Second Vatican Council taught sacramental nature of the episcopacy
The sacramental nature of the episcopacy was the topic of the Holy Father's first General Audience in Rome after returning from his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo. The Pope continued his catechesis on the Church by discussing the sacred nature of episcopal consecration. This is the 39th talk in the series and was given by the Holy Father in Italian.
1. After a long pause, let us return to the catechesis on the Church which we interrupted at the beginning of July. At the time we were talking about the Bishops as successors of the Apostles and we noted that this succession entails their participation in the mission and powers that Jesus conferred on the Apostles themselves.
In treating this subject, the Second Vatican Council highlighted the sacramental nature of the episcopacy, which itself reflects the priestly ministry of those who were appointed Apostles by Jesus himself. This determines the specific nature of the responsibilities which Bishops have in the Church.
Through Bishops Christ preaches and sanctifies
2. We read in the Constitution Lumen gentium that Jesus Christ, "though seated at the right hand of God the Father, is not absent from the assembly of his pontiffs", for through their sublime ministry:
a) he first of all "preaches the word of God to all peoples" (Lumen gentium, n. 21). Thus, it is the glorious Christ who acts with his sovereign power of salvation through the Bishops, whose ministry of evangelization is rightly called "sublime" (ibid.). The Bishop's preaching not only prolongs the Gospel preaching of Christ, but is the preaching of Christ himself in his ministry.
b) Furthermore, through the Bishops (and their coworkers), Christ "administers to the faithful the sacraments of faith; through their paternal care (cf. 1 Cor 4:15) he incorporates, by supernatural rebirth, new members into his Body" (Lumen gentium, n. 21). All the sacraments are administered in the name of Christ. In a special way the spiritual paternity signified and realized in the sacrament of Baptism is tied to the rebirth which comes from Christ.
c) Lastly, Christ, "through the wisdom and prudence [of the Bishops], directs and guides the people of the New Testament on their journey towards eternal beatitude" (Lumen gentium, n. 21). Wisdom and prudence belong to the Bishops, but they come from Christ who governs the People of God through them.
3. At this point we should note that the Lord, when he acts through the Bishops, does not remove the limitations and imperfections of the human condition which find expression in temperament character, behaviour and the influence of the historical factors of culture and life. In this regard we can also refer to what the Gospel tells us about the Apostles chosen by Jesus.
They were men who certainly had flaws. During Jesus' public life they argued about the first place, and they all abandoned their Master at the time of his arrest. After Pentecost, with the grace of the Holy Spirit, they lived in the communion of faith and love. But that does not mean that all the weaknesses inherent in the human condition disappeared. We know that Paul rebuked Peter for being too accommodating towards those who wanted to retain in Christianity the observance of the Jewish law (cf. Gal 2:11-14) Regarding Paul himself, we know that he did not have an easy disposition and there was a serious disagreement between him and Barnabas (Acts 15:39), even though the latter was a "good man filled with the Holy Spirit and faith" (Acts 11:24).
Jesus knew the imperfections of those he had chosen and he kept to his choice even when imperfections appeared in serious ways. Jesus wanted to act through imperfect and at times reprehensible men, because the power of grace given by the Holy Spirit would triumph over their weaknesses. It can happen that with their imperfections, or even their faults, Bishops too can fail to fulfill the demands of their mission and bring harm to the community. Therefore, we must pray for Bishops so that they will always strive to imitate the Good Shepherd. And indeed, the face of Christ the Shepherd has been apparent in many of them and is so in an obvious way.
