The prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education, Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, spoke last December at the “Days of Reflection on the Jubilee for Bishops,” organized by the Legionaries of Christ at Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum in Rome. His presentation, titled “The Bishop Is Sent to Teach,” addressed the question of the bishop's role in the Church — the topic that was discussed at the Synod of Bishops, which just ended Oct. 27.

The third and final part of Cardinal Grocholewski's talk follows:

Helped by the Holy Spirit

The Second Vatican Council teaches, in reference to bishops' triple munus, and keeping in mind the biblical texts, that “in order to fulfill such exalted functions, the Apostles were endowed by Christ with a special outpouring of the Holy Spirit coming upon them, and, by the imposition of hands, they passed on to their auxiliaries the gift of the Spirit, which is transmitted down to our day through episcopal consecration” (Lumen Gentium, No. 21).

On the mission of teaching, the council notes that “the bishops, in as much as they are the successors of the Apostles, receive from the Lord, to whom all power is given in heaven and on earth, the mission of teaching all peoples and of preaching the Gospel to every creature. ... For the carrying out of this mission, Christ promised the Holy Spirit to the Apostles and sent him from heaven on the day of Pentecost, so that through his power they might be witnesses to him in the remotest parts of the earth, before nations and peoples and kings” (Lumen Gentium, No. 24).

Two things must be kept in mind in this regard: First, understanding revealed truths does not come from the strength of our human capabilities alone, but also thanks to the light and the action of the Holy Spirit. “When the Advocate comes whom I will send you from the Father, the Spirit of truth ... he will testify to me” (John 15:26), “he will guide you to all truth ... he will take from what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:13-14), “he will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you” (John 14:26).

Not only understanding, but also teaching, through one's preaching and one's life, must be carried out in the dynamic power of the Holy Spirit. The light and the power to convince, in fact, come not only from human reasoning, but also and principally from the Holy Spirit. “You will receive power of the Holy Spirit ... and you will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8). The encyclical Veritatis Splendor recalls Paul VI's words in this regard, “Evangelization will never be possible without the action of the Holy Spirit” (No. 108).

Consequently, it is extremely important for a bishop to be open to the Holy Spirit, and be sensitive and docile to his action. This requires prayer, meditation, and the resulting way of thinking, deciding and acting in accord with the categories of faith, which are different from the mentality of the world. The gift of the Holy Spirit does not work in such a way as to transform a bishop into a depersonalized, inert instrument. His freedom remains wholly intact and the supernatural effectiveness of his words and his teachings will depend less on his natural talent and more on his docility to the Holy Spirit who has been given to him.

Second, the Holy Spirit's action does not, however, dispense with a bishop's study and effort; on the contrary, it presupposes and requires it, in order to make it useful for the bishop himself and fruitful in his evangelizing activity.

The lack of serious study and effort, relying only on the Holy Spirit, would smack of what is usually called “tempting God” (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2119). It is significant that St. Paul, writing to Timothy, would exhort him among other things “to reading” (1 Timothy 4:13).

It is not by any special revelation that bishops know what they must teach, nor is it their own personal ideas that they must put forward. They must transmit the deposit of divine Revelation in matters of faith and morals that was entrusted to the Apostles and their successors and is contained in sacred Scripture and in Tradition. They must teach in communion with the Pope and with the members of the college of bishops. It is necessary, therefore, for bishops to be experts in theology (see Code of Canon Law, canon 378) and to deepen their grasp above all of the Word of God and the Tradition of the Church, and be up to date on the magisterium of the Roman Pontiff and of the college of bishops. The earnest concern to transmit what he received and to transmit it in union with the whole body of bishops is one of the most important qualities of a bishop's teaching ministry.

A bishop must know not only the Word of God and the Tradition of the Church, but also the culture in which he lives and acts. Only by embodying the Word of God in the society that surrounds him will he be able to carry out his mission.

In this regard, we may recall what John Paul II has to say about the New Evangelization: It must be “new in its ardor, methods and expression” (Veritatis Splendor, No. 106). A bishop must therefore study the most suitable teaching methods and the most appropriate ways to express the perennial and unchangeable truths of the faith in forms that will be accessible to people today in the context of their lives.

Bishops and Theologians

The dogmatic constitution of the Second Vatican Council on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, says that “the task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. Yet this magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication, and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith” (No. 10).

Some writers, however, distinguish the magisterium of the bishops and the magisterium of the Church in general from the activity of theologians, in the sense that theologians are credited with the duty of freely producing theological thought within a climate of daring innovation, while they limit the magisterium to the function of guarding and transmitting the deposit of faith or, in other words, of guaranteeing and defending orthodoxy (see, e.g., J.M. Lustiger, La pratique de la théologie dans un monde sécularisé, in Etudes, Jan. 2000).

