Vatican II on the Church: The Bishops
In his Angelus message of October 22, 1995, Pope John Paul II called Lumen Gentium “the keystone of the Council’s whole Magisterium”. In many ways its most important chapter was the third, “On the Hierarchical Structure of the Church and in Particular on the Episcopate”, for it was here that the Council intentionally presented its greatest doctrinal development on a single topic. Referring to (and fully endorsing) Vatican I’s work on the papacy, the Council fathers state: “Continuing in that same undertaking, this Council is resolved to declare and proclaim before all men the doctrine concerning bishops, the successors of the apostles, who together with the successor of Peter, the Vicar of Christ, the visible Head of the whole Church, govern the house of the living God” (18).
The core of this “doctrine concerning bishops” is this:
By episcopal consecration the fullness of the sacramental Orders is conferred, that fullness of power, namely, which both in the Church’s liturgical practice and in the language of the Fathers of the Church is called the high priesthood, the supreme power of the sacred ministry. But episcopal consecration, together with the office of sanctifying, also confers the office of teaching and governing, which however, of its very nature can be exercised only in hierarchical communion with the head and the members of the college. For…it is clear that, 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. (21)
In other words, bishops have the fullness of orders by which they, like the Pope, have the office of teaching, ruling and sanctifying in the Church. Bishops are, indeed, vicars of Christ in their own dioceses, as the Pope is in the universal Church. But unlike the Roman Pontiff, who “has full, supreme and universal power over the Church…and is always free to exercise this power”, the “college or body of bishops has no authority unless it is understood together with the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter as its head” (22). Within this context, the bishops, like the apostles and like Peter, have the power to bind and loose.
This principle of collegiality, by which Christ’s governance of His Church is most fully imaged and represented when the bishops act in union with their head, is “exercised in a solemn way in an ecumenical council” (and a council “is never ecumenical unless it is confirmed or at least accepted as such by the successor of Peter”) (22). Indeed, while the pope is “the visible principle and foundation of unity of both the bishops and of the faithful” within the universal Church, “the individual bishops…are the visible principle and foundation of unity in their particular churches” (23).
Having established the immense dignity and authority of the bishop, which depends at one and the same time upon his possession of the fullness of sacred orders and his unity with the entire college including its head, the Council goes on to stress the threefold office of the bishop:
- The prophetic (teaching) office: “The infallibility promised to the Church resides also in the body of Bishops, when that body exercises the supreme magisterium with the successor of Peter” (25).
- The priestly (sanctifying) office: “A bishop, marked with the fullness of the sacrament of Orders is ‘the steward of the grace of the supreme priesthood’, especially in the Eucharist, which he offers or causes to be offered, and by which the Church continually lives and grows” (26).
- The kingly (governing) office: “Bishops, as vicars and ambassadors of Christ, govern the particular churches entrusted to them…. This power, which they personally exercise in Christ’s name, is proper, ordinary and immediate, although its exercise is ultimately regulated by the supreme authority of the Church…” (27).
The chapter concludes with a brief consideration of priests who, “although they do not possess the highest degree of the priesthood, and although they are dependent on the bishops in the exercise of their power, are nevertheless united with the bishops in sacerdotal dignity” (28). It also briefly mentions deacons, “upon whom hands are imposed ‘not unto the priesthood, but unto a ministry of service’…in the diaconate of the liturgy, of the word, and of charity to the people of God.” The Council also states that “the diaconate can in the future be restored as a proper and permanent rank of the hierarchy”, rather than being restricted to the transitional diaconate, which was then typically the case (29).
An understanding of the immense dignity of the episcopal office, as fully developed in this section of Lumen Gentium, is not only important in its own right, but it provides a particular insight into the mind of Pope John Paul II, who was both active at Vatican II and firmly convinced of its importance to the Church. Here we see one reason why this Pope, for better or worse, was reluctant to govern the Church though a vigorous discipline applied to the bishops from Rome. He chose instead to labor mightily in his teachings, travels and prayers to encourage bishops to fully become what they truly were—to take full and proper apostolic responsibility for the local churches under their care, in unity with the whole college and their head.
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