By: Fr. J.D. Jaffe, Director of Vocations
A young man interested in discerning the priesthood came by my office a few months ago. He understood that religious priests belong to an order with a specific charism and mission, both of which clarify who they are and what they do. He asked, “What about parish priests, what is their mission?” He even posited his own answer, “A priest told me once that the parish priest or diocesan priest is the general practitioner, and that the religious priest is the specialist.” Though this answer is correct, I prefer to it explain it a bit differently.
The diocesan priest is charged with the systematic care of souls. It is his responsibility to do everything in his power to get the flock entrusted to his care to heaven. This zeal for shepherding is not unique to diocesan priests, all priests have this essential character; but diocesan priests in particular are called to do this systematically. What does this mean?
After His resurrection from the dead and before He ascended into heaven, Jesus entrusted the care of his flock, the entirety of the world, to the hands of His Church, most specifically to St. Peter the first pope. Jesus said to Peter, “Feed my lambs…tend my sheep…feed my sheep” (Jn. 21:15-17). Every pope after him has been entrusted with this same responsibility of caring for every single soul living in this world. This means that Pope Francis is responsible for doing all in his power to get 7.26 billion souls to heaven! This is true whether he comes into contact with them or not, whether they are Catholic or not. Does that sound overwhelming? You can see why it is so important to pray for our Holy Father!
Spiritually speaking, we know the pope prays and sacrifices for all these souls; but practically speaking, how does he ensure that everything possible is being done to help each of these souls get to heaven? He divides the flock into smaller, more manageable groups, or dioceses.
Canonically, a diocese is defined as a portion of the people of God. Every place on the planet is part of a diocese; there are around 3,100 dioceses all over the world! For each diocese, the Holy Father designates a bishop to be its shepherd, to be responsible for the systematic care of every soul in his diocese.
Bishop Loverde, for example, is responsible for the souls of the 3.1 million people living in the Diocese of Arlington. Whether he comes into contact with them or not, whether they are Catholic or not, he is responsible for helping them get to heaven. You might be thinking, “That still sounds pretty overwhelming,” and you’d be right. Now you can see how important it is to pray for our bishop!
To assist him in this task, the Bishop divides the diocese into parishes, and entrusts a pastor with every soul living within the boundaries of that parish. He is responsible for each and every soul, not just those who attend Mass or register in the parish, whether he ever comes into contact with them or not, whether they are Catholic or not. This is why parishes do outreach to the poor, marginalized, elderly, homebound, youth, etc. It is why the pastor works with ecumenical and civic groups to aid him in the service of all those living within his parish boundaries.
Through this systematic division of the entire world into dioceses and parishes, the Church ensures that every single soul living on this planet has at least three people who are invested in getting them to heaven: their pastor, their bishop, and the Holy Father.
Though not all diocesan priests are pastors, all diocesan priests share in the responsibility of the systematic care of souls of their particular diocese. They have been ordained to serve their entire life as a shepherd charged with the care of a particular portion of the people of God.
Pray for our Holy Father, our bishops and our priests!
Do you ever think about helping others get to heaven? Do you feel called to be a part of this systematic care of souls in the Diocese of Arlington?
Contact Fr. Jaffe at firstname.lastname@example.org or (703) 841-2514.