Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

The Presbyterium of the Diocese

by Rev. Gary Coulter


One of the great fruits of the Second Vatican Council was the revival of the idea of the presbyterium: "the group of priests, who, at the disposition of the bishop, with him and under his authority, are fully dedicated to the service of a diocese." The concept of this special bond between the priests and bishops of a particular diocese was lost as the Church expanded after the legalization of Christianity. This article traces a brief history of the presbyterium in order to see the value of the presbyterium acting with its bishop.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review


8 - 12

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, April 2005

Addressing the U.S. Bishops of Detroit and Cincinnati on their Ad Limina visit (May 6, 2004) Pope John Paul II said, "Strengthening a spirituality of communion and mission will demand a constant effort to renew the bonds of fraternal unity within the presbyterate." As he elaborates on the Bishop's role:

Precisely because the members of his presbyterate are his closest cooperators in the ordained ministry, each Bishop should constantly strive to relate to them "as a father and brother who loves them, listens to them, welcomes them, corrects them, supports them, seeks their cooperation and, as much as possible, is concerned for their human, spiritual, ministerial and financial well-being" (Pastores Gregis, 47).

All priests are familiar with the presbyteral order, that relationship among all priests from their identity with Christ the High Priest received in Holy Orders. Yet the Holy Father, speaking about the "presbyterate," here seems to refer to something more, a bond and grouping that takes place among the priests and with the bishop in a diocese. This occurs because after ordination, priests receive a specific pastoral mission. They are not simply serving the whole Church, but fully dedicate themselves to a particular Church and the faithful who compose it. This is the basis of the "presbyterium."

The Second Vatican Council reappraised and renewed this concept of the presbyterium: the role priests have in collaborating with each other and with the bishop in the ministry and governance of a particular Church. This concept came from the ecclesiological and theological renewal made by the Council, yet is based upon an already-existing tradition in the writings of the early Church. This article will trace a brief history of the presbyterium in order to see the value of the presbyterium acting with its bishop.

Terminology and translation

The Second Vatican Council used the Latin word presbyterium with a specific meaning. It refers to the body of priests who exercise pastoral offices in a diocese or other particular Church. There is a special bond and relationship created among those priests who, united to their bishop, form a presbyterium.

The Holy Father used the term in this way in the quotes cited above. Unfortunately, the English word presbyterate has two different meanings: 1. the ordo presbyterorum, the priesthood, as the second rank of holy orders; 2. the presbyterium, the union of all priests in pastoral ministry with the diocesan bishop. In both cases there is a sacramental bond, but in the second, this bond is specified by a common mission, a commitment to work in a particular diocese.

Since English uses the word presbyterate to translate two concepts, the difference between them is often concealed, as the word presbyterate does not contain the fullness of the term presbyterium. Therefore, I propose that it should be untranslated in English, as was done in the translations of the Code of Canon Law. Unfortunately, this was not done in the commonly used Flannery translation of the documents of Vatican II, nor in the official translation of the Directory on the Ministry and Life of Priests. It is contrary to the intention of the Council to equate the presbyterium of a dioceses with the universal priesthood.

Scriptural foundations

Our Lord Jesus called and appointed men whom he would send to preach the Kingdom of God, to share in his power and sanctify and govern the disciples, and thus spread his Church. To continue this mission the apostles appointed other men as successors to replace them, thus preserving the apostolic ministry and tradition in the Bishops of the Church. Yet Christ himself also chose other disciples and helpers to spread the Gospel (Luke 10:1), and so the apostles chose to appoint helpers in their ministry (Acts 6:2-7). As different ministries developed in the early Church, we see two stable groups as helpers of the episcopate and sharers in its authority: the presbyterate and the diaconate.

There is some obscurity of the exact origins of the presbyterate in the New Testament, although it is clear that the word presbyter (presbyteros) means elder. A council of elders (presbyterion) was present in many apostolic communities. The presbyters clearly fulfilled an important role in the community as pastors and teachers (1 Pet. 5:1-3). Moreover, the presbyter's ministry is linked to the laying on of hands. "Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given . . . when the council of elders laid their hands upon you" (1 Tim. 4:14). From this passage one can deduce that the presbyters play a role in the transmission of the apostolic mission.

It seems, however, that this group did not exercise supreme power, as they would be subject to the Apostles (cf. Acts 15:6; 21:18). The part played by the presbyterium, or body of priests, was a very important one in the earlier days of the Church; nevertheless it did not exclude the existence of a monarchic episcopate, the bishop-overseer (episcopos) who presided over the presbyters.

In the early Fathers of the Church

Writing at the start of the second century, St. Ignatius of Antioch provides a clear idea of the threefold ministry we know today.

I exhort you to strive to do all things in harmony with God: the bishop is to preside in the place of God, while the presbyters are to function as the council of the Apostles, and the deacons, who are most dear to me, are entrusted with the ministry of Jesus Christ (Magnesians 6:1).

St. Ignatius speaks often of the presbyters, but normally refers to them as a council; in Greek: presbyterion, in Latin: presbyterium. The primary idea of St. Ignatius concerning the presbyterium is that priests remain in close union with one another and have a strong bond with their bishop. Thus his famous analogy: "your presbytery, which is a credit to its name, is a credit to God; for it harmonizes with the bishop as completely as the strings with a harp" (Ephesians 4:1).

His letters frequently indicate that the presbyterium acted as a collective body: a band, college, council, or senate. For Ignatius, this collegiality is always characteristic of the presbyterium. Indeed whenever the Patristic Fathers of the first three centuries mention presbyters, they almost speak of them in the plural and never in the singular: they always constitute a college.

