essay by Fr. Ralph McMichael on the ministry of bishops. Invoking the traditional understanding of the Blessed Virgin as an icon of the Church - "Mary is the Church, the Body of Christ realized at the celebration of the Eucharist ... The Church exists to be pregnant with Jesus, to be the body from which Jesus appears into the world" - Fr. Michael sees St Joseph as an icon of the vocation of the episcopate:
Like Joseph in the birth and maturation of Jesus, bishops guard a life they did not create. Bishops do not instigate new life; they care for the life the Holy Spirit realizes within the flesh of the Church. Bishops are guardians of the Church’s ministry to bear Jesus in the world, to be the body of Christ. This means, of course, that bishops do not pursue courses of action that center on themselves, that raise their profile in the world beyond, or away from, the Church. Who bishops are within their inner selves, whether in conscience, temperament, or opinion, is not the episcopal point, and can never become their episcopal profile. Bishops are guardians of Jesus and the Church that bears him to the world.
Like Joseph, bishops provide the traditional home in which the life born of the Church and the Holy Spirit matures, and from which this life appears. The authority of bishops resides within their representative ministry as persons of tradition; they have the authority of guardianship. They invoke the Holy Spirit into the life of the Church, and into the lives of the baptized, as those who stand in the place where tradition has located them. Straying from this place vacates their authority. Bishops abide as Joseph to the Church’s Mary for the sake of Jesus.
This is why, from the beginning, apostolic ministry was for the purpose of witnessing to the resurrection. Bishops witness to the resurrection, the appearance of Jesus from another unexpected place, from the tomb. The Holy Spirit conceives Jesus anew from the grip of the grave; Jesus is the firstborn of the new creation. The episcopal ministry of Joseph begins at the empty tomb. Unlike the soldiers guarding the status quo, bishops guard the possibility of the appearance of the risen Jesus, of the breaking in of the life realized only by the Holy Spirit. The virginal conception and the resurrection of Jesus share a common clarity: They are both the unmistakable act of God. Bishops are the traditional guardians of the creative acts of God.
It is a wonderfully challenging icon. The bishop's relationship to the Church's proclamation is equivalent to St Joseph's role in the Incarnation - witness and guardian not creator, enabling the Church to be authentically Marian, to bear the given Narrative of the Incarnate, Crucified and Risen One. As such, it challenges those ecclesiologies which would exalt synodical government over and against the episcopal vocation (evident in some commentary opposed to the Covenant). Perhaps more dramatically, it also declares that bishops do not have an authority independent of the Tradition. A bishop's ministry only finds authentic meaning as a witness and guardian to the Narrative of redemption, "of the creative acts of God". Outside this, speaking another narrative (a narrative in which such acts of the Triune God are not affirmed), a bishop ceases to Joseph-like. And a Church ceases to have a guardian of the life we have received.
Amongst those who have exemplified the essense of the episcopal vocation - Peter, Cyprian, Augustine, Chrysostom - it is Joseph who is the exemplar of the bishop's mission in and relationship to the Body of Christ.