Bishops — Community Leaders

The word bishop comes from the Greek, and it has the meaning of inspector, overseer, or superintendent. In the writings of the early Church, the terms bishop (episcopes) and priest (presbyter) were interchangeable. However, as early as the second century, Christians began to distinguish between these two roles. “Priests of the second grade” became what we know as priests; “priests of the first grade” evolved into bishops.

Bishops fulfilled the high priestly roles exemplified by Christ: They were priests, prophets, and kings. As a priest, each bishop had the power to consecrate, offer the Eucharistic Sacrifice, and forgive sins. As a prophet, he had the authority to teach and to forgive sins. As a king, he had primary pastoral responsibility to guide his flock. At consecration, he received special graces to equip him for his office.

However, the power of bishops waned in the twelfth century as they lost some of their independence to the pope. At that time, the bishop became a kind of papal legate, a representative of the pope in his diocese. He followed strict guidelines and submitted a review of his activities on a regular basis. Power and authority were highly concentrated in the pope and the Curia.

Since Vatican II, the role of bishops in the Church has gained importance through the efforts to empower them in their dioceses, in national gatherings, and in worldwide councils or synods. Bishops share their leadership roles in the service of the faithful with the pope, who is the Bishop of Rome. The bishops' empowerment serves as a counterweight or balancing force to the central control exercised by the Curia.

Today, the pope still decides who will be made a bishop. However, local councils of bishops are encouraged to help the pope make the decision by giving him their recommendations. Church tradition prescribes that candidates for the position of bishop should have integrity, piety, prudence, and a zeal for souls. They should be trained in theology or canon law, and may not marry.

Hierarchy of Bishops

The highest bishops are the archbishops (or metropolitans). They have authority over an ecclesiastical province and over the bishops within that province. The bishops who report to them are known as suffragans. As part of their obligations, metropolitans must convene provincial synods to make laws and decisions for the province.

There is also a category known as titular archbishops. In a sense, these are honorary archbishops of some extinct archdiocese, or they may be administrative bishops who have no suffragans.

Bishops proper preside over dioceses. Each diocese is broken into districts consisting of a number of parishes and administered by archpriests or deans.

In some cases, bishops report directly to the pope and are known as exempt bishops. Titular bishops are consecrated, and have a title belonging to a diocese, but they have no jurisdiction in that diocese. They may function as auxiliary bishops or coadjutors to diocesan bishops. The praelati nullius cum territorio separato heads up a territory that does not belong to a designated diocese. He has episcopal rights over an area that does form part of a diocese.

The bishop also has assistants. Chief among them is the vicar-general. Furthermore, the bishop is advised by a council or chapter composed of canons — priests affiliated with the cathedral, whose approval he needs to proceed in certain matters. The chapter has the power to nominate the vicar capitular to run the diocese in case the bishop's seat is vacant.

The Bishop's Role

At its most basic, the role of the bishop is to govern the diocese in spiritual and temporal affairs. Here is an outline of the bishop's powers and responsibilities:

  • He can adopt laws for his diocese that the faithful must follow (unless they are given specific exemptions).

  • He acts as judge in any ecclesiastical matter.

  • He must enforce the observance of ecclesiastical laws, especially where the spiritual welfare of his flock is concerned.

  • He is the principal preacher in his diocese and must personally preach the Word of God to his people.

  • He is expected to reside within his diocese for most of the year and to be present at his cathedral church during Advent and Lent and at Easter, Pentecost, Christmas, and Corpus Christi.

  • He must offer Mass for his diocese on Sundays and major feast days.

  • Every five years, the bishop must submit a report on the state of his diocese to the pope. At the same time, he travels to Rome to visit the Holy Father and to worship at the tombs of Peter and Paul.

  • He is expected to visit every corner of his diocese and to cover the entire territory over a five-year period (three years in the case of American bishops). The purpose of the visit is to preserve sound doctrine; uphold morality; correct abuses; promote innocence, piety, and discipline among the clergy and faithful; and promote the welfare of the Church.

  1. Home
  2. Catholicism
  3. The Catholic Ministry
  4. Bishops — Community Leaders
Visit other About.com sites: