The Bishop

This article concerns the manner of participation of the priest in the priesthood of Christ in regards to the bishop. The main task is to reconcile the fact that the priest is altus Christus acting in persona Christi capitis Ecclesiae and yet that he shares in the priesthood of the bishop who has the fullness of the priesthood of Christ.

This write-up presupposes priestly obedience as a motivation for interior tranquility, which is key to accomplishing the priestly ministry. The aim is to enable the reader to see the importance of priestly obedience as necessary for a fulfilling priestly life and ministry. The question, therefore, arises: What does the presbyter lack in the priesthood of Christ?

This exposition refrains from unnecessary excursus into the theological fundamentals of the argument. It is important that the message comes out as clearly as possible without dabbling in differences of opinion among scholars. Another reason for this approach is that Scripture makes clear enough the theological affirmations on the matter. Also, a lot is taken from the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. Extractions from Vatican II teachings recall what the Church thinks about herself and the institution of the priesthood as a constitutive element of the Church.

The Priest

There are as many definitions of the priest as there are those who have something to say about him. The priest is involved in the lives of people in different stages and manners; therefore, a definition that expresses all the diverse modes and that contains the various instances that give relevance to the priest in the lives of individuals is impossible. However, the fifth chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews gives a suitable description of the priest from the viewpoint of his relevance among the people.

The priest is one chosen to act on behalf of the people in their relationship with God, “to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.” The priest is the one who intervenes in the needs of the people because he knows their limitations and needs. According to the description of the Scripture cited, a priest is a priest for himself as much as for the people, hence “. . .he has to make sin offerings for himself as well as for the people” (Heb 5:1-4).

The priest is one chosen by God to accomplish the task that has just been described among the people of God. It is important to understand well the connection between the priest and the people among which he is called. The Letter to the Hebrews makes reference to the priests of the Old Testament. In the old priesthood, the connection was by birth; that is, those who were born Jews of the priestly caste. However, in the new priesthood of Christ, the element of connection is the water of baptism; that is, those who have been born in faith in Christ through the ministry of the Church. Hence, the Church rightly claims jurisdiction in defining the way of exercising, and not the essence, of the new priesthood of Christ.

The One Priesthood of Christ

Priests of the present time have the same relevance as did priests of the old order; however, among the new people of God, the manner of being and the objects of their function have undergone substantial transformation. To express this substantial transformation is the major focus of the Letter to the Hebrews, and the author proposes a sound theology and scores of references from earlier writings to make this point.

The Second Vatican Council toed the line of the Letter to the Hebrews, describing the priest by his function and position. In Presbyterorum Ordinis (PO), the Council states: “Priests exercise the function of Christ as Pastor and Head in proportion to their share of authority. . . .they gather the family of God as a brotherhood endowed with the spirit of unity and lead it in Christ through the Spirit to God the Father” (PO, No. 6).

The one priesthood of Christ is that transmitted from Christ himself to the apostles on whom He bestowed the power to carry on His mission in the world. The same priesthood transmitted from the apostles to their immediate successors continues to be transmitted in the Church through the sacrament of holy orders now and to the end of time.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), “this sacrament configures the recipient to Christ by a special grace of the Holy Spirit, so that he may serve as Christ’s instrument for His Church. By ordination one is enabled to act as a representative of Christ, head of the Church, in His triple office of priest, prophet, and king” (CCC, No. 1581). The configuration of the ordained is a scalar factor. The effects the sacrament produce in the recipients is diverse according to the grade of the sacrament received. This consideration excludes the ordinary priesthood of Christ in which all the baptized have the capacity to participate (cf. CCC, Nos. 1591-1592).

In the three grades by which the ordained share in the priesthood of Christ (episcoporum, presbyterorum, and diaconorum), there is always a new consecration added to that received in baptism (i.e., an indelible sacramental character); which all the same implies a particular participation in the same priesthood of Christ (cf. Luis Navarro, Persona e soggetti nel diritto della Chiesa, Roma, 2000, pp. 65-66).

