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Bishops Express the Unity of the Church

General Audience — October 7, 1992

In the Constitution Lumen Gentium, the Second Vatican Council makes an analogy between the college of the apostles and that of the bishops in union with the Roman Pontiff: "Just as in the Gospel, the Lord so disposing, St. Peter and the other apostles constitute one apostolic college, so in a similar way the Roman Pontiff, the Successor of Peter, and the bishops, the successors of the apostles, are joined together" (LG 22). This is the doctrine regarding the collegiality of the episcopate in the Church. Its basic foundation lies in the fact that in establishing his Church, Christ the Lord called the Twelve, whom he appointed apostles and entrusted with the mission of preaching the Gospel and of giving pastoral governance to the Christian people. In this way he established the Church's "ministerial" structure. We see the twelve apostles as a corpus and a collegium of persons united one to the other by the love of Christ who placed them under Peter's authority when he said to him: "You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church" (Mt 16:18). But that original group, having received the mission of preaching the Gospel until the end of time, had to have successors, who are precisely the bishops. According to the Council, this succession reproduces the original structure of the college of the Twelve united among themselves by the will of Christ under Peter's authority.

The Council does not present this doctrine as something new, except perhaps in its formulation, but as the content of a historical reality which receives and fulfills the will of Christ, as it comes to us in Tradition.

a) The Council speaks of "the very ancient practice whereby bishops duly established in all parts of the world were in communion with one another and with the Bishop of Rome in a bond of unity, charity and peace" (LG 22).

b) "...also the councils assembled together, in which more profound issues were settled in common, the opinion of the many having been prudently considered, both of these factors are already an indication of the collegiate character and aspect of the episcopal order, and the ecumenical councils held in the course of centuries are also manifest proof of that same character" (LG 22).

c) Collegiality is also indicated "in the practice, introduced in ancient times, of summoning several bishops to take part in the elevation of the newly elected to the ministry of the high priesthood. Hence, one is constituted a member of the episcopal body in virtue of sacramental consecration and hierarchical communion with the head and members of the body" (LG 22).

The college, we read again, "insofar as it is composed of many, expresses the variety and universality of the People of God, but insofar as it is assembled under one head, it expresses the unity of the flock of Christ" (LG 22). In union with the Successor of Peter the entire college of bishops exercises supreme authority over the universal Church. In later catecheses we will discuss the "Petrine ministry" in the Church. However, it must also be kept in mind when we speak of the collegiality of the episcopate.

Without a doubt, according to Lumen Gentium, "The supreme power in the universal Church, which this college enjoys, is exercised in a solemn way in an ecumenical council" (LG 22). But we also see that "It is the prerogative of the Roman Pontiff to convoke these councils, to preside over them and to confirm them" (LG 22). A council cannot be truly ecumenical unless it has been confirmed, or at least accepted, by the Roman Pontiff. Otherwise, it would lack the seal of unity guaranteed by the Successor of Peter. When unity and catholicity are insured, an ecumenical council can also infallibly define truths in the area of faith and morals. Historically, ecumenical councils have had a very important and decisive role in clarifying, defining and developing doctrine. One need only think of the councils of Nicea, Constantinople, Ephesus and Chalcedon.

In addition to ecumenical councils, "This same collegiate power can be exercised together with the Pope by the bishops living in all parts of the world, provided that the head of the college calls them to collegiate action, or at least approves of or freely accepts the united action of the scattered bishops, so that it is thereby made a collegiate act" (LG 22).

Episcopal synods, established after Vatican II, are meant to realize concretely the participation of the episcopal college in the universal government of the Church. These synods study and discuss pastoral and doctrinal subjects of notable importance for the universal Church. The results of their work, produced in agreement with the Apostolic See, are collected in documents which are disseminated everywhere. The documents resulting from recent synods are expressly called "post-synodal."

