Bishops Must Be Teachers: First, Last and Always

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 being discussed now by the Synod of Bishops meeting in the Vatican. The second part of Cardinal Grocholewski's talk follows:

Episcopal Consecration

The Second Vatican Council clearly linked this [teaching] mission to episcopal consecration — a linkage that had not always seemed clear prior to the council — when it affirmed that, “episcopal consecration confers, together with the office of sanctifying, the duty also of teaching and ruling” (Lumen Gentium No. 21). The Council supports this affirmation on the tradition which is expressed especially in the liturgical rites and in the customs of both the Eastern and Western Church.

It is actually a matter of sharing in the mission that originated with the Father and was handed on to the Son and from him to the Apostles. Jesus often said he was sent by the Father, and in his prayer to the Father for the Apostles, he states, “As you sent me into the world, I sent them into the world” (John 17:18). When he appeared to them after the resurrection, he proclaimed, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). And earlier on, at the Last Supper, he had said, “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me“ (John 13:20).

It is noteworthy that this relationship of bishops to the Apostles, and of the Apostles to Christ and to the Father, is strongly emphasized in the text of the prayer of episcopal consecration, drawn from an ancient third-century text, “So now pour out upon this chosen one that power which is from you, the governing Spirit whom you gave to your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, the Spirit given by him to the holy Apostles, who founded the Church in every place to be your temple for the unceasing glory and praise of your name.”

Vatican II similarly declares, “Christ, whom the Father hallowed and sent into the world (John 10:36), has, through his Apostles, made their successors, the bishops namely, sharers in his consecration and mission” (Lumen Gentium, No. 28).

In today's cultural context, there is a widespread rejection of authority that comes from above, which is perceived as a manifestation of a certain kind of monarchism. There is a tendency to favor democratic approaches. Evidently, this mentality cannot be applied to the Church, because it would undermine what is at the heart of our faith, the very structure of the apostolic mission. It is actually a matter of the mission entrusted by God himself, supreme Wisdom and supreme Love, to the Church, as an act of his immense love for the salvation of mankind.

The Inseparability from the Other Munera [Missions]

I would like to underline that the ministry of teaching cannot be separated from the other two missions of sanctifying and governing. In this regard, John Paul II wrote, in his Holy Thursday 1979 Letter to Priests: “The mission of Jesus Christ himself ... has a triple dimension: It is the mission and office of Prophet, Priest and King. If we analyze carefully the conciliar texts, it is obvious that one should speak of a triple dimension of Christ's service and mission, rather than of three different functions. In fact, these functions are closely linked to one another, explain one another, condition one another and clarify one another. Consequently, it is from this threefold unity that our sharing in Christ's mission and office takes its origin.” So, rather than speaking of three munera, it would be better to speak of a triple munus of the one potestas sacra [sacred power].

Teaching, in fact, is not carried out only by preaching and by publishing documents, but also and eminently by liturgical rites, by the sacraments which are signs of the Church's faith. Besides, the mission of sanctifying comprises also the ministry of the Word which is inseparable from it.

Governance — with its three functions: legislative, executive and judicial — in which the bishop represents Christ, must also be considered one of the ways of teaching, insofar as it makes the faith of the Church explicit and is aimed at activating the requirements of the faith. Moreover, the way a bishop governs must be a living education, a continual preaching that will reveal to the faithful the profound law of charity and the values taught by the words.

This implies that a bishop is called to be a witness to Christ not only in his teaching mission, strictly speaking, but also in his life and in the performance of his munus of sanctifying and governing.

Hierarchical Communion with the Head and Members of the College

Regarding the exercise of the three munera, Lumen Gentium notes that these, “of their very nature can be exercised only in hierarchical communion with the head and members of the college” [of bishops] (No. 21).

I think that the explanation contained in the constitution's Preliminary Explanatory Note, No. 2, also referred to this communion. It observes that, “an ontological share in the sacred functions is given by consecration,“ and this must not be understood as if it were “power ordered to action. A canonical or juridical determination through hierarchical authority is required for such power ordered to action. A determination of this kind can come about through appointment to a particular office or the assignment of subjects, and is conferred according to norms approved by the supreme authority. The need for a further norm follows from the nature of the case, because it is a question of functions to be discharged by more than one subject, who work together in the hierarchy of functions intended by Christ.”

Besides, as regards the expression, “hierarchical communion with the head of the college and its members,” it is stated right there that “it is not to be understood as some vague sort of good will, but as something organic which calls for a juridical structure as well as being enkindled by charity.”

At any rate, more than a juridical fact, we are dealing with a supernatural reality, based on and caused by the possession of the Holy Spirit, which is conferred by episcopal consecration.

Thus, apart from “hierarchical communion with the head of the college and its members,” a bishop “by his nature” would no longer be authorized to exercise the munus conferred at his episcopal consecration; he would no longer be an authentic teacher. The council therefore rules that a bishop who opposes or rejects apostolic communion cannot be admitted to office, and that “bishops who teach in communion with the Roman Pontiff are to be revered by all” (Lumen Gentium, No. 25).

Authentic Teachers

Lumen Gentium states that all the faithful share in Christ's triple mission (No. 10), and this includes the duty to spread the faith. In fact, “each disciple of Christ has the obligation of spreading the faith to the best of his ability” (Lumen Gentium, No. 17). The Holy Father recently recalled that “the first mission ... on which [Christ] was sent was to proclaim the Gospel. This was the first mission of the Apostles: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). This call is always timely and compelling. It concerns all the faithful — clergy and lay people. We are all called to bear witness to the Gospel in daily life. It is necessary, as we enter the new millennium, that we answer this call with all fervor” (Homily at the Jubilee pilgrimage of Poland).

There is, nevertheless, a fundamental difference and distinction. Though it is true that all the faithful, as members of the Body of Christ, share in Christ's triple dignity and triple mission, only bishops (and in their degree priests and deacons) are “authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ” (Lumen Gentium, No. 25). In other words, “by the imposition of hands and through the words of the consecration, the grace of the Holy Spirit is given ... in such wise that 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)” (Lumen Gentium, No. 21).

In the bishops’ ministry, therefore, it is always Christ who teaches, sanctifies and guides his people. Actually, as the council noted, “in the person of the bishops ... to whom the priests render assistance, the Lord Jesus Christ ... is present in the midst of the faithful. ... [T]hrough their signal service ... he preaches the Word of God to all peoples” (Lumen Gentium, No. 21).

A bishop should realize, therefore, that he is an instrument in God's hand and that he is called to teach, not his own doctrine, but Christ's. St. Augustine, in his “Sermon on the Shepherds” that we read every year in the breviary, wrote, “If I speak my own opinions, I shall be a shepherd feeding myself not my sheep; but if I say what is the Lord's, it is he who feeds you, no matter who is speaking. ‘Thus says the Lord God, Ho, shepherds of Israel, who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?’” (Liturgy of the Hours, 24th Sunday).

Previously published in Rome by the theological journal Ecclesia.