Indisputably, “the grace of the Holy Spirit proper to this sacrament is configuration to Christ as Priest, Teacher, and Pastor, of whom the ordained is made a minister” (CCC, No. 1585). Albeit, those who receive the sacrament of holy order have identical priesthood, their positions are diverse. The episcopacy and presbyterate render the ordained participants in the priesthood of Christ, but the modes of participation according to the two grades are essentially different. The bishops possess the fullness of the sacrament in the grade of high priests, thus, they can administer all the sacraments and are placed at the head of the particular churches (cf. L. Navarro, p. 66).

The Juridical Perspective of the Sacrament of Holy Orders

It has just been shown how the sacrament of holy orders effects a substantial transformation in the recipient. Now we look into the juridical reality that the sacrament produces in regards to the recipient. The juridical effects of the sacrament of holy orders can be expressed in four major ways: i) it creates a new configuration with Christ that obliges a new life style that is regulated by the canonical norms; ii) it implies incorporation into the ordo clericorum with participation in either of the three forms of the order; iii) the sacrament institutes a sacramental fraternal bond between those who have received the sacrament, a bond essentially expressed hierarchically, and iv) the sacrament obliges recipients to carry out the proper functions according to the order received within the context of the tria munera amongst a portion of the people of God (cf. L. Navarro, p. 66).

The Hierarchical Nature of the Catholic Priesthood

The different grades of the holy orders were intended by Christ, they were not mere institutions of the Church. The divisions also constitute part of the essence of the sacred order. Since the sacraments were established by Christ himself, nothing about their essence was made up by the human authority in the Church. Christ organized His Church and formed the social strata that characterize its hierarchical structure.

The Second Vatican Council in Lumen Gentium (LG) affirms: “In order to shepherd the people of God and to increase its numbers without cease, Christ the Lord set up in His Church a variety of offices which aim at the good of the whole body. The holders of office, who are invested with a sacred power, are, in fact, dedicated to promoting the interests of their brethren, so that all who belong to the people of God, and are consequently endowed with true Christian dignity, may, through their free and well-ordered efforts towards a common goal, attain to salvation” (LG, No. 18).

By the will of Christ, the bishops, being successors of the apostles, are the shepherds of the new people of God. Christ made Peter the head of the college of the apostles, thus, “. . . in him He set up a lasting and visible source and foundation of the unity both of faith and of communion” (LG, No. 18). The Church establishes the authenticity of the true (Catholic) priesthood on the fact of the “apostolic succession.” The Second Vatican Council in the same constitution on the Church: “The divine mission, which was committed by Christ to the apostles, is destined to last until the end of the world (cf. Mt 28:20), since the Gospel, which they were charged to hand on is, for the Church, the principle of all its life for all time. For that very reason the apostles were careful to appoint successors in this hierarchically constituted society” (LG, No. 20).

The book of The Acts of the Apostles records the activities of the apostles at the beginning of the Church. Here it is known that the apostles had helpers in various grades, who helped them in the mission of spreading the Gospel, and thus, extending the frontiers of the Church as commanded by Christ. Among these helpers, the apostles had immediate collaborators to whom “they consigned . . .by will and testament. . .the duty of completing and consolidating the work they had begun. . .” (LG, No. 20).

About the power of governance in the Church (potestas regiminis), the doctrine of Vatican II maintains that the power of ordination and the power of jurisdiction derive from the same sacred order (sacra potestas). Eduardo Labanderia explains clearly that, by the power transmitted by the laying of hands, the ordained in sacris are empowered by the ability to accomplish the tria munera, that is, the office of teaching (munus docendi), the office of sanctifying (munus sanctificandi), and the office of ruling (munus regendi) (cf. E. Labanderia, Trattato di Diritto Amministrativo, Milano, 1994, p. 63).