We read again: "This collegial union is apparent also in the mutual relations of the individual bishops with particular churches and with the universal Church.... Each bishop represents his own Church, but all of them together and with the Pope represent the entire Church in the bond of peace, love and unity" (LG 23).

For this reason, "Each of them, [the bishops] as a member of the episcopal college and legitimate successor of the apostles, is obliged by Christ's institution and command to be solicitous for the whole Church, and this solicitude, though it is not exercised by an act of jurisdiction, contributes greatly to the advantage of the universal Church. For it is the duty of all bishops to promote and to safeguard the unity of faith and the discipline common to the whole Church, to instruct the faithful to love for the whole Mystical Body of Christ, especially for its poor and sorrowing members and for those who are suffering persecution for justice's sake, and finally to promote every activity that is of interest to the whole Church, especially that the faith may take increase and the light of full truth appear to all men" (LG 23).

At this point the Council recalls: "By divine Providence it has come about that various churches, established in various places by the apostles and their successors, have in the course of time coalesced into several groups, organically united, which, preserving the unity of faith and the unique divine constitution of the universal Church, enjoy their own discipline, their own liturgical usage, and their own theological and spiritual heritage. Some of these churches, notably the ancient patriarchal churches, as parent stocks of the Faith, so to speak, have begotten others as daughter churches, with which they are connected down to our own time by a close bond of charity in their sacramental life and in their mutual respect for their rights and duties" (LG 23).

We see, then, that the Council also calls attention (in the context of the doctrine on the collegiality of the episcopate) to the fundamental truth about the mutual interpenetration and integration of both the particular reality and the universal dimension in the Church's structure. The role of episcopal conferences must also be considered from this standpoint. Lumen Gentium states: "The episcopal bodies of today are in a position to render a manifold and fruitful assistance, so that this collegiate feeling may be put into practical application" (LG 23).

A more detailed statement on this subject was made in the Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church (Christus Dominus). We read there: "An episcopal conference is, as it were, a council in which the bishops of a given nation or territory jointly exercise their pastoral office to promote the greater good which the Church offers mankind, especially through the forms and methods of the apostolate fittingly adapted to the circumstances of the age" (CD 38, 1).

The conclusion to be drawn from these texts is that episcopal conferences are able to deal with problems in the territory of their responsibility, beyond the boundaries of the individual dioceses, and to offer them answers of a pastoral or doctrinal nature. They can also give opinions on problems concerning the universal Church. Above all they can authoritatively provide for the needs of the Church's development according to what is required by or suitable to the national mentality and culture. They can make decisions, with the consent of the member bishops, which will have great impact on pastoral activities.

Episcopal conferences have their own responsibility within the territory of their competence, but their decisions have inevitable repercussions on the universal Church. The Petrine ministry of the Bishop of Rome guarantees the coordination of the conferences' activities with the life and teaching of the universal Church. In this regard the Council's decree establishes: "Decisions of the episcopal conference, provided they have been approved legitimately and by the votes of at least two-thirds of the prelates who have a deliberative vote in the conference, and have been recognized by the Apostolic See, are to have juridically binding force only in those cases prescribed by the common law or determined by a special mandate of the Apostolic See, given either spontaneously or in response to a petition of the conference itself" (CD 38, 4). Lastly, the decree establishes: "Wherever special circumstances require and with the approbation of the Apostolic See, bishops of many nations can establish a single conference" (CD 38, 5).

Something similar can also occur in regard to councils and meetings of bishops on the continental level, as for example, the Council of Latin American Conferences (C.E.L.A.M.) or that of European Churches (C.C.E.E.). All this is a vast range of new groups and organizations by which the one Church tries to respond to the spiritual needs and problems of the world today. This is a sign that the Church lives, reflects and is committed to working as an apostle of the Gospel in our day. In every case she is aware of the need to present herself, to work and to live in fidelity to the two basic features of the Christian community of every age and, in particular, of the apostolic college: unity and catholicity.