Such an approach to the problem is not tenable.

This is evident from St. Paul's Letters to Timothy and Titus (whom constant Catholic tradition considers bishops), where their obligation to teach is placed by the Apostle in first place. In these letters, St. Paul not only exhorts them to guard the deposit of faith and defend it, but he also clearly entrusts to them the task of teaching the Word of God in order to form people in their concrete circumstances.

The council's constitution Lumen Gentium insists above all on the positive role of the bishops' teaching mission. As regards these “authentic teachers,” the council distinguishes four aspects of their mission and designates these aspects with different terms: “they preach the faith to the people assigned to them, the faith which is destined to inform their thinking and direct their conduct” (praedicant); “under the light of the Holy Spirit they make that faith shine forth, drawing from the storehouse of Revelation new things and old” (illustrant); “they make it bear fruit” (fructificare); “with watchfulness they ward off whatever errors threaten their flock” (errores arcent) (No. 25). As can be seen, the council stresses first of all the expository aspect of the teaching mission, while the defensive aspect appears in the last place.

A similar approach can be found in Book III of the Code of Canon Law, which refers precisely to the function of teaching in the Church (canons 747-833). First it speaks of the “ministry of the Word of God,” which entails preaching and catechetical instruction (canons 746-780); then of “missionary activity” (canons 781-792); it follows with “Catholic education” in schools, institutes of higher studies, and specifically in universities and ecclesiastical faculties (canons 793-821); then come dispositions on media, especially books (canons 822-832); and, finally, on persons who must make the profession of faith (canon 833). Although in some preceding canons there are some directives aimed at keeping the faithful from errors, it is only at the end that we find the canon aimed at preventing important ecclesiastical offices being conferred on persons who profess erroneous teachings.

In any case, it must be underlined that the very concept of guarding or keeping the faith is not a static concept. Obviously the deposit of faith cannot be augmented by new revelations (Revelation 22:18; Lumen Gentium, No. 25), but this deposit — as Charles Journet has written — is a “living principle that can keep its identity only by developing” (L'Eglise du Verbe Incarné, p. 408). It is a matter of development in the knowledge of the deposit itself, under the assistance of the Holy Spirit — a development that we can verify throughout the history of the Church. It is true that this role does not belong to any individual bishop. But, in union with the Roman Pontiff and the entire college of bishops, he does share in the magisterial mission of guarding the revealed deposit.

At any rate, the proper collaboration between the Church's living magisterium and the work of theologians is important, as the instruction Donum Veritatis of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith underlined. The bishop, equipped with the munus propheticum, should contribute to the Gospel message being presented in its perpetual newness and its eternal youthfulness.

Relationship of Love

It is noteworthy that sharing in the munus docendi does not reflect only the aspect of knowledge, but implies a relationship of love and of gift. Divine Revelation is an act of love for men. Love is what joins a bishop to the Truth he has contemplated. Pastoral love is what impels him to share this truth as a gift to others.

This recalls the Gospel scene which joins Jesus' compassion for the crowd with his teaching: “When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34).

In his talk to the bishops during the Jubilee for Bishops, John Paul II affirmed that “announcing the Gospel is the highest act of love for man, for his freedom and for his thirst for happiness” (L'Osservatore Romano, Oct. 8, 2000).

The greater a bishop's love for God and for revealed truth and for his neighbor, the greater will be his commitment to his teaching mission.


A bishop's teaching mission comprises not only preaching as such, but also many other tasks aimed at assuring that the Word of God is taught faithfully and effectively.

Preaching Personally

In the first place, a bishop cannot exempt himself from the obligation of personally preaching or announcing the Word of God. He is — as we have said — an authentic teacher, sent by the Lord to teach.

To be faithful to this commitment, he must teach all the doctrine in its integrality (not selected truths) and integrity (not presenting only a part of each of the truths), and also in its unity: It is extremely important to present the Gospel message, not as a cluster of isolated statements, but as a coherent oneness of the truth which is in itself fascinating.

A bishop should also feel obligated to proclaim the Gospel to all. “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Good News to all creation” (Mark 16:15). Sometimes there are environments where it is hard for the Word of God to get a hearing, but a bishop cannot in such a case simply exempt himself from his responsibility; he must proclaim the word and insist “in season and out” (2 Timothy 4:2). What St. Paul wrote to Timothy is significant in this regard: “For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine but, following their own desires and insatiable curiosity, will accumulate teachers and will stop listening to the truth and will be diverted to myths. But you, be self-possessed in all circumstances; put up with hardship; perform the work of an evangelist; fulfill your ministry” (2 Timothy 4:3-5). Facing up to difficulties is a sign of a real shepherd.