However, the sacra potestas cannot be confounded with the potestas regiminis because it is not only the sacred power that constitutes the power of governance; in other words, the two are ontologically different (ibid.). In Christus Dominus (CD) the Council teaches that the power of governance is proper of the ordained ministers, especially bishops, because while the other sacred ministers receive munus pastorale only, the bishops receive in addition munus apostolicum (cf. CD, 8a, 11c; cf. E. Labanderia, p. 64).

Sacred ordination confers on the presbyters sacred power and participation in the three offices of Christ, but in a lesser grade that capacitates them only as collaborators of their Ordinaries (bishop). The sacred ordination does not concede to the presbyters the power of governance; therefore, when the presbyter participates in governance it is always a juridical concession of a power which he does not possess ontologically (cf. E. Labanderia, p. 66).

Episcopacy: The Fullness of Christ’s Priesthood

There have been ab initio several offices in the Church among which that of the bishop has always been pre-eminent. The bishops are regarded as the real transmitters of the apostolic line through their special call to the episcopacy and the dignity conferred on them by the same office. The Second Vatican Council teaches that “. . .the apostolic tradition is manifested and preserved in the whole world by those who were made bishops by the apostles and by their successors down to our time” (LG, No. 20).

Bishops are those who received the charge of the souls of the faithful in the particular churches over which they have been placed as heads. This is so due to both the administrative organization of the Church and by the will of Christ. They preside in Christ’s stead over the flock for which they are the shepherds; they are the authentic teachers of doctrine, ministers of sacred worship and holders of the office in government (LG, No. 21). “In the person of the bishops, then. . .the Lord Jesus Christ, supreme high priest, is present in the midst of the faithful” (LG, No. 21).

Very succinctly, the Council expresses episcopacy as the fullness of the priesthood. It states: “. . .the fullness of the sacrament of orders is conferred by Episcopal consecration, that fullness, namely, which both in the liturgical tradition of the Church and in the language of the Fathers of the Church is called the high priesthood, the acme of the sacred ministry. Now Episcopal consecration confers, together with the office of sanctifying, the duty also of teaching and ruling, which, however, of their very nature can be exercised only in hierarchical communion with the head and members of the college. . . . Bishops, in a resplendent and visible manner, take the place of Christ Himself, teacher, shepherd and priest, and act as His representatives (in eius persona)” (LG, No. 21; cf. CD, No. 15).

Since the ministries are entrusted directly to the bishops, the Council refers to the priests and deacons as helpers of the bishops. “All priests, whether diocesan or religious, share and exercise with the bishop the one priesthood of Christ. They are thus constituted providential cooperators of this Episcopal order (cf. CD, No. 28).

Therefore, by holy order, the priest, like the bishop, is endowed with the office of sanctifying; however, he exercises the office of teaching and governance in the name of his bishop, his point of connection with the ecclesiastical communion. In this sense, the priest participates in the priesthood of his bishop. All that regards the power of jurisdiction is outside the ordinary ministry of the presbyter. Such are carried out in the name of the Church, hence, also in the name of the bishop, who is the Ordinary of the particular portion of the Church of Christ.

Participation in the Episcopal Order as Expression of Communion

The college or body of bishops has no authority unless united with the Roman Pontiff as its head. The Pope has primatial authority over all, pastors and the company of faithful; that is, he has a supreme and universal power over the entire Church. “The order of bishops is the successor to the college of the apostles in their role as teachers and pastors, and in it the apostolic college is perpetuated. Together with their head, the Supreme Pontiff, and never apart from him, they have supreme and full authority over the universal Church. . .” (LG, No. 22).

Peter was singularly chosen by Christ as the rock–foundation of His Church. He constituted Peter as the shepherd of His flock (cf. Jn 21:15 ff) and gave him the keys of the Church (cf. Mt 16:18-19). However, the office of binding and loosing entrusted to Peter as the head of the apostles (cf. Mt 16: 19) was in fact assigned to the entire college of apostles; the college of apostles exercised this power always united to its head (Mt 18:18; 28:16-20). The same principle applies to the individual bishop when he exercises his office. Unless a bishop is in communion with the college of bishops, he cannot validly exercise his power.

