While I gave a general overview of the Sacrament of Holy Orders in a previous series on the seven sacraments, which can be found here, I’ll cover it more in-depth over the next few weeks. This sacrament is one that is ordered to the service of others for the purpose of the salvation of souls according to the mission of the Church at large (see CCC 1534). Unique to this sacrament is that there are three hierarchical degrees within it – episcopacy, presbyterate, and diaconate, which are more commonly referred to as bishops, priests, and deacons. Thus, this three-part series will highlight the characteristics proper to each degree.
We will begin with the office of the bishop. This degree of holy orders contains the “fullness of the sacrament” and is called the “high priesthood” (CCC 1557). In other words, once a man has been ordained a bishop, there are no further progressions within the sacrament. Even the pope himself is the “Bishop of Rome” and received the fullness of the sacrament when he was ordained as a bishop of a smaller region.
Since the sacraments are the physical means by which God’s grace is efficaciously communicated to us, they must include visible signs accompanied by audible words to be valid. In the case of ordination to Holy Orders, “The laying on of hands by the bishop, with a consecratory prayer, constitutes the visible sign of this ordination,” (CCC 1538). In the case of ordaining a new bishop, the sacrament must be conferred by three or more consecrated bishops and must be under the permission of the pope (see Code of Canon Law 1013-1014). The consecratory prayer is specific to the order of bishops, asking for God’s blessing on the duties that are particular to the office and is different from the prayers used to consecrate priests and deacons.
Church teaching and, by extension, the order of bishops, is protected by what we call apostolic succession, or the handing on of the Faith from Jesus to the Apostles and on to today in an unbroken line of succession. Essentially, the Apostles were the Church’s first bishops, with Peter as the first pope (or Bishop of Rome) appointed by Jesus Christ. Upon his ascension into heaven, Jesus commissioned these bishops, saying, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you,” (Matt 28:19-20). Then, after receiving the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, which enabled them to preach and convert people on a large scale, they scattered to carry out the mission to which Jesus had entrusted them. To protect the Church and the teachings that were handed down, the first bishops had to teach and ordain new ones as their territories expanded, as well as their replacements. Therefore, each bishop existing today can trace his lineage through the laying of hands of previous bishops, all the way back to the Apostles. Likewise, the pope can trace his lineage through all the previous popes all the way back to Peter (CCC 861-862, 1556).
While bishops are still priests and operate as such, their office expands from the priesthood by virtue of receiving the fullness of the sacrament. The Church teaches:
Episcopal consecration confers, together with the office of sanctifying, also the offices of teaching and ruling…In fact… by the imposition of hands and through the words of the consecration, the grace of the Holy Spirit is given, and a sacred character is impressed in such wise that bishops, in an eminent and visible manner, take the place of Christ himself, teacher, shepherd, and priest, and act as his representative (in Eius persona agant). By virtue, therefore, of the Holy Spirit who has been given to them, bishops have been constituted true and authentic teachers of the faith and have been made pontiffs and pastors. (CCC #1558)
This means that within the hierarchy of the Church, bishops have a higher authority than priests regarding governing and teaching. With regard to governing, a bishop is charged with shepherding a flock within particular boundaries called a diocese or archdiocese, which contains many individual parishes. He manages all of the priests, deacons, and other religious orders within his diocese in matters of administration, oversight of liturgical norms and practices, dispensations, and other high-level issues needing higher authority. Bishops also work within larger groups of other bishops called colleges, which make governing decisions for larger geographic areas, such as countries or continents. These colleges work together to attend to the specific pastoral needs of their regions, as the pastoral needs differ from region to region and culture to culture.
Regarding his teaching office, it is the role of the bishop to ensure that the teachings of Jesus Christ are faithfully and authentically passed on to his flock. This entails ensuring his priests are continually and adequately formed and it also requires instituting disciplinary action when priests are not operating according to Church teaching. Additionally, he writes official letters, or apostolic exhortations, to shed light on Church teachings. Since bishops are human beings, like anyone else, they each carry their own gifts and charisms into their vocation. This may affect how they govern and teach, which explains possible variations in how things are done from diocese to diocese. The unifying factor is the authenticity of official doctrine and dogma, protected by the Holy Spirit and passed down through the Magisterium, which cannot be changed.
Another trait that distinguishes bishops as having the fullness of Holy Orders is that they are the only office that can confer all seven sacraments (although, for marriages, they technically serve as a witness of the Church while the couple confers the sacrament to one another). In the case of conferring the Sacrament of Holy Orders, only a bishop can consecrate priests, deacons, and other bishops, without exception. In regards to conferring the Sacrament of Confirmation, the bishop is considered the “ordinary” minister of the sacrament, meaning that it is ideal and preferred that he confer the sacrament. However, because most dioceses are large, with many people seeking the sacrament at one time, he is permitted to appoint another priest to represent him as an “extraordinary” minister of the sacrament when he cannot be available to do so himself.
Bishops carry the heavy cross of ensuring that every one of us has what we need to obtain our salvation in heaven. At the end of his life, each bishop will have to account for how he cared for the souls of his flock. It is, therefore, our obligation of love to pray for our bishops and the work of the Holy Spirit in their vocation. We must pray for the bishops of not only our particular diocese, but also for the larger conferences of bishops as they lead the world and, of course, for the pope, the bishop who leads the whole Church. They are human beings and, as such, are prone to sin and error, as we all are, and our prayers go a long way in assisting them.
Next week, we will dive into the specific office of priests to understand how their role varies from the bishops who oversee them and the deacons who support them.
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