Pastoral letters come from the role of a shepherd

By | June 16, 2011

Pastoral letters are, as Bishop Ricken’s letter is today, a means by which a bishop communicates to people and priests in his diocese his personal vision for their future. The term “pastoral” comes from the Latin pastor meaning “shepherd” and also from the Latin verb for feeding (pascere) as in “feed my sheep” (Jn 21:17).

A bishop who leads a diocese — called the ordinary of the diocese — has three main roles: to preach, teach and govern (which includes a sanctifying mission to make things holy). As the fathers of Vatican II said, bishops are “teachers of doctrine, ministers of sacred worship and holders of office in government” (Lumen gentium, 20).

Three roles

Pastoral letters address these three roles, in varying degrees, depending on the direction of a particular letter. Technically, pastoral letters date back to the early days of the church. We can find their basic form in the pastoral epistles of Paul to Titus and Timothy (1 and 2), who are honored as bishops on their feast day of Jan. 26.

Of course, the role of shepherd comes to all bishops from the Lord God himself. As early as the recording of Genesis, we see Jacob blessing his grandsons, Ephraim and Mannessah, in the name of “the God who has been my shepherd from my birth to this day” (Gn 48:15). And Jesus referred to himself as the Good Shepherd.

Pastoral letters — also called ecclesial letters — from bishops and popes are scarce from the early church. Only a few exist from the first millennium, even though they became more common once the church was recognized by the Roman empire in the fourth century.

The “Catholic Encyclopedia” notes that in the Middle Ages (eighth through the 15th centuries), pastoral-style letters became more common as the primacy of the pope was recognized and various popes wrote such documents. Letters from popes have various titles — encyclicals, constitutions, decrees, apostolic letters — depending on their audience and the direction in the letters. One of the most recent examples of a papal letter is the March 19, 2010, pastoral letter, “To the Catholics of Ireland,” dealing with the clergy sexual abuse scandal.

Bishops’ conferences

Pastoral letters are also written by groups of bishops speaking together on matters of widespread concern. Therefore we have documents like “Economic Justice For All,” the 1986 pastoral letter by the U.S. bishops addressing the economy and Catholic social teaching, and their 2009 pastoral letter, “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan.”

In the Green Bay Diocese, several letters by various bishops meet the broad category of letters that teach and guide. For example, there is Bishop Joseph Fox’s “Pastoral Letter” of Feb. 1, 1915, addressing the immorality of the day among young people including speaking against “dance halls” and other “places of amusement.”

However, what we would call a modern pastoral letter — complete with biblical and theological references, broken into categories of particular emphasis and with almost collegiate styles — does not appear locally until the time of Bishop Aloysius Wycislo. However, that letter, “Toward a Theology of Stewardship,” was written by auxiliary Bishop Robert Morneau (May 20, 1983). Since it was not the product of the ordinary of the time, Bishop Wycislo, it does not quite qualify as a modern pastoral letter either.

Local pastoral

The first ordinary of the Green Bay Diocese to issue a pastoral letter was Bishop Adam Maida (later Cardinal Maida of Detroit) who wrote a “Pastoral Letter on AIDS,” issued Jan. 7, 1988. (On Feb. 1, 1992, as Archbishop of Detroit, Archbishop Maida released a “Pastoral Statement on Human Immunodeficiency Virus/AIDS” entitled “Dress Their Wounds”).

Bishop Robert Banks issued two pastoral letters: “A Pastoral Letter on the Celebration of the Eucharist” on Nov. 13, 1998, and “A Pastoral Message on the Order of Christian Funerals” on Feb. 2, 2001.

Bishop David Zubik, who served in Green Bay from 2004 to 2007, did not write any official pastoral letters while here. He has since written three pastoral letters as Bishop of Pittsburgh.

Bishop Ricken’s new pastoral letter — “Diocese of Green Bay Parishes: Called to be Holy, Fully Engaged, Fully Alive” — is his second as Bishop of Green Bay. His first pastoral letter here, “A New Moment For Catechesis in the Diocese of Green Bay: A Pastoral Letter on the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults and its use in this Diocese,” was released on Nov. 1, 2009.

Sources: diocesan archives; “Catholic Encyclopedia”; Diocese of St. Petersburg, Fla.; Vatican Web site at; “The Pastoral Epistles of the New Testament” at; “Review of Business” (1991)

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