In the exercise of their munus docendi [teaching mission], the Catechism of the Catholic Church can be of great help to the bishops as a “sure and authentic reference text for teaching the Catholic faith” (John Paul II, apostolic constitution Fidei Depositum, 1992). After all, isn't the catechism addressed principally to the bishops? And didn't they request it during the extraordinary synod of 1985 “before all for themselves as a valid help in fulfilling the mission they received from Christ to proclaim and witness the Good News to all men” (John Paul II, address Dec. 7, 1992)?

Ensuring Faithful and Effective Teaching

Forming priests

Among a bishop's various obligations, I would put in first place providing an adequate, solid formation of priests. They are, after all, a bishop's principal collaborators in teaching and in pastoral work in general.

Their doctrinal formation is a truly serious obligation of a diocesan bishop and of those in an equivalent position (canon 381:2). The Code of Canon Law (canons 232-264) and the 1992 post-synodal apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis deal with this extensively. I do not intend to go into detail here; I am sure that every diocesan bishop has studied these documents with particular care and does not leave aside such an important obligation. I would only like to add that it is important to provide adequate spiritual and pastoral formation for priests, so they can effectively collaborate in the bishop's munus docendi; otherwise, lacking a deep spiritual life and pastoral zeal and capabilities, their effort at teaching will be weak.

Promoting vocations

A bishop's obligation to promote priestly vocations and to provide for the ongoing formation of priests should be considered part of the munus docendi, closely connected with his duty to provide for the formation of priests.

A bishop is called to promote priestly vocations by every means possible, and in this regard, I would like to highlight the importance of proclaiming to all concerned the proper teaching about priestly ministry.

In our present circumstances, that is, given the shortage of priests in many local churches, this is an urgent task, inasmuch as — as Pastores Dabo Vobis says — “without priests the Church would not be able to live that fundamental obedience which is at the very heart of her existence and her mission in history, an obedience in response to the command of Christ: ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations’ (Matthew 28:19) and ‘Do this in remembrance of me’ (Luke 22:19; see 1 Corinthians 11:24), i.e., an obedience to the command to announce the Gospel and to renew daily the sacrifice of the giving of his body and the shedding of his blood for the life of the world” (No. 1).

Ongoing formation

In relation to his priests, a bishop's munus docendi is permanent. A bishop's faith strengthens his priests; his Gospel zeal becomes courage in his priests.

Pastores Dabo Vobis states that the entire local church “has the responsibility to develop and look after the different aspects of her priests' permanent formation,” but it underlines that it must be carried out “under the guidance of the bishop” (No. 78), specifying that, in this area, “the responsibility of the bishop is fundamental,” insofar as “the priests receive their priesthood from him and share his pastoral solicitude for the People of God” (No. 79).

The exhortation requires that this responsibility lead “the bishop, in communion with the presbyterate, to outline a project and establish a program which can ensure that ongoing formation is ... a systematic offering of subjects.” Even further, it requires the bishop to be “present in person and taking part in an interested and friendly way” (No. 79).

Obviously this formation includes doctrinal formation, which for its part receives stimulus and effectiveness from the other aspects of a permanent formation program.

Catechetical instruction

Another extremely important field a bishop has to deal with, insofar as he is invested with the munus docendi, is without doubt catechetical instruction, above all of children and young adults.

In this regard, let me point out that the pastoral care of children and young adults is crucially important for their future religiosity and therefore for the future of the Church.

If we are able to sow faith and union with God in the hearts of children and of young people, they will bear fruit later on in their lives. Also, if they happen to stray from God at times during certain stages of their life, for various reasons, it will be easier for them to return to the faith: Deeply lived union with God during one's youth remains as a leaven in the heart that is capable of awakening. When faith is rooted in one's youth, it prompts the desire to deepen it, to study it further, and it helps one to become a convinced, active Catholic in the various fields of human endeavor.

I am of the opinion that the most important and decisive battle for the future of the Church and of faith in the world is at the level of religious education of children and young people.

In this regard, it is significant that Agostino Gemelli, the renowned founder of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, once said, as it was told to me, that if he had been obliged to close either the university or the nursery school, he would have preferred to close the university.

