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Degrees Of Holy Orders — Episcopacy

October 28, 2017 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


Both the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) and the documents of Vatican Council II are unwavering in proclaiming that “the whole Church is a priestly people” (CCC, n. 1591). All members of the faithful, through Baptism, share in the one priesthood of Christ and are called to participate in His mission of priest, prophet, and king. This baptismal vocation, as we saw last week, is called the common priesthood of the faithful or the universal priesthood.
Likewise, “based on this common priesthood and ordered to its service, there exists another participation in the mission of Christ: the ministry conferred by the sacrament of Holy Orders, where the task is to serve in the name and in the person of Christ the Head in the midst of the community” (ibid.). This special calling, as we also saw last week, is referred to as the ministerial priesthood.
While being “ordered one to another” (CCC, n. 1547), the ministerial priesthood “differs in essence from the common priesthood of the faithful because it confers a sacred power for the service of the faithful” (CCC, n. 1592).
As Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church affirms, “the ministerial priest, by the sacred power he enjoys, teaches and rules the priestly people; acting in the person of Christ [in persona Christi], he makes present the Eucharistic sacrifice, and offers it to God in the name of all the people” (Lumen Gentium [LG], n. 10 § 2). In a strict sense, the ministerial office of the priesthood is one of “true service” (LG, n. 24 § 1).
Important for the faithful to realize, however, is that the “presence of Christ in the minister is not to be understood as if the latter were preserved from all human weaknesses, the spirit of domination, error, even sin” (CCC, n. 1550).
As Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, sagely observes, “While he serves in the Name and in the Person of Christ, the priest’s human shortcomings might hamper the fruitfulness of his ministry” (Basic Catholic Catechism Course [BCCC], p. 191). As the servant of God also points out, the effectiveness of his ministry is “immeasurably enhanced as the ordained person becomes more and more like Christ” (BCCC, pp. 190-191).
Fortunately for us, “the minister’s sin cannot impede the fruit of grace” (CCC, n. 1550) in the sacraments. In accordance with the doctrinal principle ex opere operato, the grace of a sacrament is conferred “by the very fact of the actions being performed” (CCC, n. 1128).
As St. Thomas Aquinas teaches, “The sacrament is not perfected by the righteousness of the minister or of the recipient…, but by the power of God” (Summa Theologiae III, Q. 68, art. 8). [For a more detailed explanation of this important principle, see volume 148, n. 31; August 6, 2015.]
As noted in the initial installment of our treatment of Holy Orders (see volume 149, n. 51; December 22, 2016), it is the only sacrament of the seven instituted by Christ which is conferred in degrees.
“Catholic doctrine teaches,” states the Catechism, “that the degrees of priestly participation (episcopate [bishop] and presbyterate [priest]) and the degree of service (diaconate [deacon]) are all three conferred by a sacramental act called ‘ordination,’ that is, by the sacrament of Holy Orders” (CCC, n. 1554).
Each level involves the reception of the Holy Spirit and the conferral of special spiritual power for the sake of the good of the faithful. Beginning with the episcopacy, we will now examine individually each of these three levels of ordained ministry and identify how they differ in terms of responsibility, power, and authority.
Bishops participate in “the fullness of the priesthood of Christ.” The central importance of their office in the continuance and ongoing life of the Church is made manifestly clear in Lumen Gentium:
“Among those various ministries which, according to tradition, were exercised in the Church from the earliest times, the chief place belongs to the office of those who, appointed to the episcopate, by a succession running from the beginning, are passers-on of the apostolic see” (LG, n. 20 § 2).
Their threefold responsibilities are specified in the 1983 Code of Canon Law (CIC): “By divine institution [bishops] succeed to the place of the Apostles through the Holy Spirit who has been given to them, are constituted pastors in the Church, so that they are teachers of doctrine, priests of sacred worship, and ministers of governance” (CIC, canon 375 § 1).
To begin, let us look briefly at the etymology of the word “bishop” and its origin in the early Church. It is derived from the Greek episkopos (episcopus in Latin) and means “overseer” or “superintendent.” Bishops, however, “are much more than overseers in the political sense of the word. In the exercise of their office, they are extensions of Christ as shepherds and guardians of souls (cf. 1 Peter 2:25)” (BCCC, p. 192).