In the Collegiate Unity

In the collegiate unity, while acknowledging the supremacy of the Pontiff, the bishops “. . .exercise their own proper authority for the good of their faithful. . .” (LG, No. 22). “The bishop, invested with the fullness of the sacrament of orders, is “the steward of the grace of the supreme priesthood. . .” (LG, No. 26). As vicars of Christ, Vatican II explains that the bishops’ power to shepherd the flock entrusted to their cares is proper, personal and immediate (cf. LG, No. 27).

“Christ, whom the Father hallowed and sent into the world (Jn 10:36), has, through His apostles made their successors, the bishops namely, sharers in His consecration and mission; and these, in their turn, duly entrusted in varying degrees various members of the Church with the office of their ministry. Thus the divinely instituted ecclesiastical ministry is exercised in different degrees by those who even from ancient times have been called bishops, priests and deacons” (LG, No. 28).

The presbyters do not have the supreme degree of the pontifical office; they depend on the bishop in the exercise of their power. The only ways in which the priests are equal to the bishops is by reason of their sacerdotal dignity and in virtue of the sacrament of orders (LG, No. 28), after the image of Christ, the supreme and eternal priest (Heb 5:1-10; 7:24; 9:11-28).

Therefore, priests exercise the power of the priesthood in the same supreme degree with bishops, only in the “Eucharistic cult or in the Eucharistic assembly of the faithful (syntax);” only in this context could the priest act in the person of Christ independent of the bishop. The sacred Council explains the implication of this teaching, stating: “The priests, prudent co-operators of the Episcopal college and its support and mouthpiece, called to the service of the people of God, constitute, together with their bishop, a unique sacerdotal college (presbyterium) dedicated. . .to a variety of distinct duties. In each local assembly of the faithful they represent in a certain sense the bishop, with whom they are associated in all trust and generosity; in part they take upon themselves his duties and solicitude and in their daily toils discharge them” (LG, No. 28).

As indispensable cooperators or collaborators with the bishops (cf. CD, Nos. 15, 28; cc. 369, 384, 529 §2, 757, etc.), the presbyters cooperate in the ecclesial communion through their bishops being their unit of integration in the communion. The relation between the bishop and the diocesan clergy is such that is expressed by a unity of purpose that is manifested in effective pastoral activities within the diocese (cf. CD, No. 28b).


The institute of incardination, the convention by which a priest is said to belong to a particular Church or an institute of consecrated (or apostolic life), presents another good base for understanding how the presbyter shares in the Episcopal order. The tradition of incardination can be viewed in three dimensions: i) the pastoral dimension of sacred ordination, ii) the sustenance of the cleric, and iii) the dimension of the discipline of the cleric (cf. L. Navarro, p. 68).

All the three dimensions, directly or indirectly, express something of the fact that the priest participates in the priesthood of his bishop.

The pastoral dimension of incardination expresses the fact that the cleric is ordained for service in a particular church constituted as the object of the canonical mission entrusted to a bishop or a superior. There is no alternative to this rule because the Church affords no room for a vagus.

The second dimension of incardination manifests in the fact that once a faithful is ordained cleric, his economic sustenance becomes the responsibility of the particular church or ecclesiastical structure to which he belongs. The economic sustenance of the cleric, therefore, is a juridical duty of his bishop or superior.

Finally, incardination ensures the required discipline or ordering of the life of the cleric. The discipline or ordering of the priest’s life is particularly the responsibility of the bishop or the superior of the cleric because a cleric is not created for himself, but for the good of the people of God. The priesthood forms part of the common good (bene comune) of Christ’s faithful; it is appropriate that there is some formal ordering that ensures its full realization. Therefore, incardination determines the subjection of a cleric to a superior who guides his life and directs his ministry (cf. L. Navarro, p. 68).

FATHER JOSEPH, ordained in 1999 for the Diocese of Ekiti in Nigeria, is a member of the diocesan judicial commission.