As regards a bishop's responsibility in this field, Christus Dominus, the council's decree on the pastoral office of bishops, exhorts, “Bishops should take pains that catechetical instruction ... be given with sedulous care to both children and adolescents, youths and adults. In this instruction a suitable arrangement should be observed as well as a method suited to the matter that is being treated and to the character, ability, age, and circumstances of the life of the students. Finally, they should see to it that this instruction is based on sacred Scripture, tradition, the liturgy, magisterium, and life of the Church. Moreover, they should take care that catechists be properly trained for their function so that they will be thoroughly acquainted with the doctrine of the Church and will have both a theoretical and a practical knowledge of the laws of psychology and of pedagogical methods. Bishops should also strive to renew or at least adapt in a better way the instruction of adult catechumens” (No. 14).

I think that this text is asking a lot from bishops. At any rate, these are instructions to be taken seriously by the one who is principally responsible for the munus docendi in his own local church.

Catholic schools

The munus docendi of bishops acquires a quite particular distinctiveness also in relation to other places dedicated to formation. I am referring to Catholic schools and to Catholic and ecclesiastical universities. It is not by chance that the Code of Canon Law deals with these formation institutes in Book III, The Teaching Office of the Church, and summarizes the important responsibilities of bishops in this regard.

I would like to say a word about these three places of formation in the following points.

Among the most incisive instruments to cultivate education are Catholic schools, as Gravissimum Educationis reminds us (No. 5).

In this perspective, Catholic schools share fully in the Church's evangelizing mission. They help in the task of forming Christians to achieve their final end, and are therefore open to God and his Revelation (Code of Canon Law, canon 795).

In this context, Church documents reserve to a diocesan bishop the task of:

E making sure that there are schools that will impart an education imbued with the Christian spirit and therefore to establish such schools (canon 802);

E regulating and being vigilant over the Catholic religious education in them, in conformity with the norms issued by the bishops' conference;

E being concerned that those who are assigned as religion teachers in those schools be outstanding for their correct doctrine, their witness of Christian living and their pedagogical skill (canons 804, 805);

E being vigilant over the visitation of the Catholic schools located in his territory, even those schools which have been established or are being directed by members of religious institutes (canon 806);

E and issuing prescriptions dealing with the general regulation of Catholic schools.

At this point I would like to add that it is a diocesan bishop's responsibility to look after and promote religious education in non-Catholic schools. It is a serious responsibility and at the same time a decisive one, since most Catholic children and young people go to non-Catholic schools.

Catholic universities

A bishop's relationship with the ecclesial institutions of higher studies — Catholic universities and ecclesiastical universities and faculties — constitutes not only a privileged way to exercise the munus docendi, but it takes on an important role for the future of the Church. That is because the people who will undertake specific tasks in Catholic teaching are formed in such institutions. Also, they are the institutions where scientific research takes place on the truths of the faith, the relation between faith and culture, and between faith and science.

As regards Catholic universities, the Second Vatican Council declared that they should accomplish “a public, enduring and pervasive influence of the Christian mind in the furtherance of culture” (Gravissimum Educationis, No. 10). The primary person responsible for the public influence of the Christian mind in his own local church is obviously the bishop.

Pope John Paul II, in the 1990 apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae on Catholic universities, wrote that “bishops have a particular responsibility to promote Catholic universities, and especially to promote and assist in the preservation and strengthening of their Catholic identity, including the protection of their Catholic identity in relation to civil authorities. This will be achieved more effectively if close personal and pastoral relationships exist between university and Church authorities, characterized by mutual trust, close and consistent cooperation and continuing dialogue. Even when they do not enter directly into the internal governance of the university, bishops ‘should be seen not as external agents, but as participants in the life of the Catholic University’” (No. 28)

Ecclesiastical universities and faculties

“Among Catholic universities the Church has always promoted with special care ecclesiastical faculties and universities, which is to say those concerned particularly with Christian Revelation and questions connected therewith and which are therefore more closely connected with her mission of evangelization” (Sapientia Christiana, fore-word, ch. 3). All the more reason, therefore, why they should be in the heart of a bishop “sent to teach.”

Even though, because of their ecclesial importance, establishing faculties or universities of this type is reserved to the Holy See, and they grant academic degrees by the authority of the Holy See, nevertheless the responsibility of the local bishop as such or as a member of the bishops' conference is significant. It manifests itself first as regards the preparation for establishing such faculties or universities, and afterwards as regards their life and progress.

