Richard of Chichester is apt model, patron for bishops - Catholic Courier

Richard of Chichester is apt model, patron for bishops

In the almost 39 years since the inception of this weekly column, I have never had the opportunity or the occasion to pay tribute to my patron saint, Richard of Chichester (1197-1253). I do so this week for two reasons: first, his feast day was April 3, and second, at a time when the Catholic Church is experiencing a crisis of leadership, Richard is an example of a good bishop who was at once personally holy and pastorally effective.

Unlike too many others appointed to positions of pastoral leadership, Richard was exceptionally well-educated, at Oxford, Paris and Bologna, focusing on the study of canon law. Upon his return to England, he became chancellor of Oxford, then chancellor of the archdiocese of Canterbury. In the latter position, he earned a reputation for complete moral integrity, refusing to accept bribes and other favors.

Richard joined the Archbishop of Canterbury, St. Edmund of Abingdon, into voluntary exile in France, occasioned by the archbishop’s ongoing conflicts with the king. After the archbishop died in 1240, Richard decided to prepare for the priesthood, studying theology with the Dominicans in Orleans. Ordained in either 1242 or 1243, he served as a parish priest in two English towns before being reappointed as chancellor of Canterbury by the new archbishop.

Two years later he was elected Bishop of Chichester, but the process was quickly compromised by politics, of both a secular and an ecclesiastical kind. King Henry III and a faction within the cathedral chapter opposed Richard’s election and refused to accept it.

Cathedral chapters were bodies of diocesan priests, known as canons, who were responsible for the spiritual and temporal welfare of their respective diocesan cathedrals. These chapters governed dioceses during a vacancy and served as electors of the diocesan bishop.

Another candidate was proposed, but the Archbishop of Canterbury refused to confirm his election. Both sides appealed to Pope Innocent IV, who confirmed Richard’s election and consecrated him in 1245. His shrine in Chichester Cathedral, where many cures were reported because of his intercession and which thereafter became a highly popular destination for pilgrims, was destroyed by order of King Henry VIII in 1538.

Richard soon gained an unusually positive reputation as a diocesan bishop. Indeed, his contemporaries began to look upon him as a model bishop. He was not only a capable administrator, but was also kindly, accessible, compassionate toward sinners, generous to those stricken by famine and personally above moral reproach — the very qualities needed in anyone presuming to exercise pastoral leadership or to hold high ecclesiastical office, at whatever time and place in church history.

Richard saw to it that church laws were observed regarding the administration of the sacraments, insisting that the Mass be celebrated in a clear and dignified manner and that no money be charged for spiritual services of any kind. He also enforced the rules of clerical residence at a time when far too many priests were collecting income from parishes and other benefices without actually living within them or serving the faithful under their pastoral care.

Richard died on April 3, 1253, and was canonized less than a decade later, in 1262.

Given the challenges facing the church today, Richard of Chichester serves as an apt model and patron for bishops, alongside St. Ambrose and St. Charles Borromeo, who have already been recognized as such.

Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

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