does it have to do with me?

Catholics primarily identify with their parishes, and that is as it should be. The local parish is where individuals meet Jesus in word, sacrament and service and from which they are sent to serve the broader community. In this editorial, I answer the question what is an archdiocese from a theological, historical and canonical perspective.

The structure of dioceses and parishes developed as the Church grew after Jesus’ death and resurrection. The great missionary Saint Paul moved from place to place establishing local churches, and he referred to these local churches as the Body of Christ: “Now you are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it.” Saint Paul always reflected on the presence of the Risen Jesus in the assembly of the faithful, seeing them as the Body of Christ.

As the Church grew, however, the apostles could no longer be the sole pastors of the local churches and so began to ordain priests to lead smaller communities and to be co-workers in the threefold role of teaching, sanctifying and governing. 

Fast forward to today. “The Code of Canon Law” (n. 369) defines a diocese as “…a portion of the people of God which is entrusted for pastoral care to a bishop with the cooperation of the presbyterate 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.”  Key to this definition is that a diocese is a people, not a bureaucracy.  That is why I like to say that the Archdiocese of Louisville is 110 parishes serving one another. 

A “diocese” is the expression of the apostolic church, led by the bishop, successor to the apostles, and the visible pastor of a local church entrusted to his care. As Archbishop of Louisville, I exercise my authority in communion with and under the authority of our Holy Father as the Vicar of Christ. The bishop of each diocese is a visible sign and source of the unity of the Body of Christ, both for the local and universal Church.

The term “archdiocese” refers to the unique communion among a cluster of dioceses called a province.  In order to foster unity in the church, one bishop in the province, called an archbishop, has that special duty to foster unity among the other bishops.  The province of Louisville consists of the four Kentucky dioceses (Covington, Lexington, Louisville and Owensboro) and the three Tennessee dioceses (Knoxville, Memphis and Nashville.) There are 33 archdioceses and 145 dioceses in the United States,

An archdiocese is called a metropolitan see, and I am a metropolitan archbishop who oversees this ecclesial province. In my capacity within the province, I have jurisdiction only in my own diocese, but I have the responsibility of convening the bishops to ensure common pastoral action and unity within the province. I also have particular responsibilities when another bishop in the province dies or becomes incapacitated while in office. 

Subsequent teaching editorials will explain more about what a diocese “does,” but in closing, I would like to stress three points. First, as I stated in my installation homily, my vision for the Archdiocese begins with the commitment to unity with Christ in truth and charity. We are not simply a group of rugged individualists or a loosely knitted collection of parishes and institutions. We are called to communion with Christ — and with all in the universal Church — in truth and charity.

Second, in seeking unity in Christ, the diocese serves, provides resources and empowers parishes. Parishes are our greatest strength, and parish vitality is the best indicator of our success as a diocese. This is why so much time is spent listening to and focusing on the needs of parishes.

Third, there are efforts that need the larger administrative support of a diocese. Think of the work of Catholic Charities or publishing a weekly newspaper. The principles of subsidiarity and mutuality are instructive. As much as possible, we locate ministry, programs and decision-making at the level closest to those being served (subsidiarity), but there are areas in which we can achieve much more by working together, both within our diocese and beyond (solidarity and mutuality).  Like Saint Paul and the early churches who worked together to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Archdiocese of Louisville has a compelling message and mission and a responsibility to reach out beyond its parish and diocesan boundaries to witness to the joy of the Gospel.

Most Reverend
Joseph E. Kurtz, D.D.,
Archbishop of Louisville

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