Besides, in many cases (or rather, usually), the local ordinary is the chancellor of the ecclesiastical faculty or university, and he enjoys the rights and duties of that office, among which are those of promoting scientific endeavor and safeguarding Catholic teaching in the faculty or university. Where the local ordinary is not the chancellor, norms should be set up regarding his responsibilities in this regard.

I would like to add that a bishop's responsibility also includes the teaching of theology outside of the faculties of theology. In relation to this, one should remember the instruction of canon 812, according to which “it is necessary that those who teach theological disciplines in any institute of higher studies have a mandatum from the competent ecclesiastical authority.”

Media, especially books

On the basis of his munus docendi, a bishop has particular responsibilities in this sector also.

The code in canon 823 distinguished in a general way between the rights and duties in this regard:

E to be vigilant lest harm be done to the faith or morals of the Christian faithful through writings or the use of the instruments of social communication;”

E to demand that writings to be published by the Christian faithful which touch upon faith or morals be submitted to their judgment;”

E to denounce writings which harm correct faith or good morals.”

The following canons (824-832) contain numerous further specifications, among which it emerges to what degree is implied in this sector a bishop's responsibility for the faith to be correctly taught or disseminated in his ecclesiastical territory.

Bishop and theologians

I have already mentioned the need for theologians to collaborate with their bishop. The reason is that they can be a truly great help for the bishop in the various functions included in his munus docendi, whether in the vigilance over correct doctrine or in the various initiatives that can be undertaken. Even more, theologians are people who by their very nature are called to collaborate and to converge, since “the living Magisterium of the Church and theology ... ultimately have the same goal: preserving the People of God in the truth which sets free and thereby making them ‘a light to the nations’” (Donum Veritatis, No. 21)

Nonetheless, as regards vigilance, the reference point is always the authority of Revelation, of which the bishop is the guardian, and he cannot simply delegate this function. “We have the duty, as bishops — wrote John Paul II in Veritatis Splendorto be vigilant that the word of God is faithfully taught. My brothers in the episcopate, it is part of our pastoral ministry to see to it that this moral teaching is faithfully handed down and to have recourse to appropriate measures to ensure that the faithful are guarded from every doctrine and theory contrary to it. In carrying out this task, we are all assisted by theologians; even so, theological opinions constitute neither the rule nor the norm of our teaching. Its authority is derived, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit and in communion cum Petro et sub Petro, from our fidelity to the Catholic faith which comes from the Apostles. As bishops, we have the grave obligation to be personally vigilant that the ‘sound doctrine’ (1 Timothy 1:10) of faith and morals is taught in our dioceses” (No. 116).

Sometimes a bishop may not feel competent to dialogue with a theologian who is teaching doctrines that disturb the faithful and that do not seem very compatible with the faith of the Church; he can therefore be tempted not to intervene. Such an attitude is not tenable. Of course, he can in such a case consult with sound, qualified theologians, but he must in no way renounce his magisterial function. Cardinal Jerome Hamer makes the proper distinctions: “It is not necessary for the bishop to intervene on the technical level of theology, but it is indispensable to do so in name of the doctrine of the faith, of which he is the guardian and which he must preach.”


Vatican II, by saying that “bishops are preachers of the faith, who lead new disciples to Christ, and they are authentic teachers ... who preach to the people committed to them” (Lumen Gentium, No. 25), makes a clear distinction between the mission of announcing the Gospel to non-Christians and the task of preaching with authority to the faithful who have already accepted the message and who are obligated to conform their mind and conduct to it.

This distinction corresponds to the New Testament's distinction between kerygma and didaskalia or catechesis. The kerygma is the message proclaimed by an apostle. A catechist or teacher explains the teaching with the authorization of the Church and in its name. Both tasks belong to a bishop.

Consequently, even if a bishop does not take up the task of teaching in mission lands, in his heart must be the commitment to support the missions.

Canon 782 says in this regard that “since they are the sponsors for the universal Church and for all the churches, individual bishops are to have a special concern for missionary work especially by initiating, fostering and sustaining missionary endeavors in their own particular church.”


I conclude with a quotation rich in ecclesial content taken from the 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor. “Evangelization is the most powerful and stirring challenge which the Church has been called to face from her very beginning. Indeed, this challenge is posed, not so much by the social and cultural milieux which she encounters in the course of history, as by the mandate of the Risen Christ, who defines the very reason for the Church's existence: ‘Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation.’ (Mark 16:15). At least for many peoples, however, the present time is instead marked by a formidable challenge to undertake a new evangelization, a proclamation of the Gospel which is always new and always the bearer of new things, an evangelization which must be new in its ardor, methods and expression” (No. 106).

Previously published in Rome by the theological journal Ecclesia.