Bishop is "the title of an ecclesiastical dignitary who possesses the fullness of the priesthood to rule a diocese as its chief pastor, in due submission to the primacy of the pope."
-- Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume II
Bishop in the Roman Catholic rite is the highest level a priest can be raised to - even the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II is a Bishop. The Bishops of the Church receive special respect and recognition apart from the rest of the Priesthood. Every bishop oversees a diocese (a geographical area comprised of local churches and parishioners). Certain large diocese are considered an Archdiocese, for example the Archdiocese of New York and the Archdiocese of Toronto - and the Bishop charged with that diocese receives the title of Archbishop. Every Bishop has chosen a church within their diocese to be "theirs." The selected church then becomes known as a Cathedral. The Bishop is the direct superior of all the diocesan priests (but not priests and brothers of orders - they have their own superiors), and the Bishop is also the spiritual leader for all the faithful in his diocese.
However, there are some Bishops who are not directly in charge of diocese themselves. There are Auxiliary Bishops who assist the residential Bishop of a large diocese. Bishops can also retire from their duties, but they retain all the rights and privileges and become known as Bishop Emeritus.
Since bishops are charged with the care of the faithful under their jurisdiction, they have certain obligations and duties they must carry out. Upon being raised to a Bishop, they are required to celebrate a mass every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation. All Bishops must go to Rome once every five years and update the Holy Father on the events, improvements, and difficulties occurring in their diocese. At this time, Bishops also pray before the tomb of St. Peter, and visit the Shrines of Saints Peter and Paul. Bishops cannot themselves change church doctrine or the like. They are still subject to the authority the Holy Mother Church and the Sovereign Pontiff.
Obviously there are certain privileges which are associated with being an ecclesiastical dignitary. Bishops are the only people with the power to confer the Sacrament of Confirmation and Holy Orders (ordaining a priest or deacon), and other major orders. Also restricted to Bishops is the authority to consecrate an altar, dedicate a whole church, the reconciliation of a desacralized church, the blessing of items used during Mass (such as a chalice or corporal), or the benediction of abbots, holy oils, and bells. These powers are usually restricted to a Bishop's own diocese unless the ordinary Bishop of another diocese gives him express permission to do so there. The Bishop can also make use of the portable altar, and is exempt from "suspensions and interdicts latæ sententia." Also, those who physically assault a Bishop are subject to excommunication.
Titles of Address
A residential Bishop or Archbishop of a diocese holds the title "The Most Reverend" (as opposed to the simple "The Reverend" accorded to ordained priests). In conversation, a Bishop (who is not a Cardinal or the Pope) is always referred to as "Your Excellency." When introducing or presenting a Bishop, the proper protocol is "His Excellency, Bishop John Doe" or "The Most Reverend John Doe, Bishop of Somewhere." In addressing letters, the salutation should read "Your Excellency," for normal letters or "Most Reverend Sir," for formal correspondence. The British and Canadians sometimes call Archbishops and Bishops "Your Grace" but this is not proper nor authorized under Roman law. Even those who are not Catholic should address Bishops properly - just as one would properly address a King or royalty from another country. If a Bishop was from a royal family, or had a family title (such as Lord, Duke, or John Doe IV, etc.) these would not be used, as these titles are no longer used from the day any priest is ordained. Therefore, a Bishop would only ever be referred to by his proper Catholic title.
Selection of Bishops
When a Bishop retires or resigns, he aids the Pope in the selection of his replacement. Usually three priests are recommended for the position by the Papal Nuncio for that area. The choices go through the Congregation for Bishops at the Vatican, who review the candidates with the retiring Bishop (unless the Bishop has passed away) and together they make recommendations to the Supreme Pontiff. The final decision is that solely of the Pope himself and is final. If the selected replacement is not already an ecclesiatical, there is an ordination ceremony in which the priest is ordained a Bishop.
The vestments of a priest raised to Bishop change quite significantly. The bishop is entitled to wear the mitre, pectoral cross with proper cord, the episcopal ring, the amaranth-red zuchetto, the purple biretta with green silk lining, the crosier, and amaranth-red trim on the cassock - both choir and ordinary cassocks. There are other vesture changes, but many too numerous and too detailed, specific, and complex to discuss here. There are vestments for specific occasions, exceptions to every rule, and provisions for a multitude of vestments and decorations to be used. The most noticeable and common changes in a Bishop's vesture is the use of the Mitre and Crosier (a styled staff) during celebration of Mass, and the addition of the pectoral cross when dressed in simple clerical garb.
The episcopal ring, however, is a symbol of the prelate?s authority. They make use of three rings: the pontifical, the gemmed, and the ordinary. However, the pontifical and gemmed have recently often been combined to cut costs, although it is historically incorrect. Lay people and lower clerics reverence the prelate's ring by kneeling or bowing and kissing it in order to recognize the dignity of the position and his role within the Church. For the faithful who devoutly kiss a prelate's ring, they are granted an associated indulgence. Kissing the ring of the Holy Father, they earn an indulgence of 300 days. Of a cardinal: an indulgence of 100 days, and a patriarch, archbishop, or bishop, or prefect apostolic: an indulgence of 50 days. It is never improper to kiss the episcopal ring.
A Bishop's signature is preceded with a cross (+) in both written and printed form. This is not used when writing to a Bishop, though. This is only a privilege of the prelate themselves. Prelates also drop any family titles and abbreviations indicating linear relationships (such as Jr., III, etc.)
Bishops are entitled to a coat-of-arms which is specifically constructed for their episcopal rank. Bishops have a shield below a Roman hat (green or black), with green cords extending from the hat, spreading out to twelve green tassels: one, two, three - on both sides of the shield. Between the Hat and the top of the Shield an episcopal Cross is placed. The bishop's personal coat-of-arms is within the shield. The heraldry of Archbishops is also similar, but has twenty-one tassels (one, then two, then three, then four on each side). They also use the Archiepiscopal cross with a double crossbar. This coat-of-arms becomes their personal seal - only to be used by the Bishop himself. When the Bishop passes away, the seal bearing their coat is destroyed.
The Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church also have a rightful claim to apostolic succession. This is basically the concept that each Bishop was ordained by a Bishop before them, and can trace this line back to the first Bishops of the Church, the Apostles and, of course, Jesus Christ. There hasn't been a break in lineage since the Apostles handed down the duties of the early Church, right up to the Bishops and priests of today.
It is obvious that Roman Catholic Bishops are entrusted with a great deal of responsibility and authority on behalf of the Church, and therefore they are important people in both a spiritual and historical perspective. According to the Council of Trent, Bishops are the successors of the Apostles, though they do not possess all the prerogatives of the latter. "The Roman Pontiff and the bishops are authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ, who preach the faith to the people entrusted to them..." - Catholic Catechism, Para. 2034
- Catholic Encyclopedia
- Catholic Catechism
- The Church Visible, "The Ceremonial Life and Protocol of the Roman Catholic Church"
- Personal Knowledge
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