The spirit of priestly communion demands that every priest should always exercise his ministry in respectful cooperation with the Bishop
At the General Audience of Wednesday, 25 August, the Holy Father returned to his discussion of the ministry and spiritual life of priests. In this week's talk, the 69th in the series on the mystery of the Church, the Pope spoke of the need for presbyters to cooperate with their Bishops in a spirit of obedience and charity. Here is a translation of the Holy Father's address, which was given in Italian.
1. The communion desired by Jesus between all who share in the sacrament of Orders should appear in an altogether special way in presbyters' relations with their Bishops. On this subject the Second Vatican Council speaks of a "hierarchical communion" deriving from the unity of consecration and mission. We read: "All priests share with the Bishops the one identical priesthood and ministry of Christ. Consequently the very unity of their consecration and mission requires their hierarchical communion with the order of Bishops. This unity is best shown on some occasions by liturgical concelebration, and priests also affirm their union with the Bishops in the Eucharistic celebration" (Presbyterorum ordinis, n. 7). Clearly, the mystery of the Eucharist also appears here as a sign and source of unity. Connected with the Eucharist is the sacrament of Orders, which establishes the hierarchical communion between all those who share Christ's priesthood: "All priests then", the Council adds, "whether diocesan or religious, by reason of the sacrament of Orders and of the ministry correspond to and cooperate with the body of Bishops" (Lumen gentium, n 28).
Priests are the Bishop's indispensable coworkers
2. This bond between priests of any type or rank and the Bishops is essential to exercising the priestly ministry. Priests receive from the Bishop sacramental power and hierarchical authorization for this ministry. Religious too receive this power and authorization from the Bishop who ordains them priests and from the one who governs the Diocese where they exercise their ministry. Even when they belong to orders that are exempt from the jurisdiction of diocesan Bishops in regard to their internal governance, they receive from the Bishop, in accordance with the norm of canon law, the mandate and consent for their involvement and activity within the Diocese. Exception must always be made of the authority by which the Roman Pontiff, as head of the Church, can confer on religious orders or other institutes the power to govern themselves according to their own constitutions and to work on a universal scale. In their turn Bishops regard priests as "their indispensable helpers and advisers in the ministry and in the task of teaching, sanctifying and shepherding the People of God" (Presbyterorum ordinis, n. 7).
3. Because of this bond of sacramental communion between priests and Bishops, presbyters are a "support and instrument" of the episcopal order, as the Constitution Lumen gentium states (n. 28). In each community they continue the Bishop's action and in a certain way represent him as Pastor in various areas.
By virtue of its same pastoral identity and sacramental origin, the ministry of presbyters is clearly exercised "under the authority of the Bishop". According to Lumen gentium, it is under this authority that they lend "their efforts to the pastoral work of the whole Diocese" by sanctifying and governing that portion of the Lord's flock entrusted to them (ibid.).
It is true that presbyters represent Christ and act in his name, sharing in his office as the one Mediator, according to their degree of ministry. However, they can act only as the Bishop's coworkers, thus extending the ministry of the diocesan Pastor in the local communities.
4. Spiritually rich relationships between Bishops and presbyters are based on this theological principle of sharing within the framework of hierarchical communion. Lumen gentium describes these relationships as follows: "By reason of this sharing in the priesthood and mission of the Bishop the priests should see in him a true father and obey him with all respect. The Bishop, on his side, should treat the priests, his helpers, as his sons and friends, just as Christ calls his disciples no longer servants but friends (cf. Jn 15:15)" (ibid.).
Bishops should treat priests as brothers and friends
Here Christ's example is the rule of conduct for Bishops and presbyters alike. If he who had divine authority did not want to treat his disciples as servants but as friends, the Bishop cannot consider his priests as servants in his employ. They serve the People of God with him. And for their part presbyters should respond to the Bishop as demanded by the law of reciprocal love in ecclesial and priestly communion: that is, as friends and spiritual "sons". The Bishop's authority and the obedience of his coworkers, the priests, should thus be exercised in an atmosphere of true, sincere friendship.
This duty is based not only on the brotherhood existing between all Christians by virtue of Baptism and on that arising from the sacrament of Orders, but also on the word and example of Jesus, who, even in triumph as the resurrected One, lowered himself from that incomparable height to his disciples and called them "my brothers", declaring that his Father was "theirs" too (cf. Jn 20:17; Mt 28:10). Thus, following Jesus' example and teaching, the Bishop should treat his coworkers, the priests, as brothers and friends, without diminishing his authority as their Pastor and ecclesiastical superior. An atmosphere of brotherhood and friendship fosters the presbyters' trust and their willingness to cooperate and work harmoniously in friendship and in fraternal and filial charity toward their Bishops.
5. The Council spells out some of the Bishops' duties towards presbyters. Here one need only mention them: they should take the greatest interest they are capable of in the temporal and spiritual welfare of their priests; they should foster their sanctification and be concerned for their ongoing formation, examining with them problems that concern the needs of their pastoral work and the good of the Diocese (cf. Presbyterorum ordinis, n. 7).
Likewise, the presbyters' duties towards their Bishops are summarized in these words: "Priests for their part should keep in mind the fullness of the sacrament of Orders which the Bishops enjoy and should reverence in their persons the authority of Christ the supreme Pastor. They should therefore be attached to their Bishop with sincere charity and obedience" (ibid.).
Obedience makes pastoral ministry fruitful
Charity and obedience: two spiritual essentials which should guide their conduct towards their own Bishop. It is an obedience motivated by charity. The presbyter's basic intention in his ministry can only be to cooperate with his Bishop. If he has a spirit of faith, he recognizes the will of Christ in his Bishop's decisions.
Understandably, obedience can sometimes be more difficult, particularly when different opinions clash. However, obedience was Jesus' fundamental attitude in sacrificing himself and it bore fruit in the salvation that the whole world has received. The presbyter who lives by faith knows that he too is called to an obedience which, by fulfilling Jesus' saying about self-denial, gives him the power and the glory of sharing the redemptive fruitfulness of the sacrifice of the cross.
6. Lastly it should be added that, as everyone knows, today more than in the past, priests' cooperation and, thus, their union with the Bishops are required by the pastoral ministry because of its complexity and vastness. As the Council says: "There is all the more need in our day for union of priests with Bishops because in this age of ours apostolic enterprises must necessarily, for various reasons, take on many different forms. And not only that, but they must often overstep the bounds of one parish or Diocese. Hence no priest is sufficiently equipped to carry out his own mission alone and as it were single-handed. He can only do so by joining forces with other priests, under the leadership of those who are rulers of the Church" (ibid.).
For this reason "presbyteral councils" too have tried to structure and organize the consultation of priests by their Bishops (cf. 1971 Synod of Bishops: Enchiridion Vaticanum, IV, 1224). On their part, presbyters participate in these councils in a spirit of enlightened and loyal cooperation, with the intention of helping to build up the "one Body". Individually too, in their personal relations with their own Bishop they should remember and keep in mind one thing above all: the growth in charity of each and every one, which is the fruit of self-sacrifice in the light of the cross.
L'Osservatore Romano September 1, 1993