Notice that the relationship Ignatius describes between the bishop and presbyters is not one of equality: the presbyterium is subject to the bishop who presides over them as Christ over the apostles. On the other hand, as the bishop's senate, the college of presbyters shares with him the responsibility for the well being of the ecclesial community. Saints Clement of Rome and Cyprian of Carthage are just two important examples of the many other Church fathers who describe presbyters as constituting a council and being counselors of the bishop.

From the New Testament and early Christian writings, we see that the ancient church did not think in terms of solitary priests but of a presbyterium. United with the local bishop, it was a college that surrounded him and helped him to carry out the work of the church.

The loss of the concept

So what happened to the presbyterium and this idea of the collaboration of the presbyters? As the Church expanded after the legalization of Christianity, priests were stationed outside the episcopal city in order to administer the sacraments in rural districts. This physical separation from the city where the presbyterium would meet limited the priests' participation in it.

With the spread of the gospel into rural areas, isolated from the episcopal city and the presbyterium, the presbyter's role declined as counselors who assisted the bishop in administration. In its place, other bodies developed such as the Cathedral Chapter and the Diocesan Synod, which continued some of the presbyterium's advisory and governing functions.

Another historical factor that encouraged individualism was development of the benefice system, by which priests were ordained for a particular benefice, a ministry to a particular church or benefactor who guaranteed his economic sustenance. This contributed to a decline in the common life and collaboration among priests, as they would feel less of a bond to the bishop than to their benefactor.

Some also se individualism coming from the developing theology on the priesthood that would culminate with the council of Trent. Of course, nothing is wrong with emphasizing the character of the priest as representing Christ, with a special dignity and personal power to celebrate the Eucharist. This idea, however, should not lead to a separation of the priest from the community or to an individualism or competitiveness in pastoral work.

With the spread of the Church, there was a general breakdown of the early collegiality, and a trend toward an individual, not collegiate, ministry. The conception of presbyteral community, as well as knowledge of the meaning of the word presbyterium itself, was slowly lost in centuries of neglect.

In the Second Vatican Council

Without doubt, one of the most central themes of the Second Vatican Council was the Church as communion. This included a desire to restore the communion and collegiality that existed in the Early Church between the bishop and his priests in order to strengthen the bond between them. There was a realization that both bishop and priests need to work together, making a common effort for the salvation of souls in the diocese.

During the drafting of Lumen Gentium, the decision was made to revive the term presbyterium, based on St. Ignatius of Antioch's notion of the close union existing among presbyters and their bishop. In speaking on the hierarchical structure of the Church, the Council Fathers stress the bond of unity as "the priests . . . constitute, together with their bishop, a unique presbyterium" (LG 28).

Presbyterium Ordinis begins with an ontological, sacramental definition of the priesthood. Priests "are signed with a special character and so are configured to Christ the priest in such a way that they are able to act in the person of Christ the head" (PO 2). Yet how this ontological reality is actually, concretely lived is shown by articles 7-9, entitled the "Priests' Relation With Others," which discuss his relation towards the bishop, his fellow priests and the laity he serves. The priesthood is lived out within a local, particular church, which is normally the diocese.

Thus, another theological development of the Council was the deepening of the reality of the particular Church. The diocese is not complete if seen only as the bishop and the people. The presbyterium is a constitutive element of the diocese. "A diocese is a section of the People of God entrusted to a bishop to be guided by him with the assistance of his presbyterium" (Christus Dominus 11). Presbyters are not simply useful for the bishop, but necessary collaborators for him to carry out his mission (PO 7).

The sacrament of holy orders links bishops and priests together, yet the Council has developed something more. "All priests, who are constituted in order of priesthood by the sacrament of Order, are bound together by an intimate sacramental brotherhood; but in a special way they form one presbyterium in the diocese to which they are attached under their own bishop" (PO 8).

In the Council's view, the presbyterium does not exist simply for the practical reason of creating a more effective ministry (which it certainly can); rather, it is an intrinsic part of a priest being in hierarchical communion with his bishop. This is also a reason why the presbyterium can include religious priests, not just diocesan priests, when they too serve the care of souls and apostolic activity in the particular church.

We can conclude that a concept of the presbyterium emerges from the Council: the group of priests who, at the disposition of the bishop, with him and under his authority, are fully dedicated to the service of a diocese. The Lex Ecclesiae Fundamentalis composed after the council, although not promulgated, still summarizes the Church definition of the presbyterium in a legal way:

Presbyters (as established by Ordination in the Order of the presbyterate) are all mutually connected by an intimate sacramental fraternity; however, they who are assigned to the service of a certain particular Church under their proper Bishop . . . form with the Bishop one presbyterium, whose task it is to be for assistance to the Bishop in shepherding the people in the ways determined by law (Can. 48).

The revival of the idea of the presbyterium, which had been lost to theological thought, is one of the great fruits of the Second Vatican Council. A new awareness of this reality of the presbyterium can help priests to apply and implement the teachings of the Council, as well as combat feelings of personal loneliness and isolation. Not only is it a call for fraternal charity and brotherhood among priests, but much more, the presbyterium is a mission guiding priests to collaborate and participate within the diocese for a more fruitful ministry.

Reverend Gary Coulter is a priest of the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, ordained in 1999. After three years as an assistant pastor and high school teacher, he has just completed two years of Canon Law studies in Rome, receiving his JCL from Santa Croce University. He is now parish pastor in Ashland and Greenwood, Nebraska. His website, located at, has a variety of Catholic resources and links, including more information on the juridical manifestations of the Presbyterium.

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