As declared by Vatican Council II, having established His Church, our Lord Jesus Christ “sent forth the apostles as He Himself had been sent by the Father (see John 20:21); and He willed that their successors, namely the bishops, should be shepherds in His Church even to the consummation of the world” (LG, n. 18 § 2).
The fullness of the Sacrament of Holy Orders is conferred by episcopal consecration, and only a validly ordained bishop has the authority to administer the sacrament.
As expressed by Fr. Leo J. Trese in The Faith Explained, “It is in his power to perpetuate himself, the power to ordain priests and consecrate other bishops, that the essence of the order of bishop lies” (p. 500). Important to note, however, is that “every validly ordained bishop in the world today can trace his ordination to the Last Supper” (BCCC, p. 192). Also important to note is that present Church law “specifies that a bishop can be ordained only with permission of the Pope” [see CIC, canon 377 § 1]” (The Didache Series: The Sacraments, p. 164; cf. CCC, n. 1559).
What, then, are the principal responsibilities of a bishop? “Episcopal consecration, together with the office of sanctifying, also confers the office of teaching and of governing. . . . By means of the imposition of hands and the words of consecration, the grace of the Holy Spirit is so conferred, and the sacred character so impressed, that bishops in an eminent and visible way sustain the roles of Christ Himself as Teacher, Shepherd and High Priest, and that they act in His person” (LG, n. 21 § 2). Indeed, “together with the Bishop of Rome (the Pope), our bishops govern the whole People of God” (BCCC, p. 192).
Those raised to the episcopate are typically given jurisdiction over a diocese, which the Code of Canon Law defines as “a portion of the people of God which is entrusted to a bishop for him to shepherd. . . . [I]t constitutes a particular church in which the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of Christ is truly present and operative” (CIC, canon 369).
In harmony with his title, the bishop is truly an “overseer” of the diocese that has been entrusted to his care. He “has all ordinary, proper, and immediate power which is required for the exercise of his pastoral function except for cases which the law or a decree of the Supreme Pontiff reserves to the supreme authority or to another ecclesiastical authority” (CIC, canon 381 § 1). A diocesan bishop is “to govern the particular church entrusted to him with legislative, executive, and judicial power according to the norm of law” (CIC, canon 391 § 1).
The first responsibility for the bishop, underscores Fr. Hardon, is for the care of the Sacred Liturgy in the particular portion of the Church entrusted to his care, a responsibility which he describes as most weighty (cf. BCCC, p. 192).
According to Redemptionis Sacramentum, an instruction promulgated by the Vatican in 2003, the diocesan bishop is “the first steward of the mysteries of God in the particular Church entrusted to him, the moderator, promoter, and guardian of her whole liturgical life” (n. 19).
He is responsible for ensuring that Holy Mass is reverently and properly offered through the ministry of his ordained priests for all under his pastoral care. This same responsibility applies for the sacraments and sacramentals.


Each bishop not only has responsibility for the pastoral care of his own diocesan flock, but “at the same time he bears collegially with all his brothers in the episcopacy the solicitude for all the Churches” (CCC, n. 1560).
The Vatican II fathers strongly affirm the universal aspect of the episcopal office: “Each of them [bishops], as a member of the episcopal college and legitimate successor of the apostles, is obliged by Christ’s institution and command to be solicitous for the whole Church, and this solicitude, though it is not exercised by an act of jurisdiction, contributes greatly to the advantage of the universal Church” (LG, n. 23 § 2).
To close its section on the episcopacy, the Catechism cites another Vatican II document to emphasize the importance of the office of bishop in the life of the Church:
“The bishop is to be considered as the high priest of his flock, from whom the life in Christ of his faithful is in some way derived and dependent. Therefore all should hold in great esteem the liturgical life of the diocese centered on the bishop” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 41).

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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is a consecrated Marian catechist.)

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