Many saintly Bishops in the Church's history
It is not possible here to list the holy Bishops who have guided and formed their Churches in ancient times and later ages, even most recently. Let a brief mention of the spiritual greatness of some eminent figures suffice. Think of the apostolic zeal and martyrdom of St Ignatius of Antioch; the doctrinal wisdom and pastoral fervour of St Ambrose and St Augustine; the commitment of St Charles Borromeo to true Church reform; the spiritual teaching of St Francis de Sales and his struggle to maintain the Catholic faith; the dedication of St Alphonsus Mary de' Liguori to the sanctification of his people and to spiritual direction; the unblemished fidelity of St Anthony Mary Gianelli to the Gospel and the Church! However, so many other pastors of the People of God should be remembered and celebrated, who belong to all the nations and Churches of the world! Let us be content to express our homage and gratitude to the many Bishops of the past and present who by their actions, prayer and martyrdom (often that of the heart and sometimes that of blood) have continued the witness of Christ's Apostles.
Certainly, their responsibility as "servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God" (cf. 1 Cor 4:1) corresponds to the greatness of the "sublime ministry" they received from Christ as successors of the Apostles. As stewards who are responsible for the mysteries of God in order to dispense them in the name of Christ, Bishops must be closely united and steadfast in fidelity to their Master, who did not hesitate to give them, as he gave the Apostles, a decisive mission for the life of the Church in every age: the sanctification of God's People.
5. The Second Vatican Council, after affirming Christ's active presence in the ministry of Bishops, teaches the sacramentality of the episcopacy. For a long time this point was the subject of doctrinal controversy. The Council of Trent asserted the superiority of Bishops over presbyters: a superiority which appears in the power reserved to them of confirming and ordaining (DS 1777). But it did not assert the sacramentality of episcopal ordination.
Therefore, we can see the doctrinal progress made on this point by the last Council, which declared: "The Holy Synod teaches that the fulness of the sacrament of Orders is conferred by episcopal consecration, that fulness, 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" (Lumen gentium, n. 21).
6. To make this assertion the Council based itself on Tradition and indicated the reasons for stating that episcopal consecration is sacramental. It in fact confers the capacity to "take the place of Christ himself, Teacher, Shepherd and High Priest, and act in his person" (Lumen gentium, n. 21). Moreover, the liturgical rite of ordination is sacramental: "by the imposition of hands and through the words of consecration, the grace of the Holy Spirit is given, and a sacred character is impressed" (ibid.).
In the Pastoral Letters (cf. 1 Tm 4:14) all of this was already considered as an effect of the sacrament which Bishops receive and, in turn, presbyters and deacons from the hands of Bishops: on this sacramental basis the hierarchical structure of the Church, the Body of Christ, is formed.
Bishops have the sacramental power to ordain
7. The Council attributes to Bishops the sacramental power to "admit newly elected members into the episcopal body by means of the sacrament of Orders" (Lumen gentium, n. 21). This is the greatest expression of hierarchical power, inasmuch as it concerns the nerve centres of the Body of Christ, the Church: the establishment of leaders and shepherds to continue and perpetuate the work of the Apostles in union with Christ and under the action of the Holy Spirit.
Something similar can be said about the ordination of presbyters, reserved to Bishops on the basis of the traditional concept connected with the New Testament, which endows them, as successors of the Apostles, with the power to "lay on hands" (cf. Acts 6:6; 8:19; 1 Tm 4:14; 2 Tm 1:6), to establish in the Church ministers of Christ closely joined to those who rightfully exercise the hierarchical mission. This means that the activity of priests finds its meaning in one, sacramental, priestly and hierarchical whole, within which that activity is meant to take place in the communion of ecclesial charity.
8. At the summit of this communion is the Bishop, who exercises the power conferred on him by the "fulness" of the sacrament of Orders, which he received as a service of love, in his own way sharing In the love poured out in the Church by the Holy Spirit (cf. Rom 5:5). Moved by his awareness of this love, the Bishop, and the priest in a similar fashion, will not act in an individualistic and absolutist way, but "in hierarchical communion with the Head and members of the [episcopal] College" (Lumen gentium, n. 21). It is certain that the communion of the Bishops, united among themselves and with the Pope, and analogously that of the presbyters and deacons, shows in the highest way the unity of the whole Church as a community of love.
L'Osservatore Romano October 7, 1992