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HE message which God has revealed to men through
Jesus Christ our Lord is the body of truth which the Catholic Church is commissioned and empowered to teach infallibly on earth until the end of time. One part of this divine message deals with the Church itself, explaining the nature and the characteristics of this society within which our Lord lives and over which He rules. One section of the revealed message dealing with the Church explains the status and the function of the diocesan priest in Christ's kingdom.
It is the purpose of this little book to sketch the content of that part of the Church's divine revelation which has to do with the position and the essential activities of the diocesan priest. Thus, by reason of the very end it has in view, this work differs from most other books dealing with the diocesan priesthood. By far the greater portion of the literature now devoted to this subject stresses the need for spiritual perfection in the priest because of his sacerdotal orders or his parochial ministry. Or, to put it in another way, most of the writing devoted to the diocesan priesthood considers this subject from the viewpoint of the sacramental character of holy orders or under the aspect of the parochial ministry, considered as the essential activity of the diocesan priest.
This, in the final analysis, is treating the diocesan priesthood in much the same way that the episcopate would be treated if men were to confine themselves to the consideration of the power of orders, without speaking of the powers of ruling and teaching the flock of Christ, existing in the Catholic episcopate. A man who does not realize the position of authority a bishop holds in the Church of Christ does not appreciate the meaning of the apostolic episcopate in the Church, even though he be aware of the fact that a bishop can ordain a priest or consecrate another bishop. In exactly the same way, a man who knows that the diocesan priest can offer the sacrifice of the Mass, and that he is generally associated with the parochial ministry cannot be said to possess an adequate understanding of the diocesan priesthood unless he know something of the essential and divinely ordered status of the diocesan priest in the Church of Christ.
The divinely revealed teaching about the diocesan priesthood is to be found in that section of God's revelation which deals with the local Church. Despite the fact that most theological treatises on the Church of Christ do not sufficiently stress doctrines about the local Church, it remains true that God has revealed a body of teaching, not only about the nature and the characteristics of the Church universal, but also about the individual local company of Christ's disciples, the religious unit we know today as the diocese or the archdiocese. The diocesan priest has a distinct and necessary function within the local Church, according to God's own revelation.
The fully developed local Church (as distinguished from the local Church in the process of formation, the kind of entity known as a mission or as a prefecture apostolic or as a vicariate apostolic) is a complete individual household or family in Christ. It has its definite purpose. It works and exists to glorify God in Christ through the sanctification and the salvation of its members. By reason of the charity which animates it in virtue of its very constitution, it also works to bring all the other inhabitants of its own locality into its company so that they may enjoy the association with Christ and the life in Him which can never be possessed apart from His kingdom.
It must be understood that the purpose of the local Church is not merely local in scope. It seeks to advance the work of the Church universal. It works to gain for Christ the souls even of those outside its own particular territory. The local Church or diocese is a part of the Church universal, and, as such, immediately subject to the Sovereign Pontiff. Thus it co-operates, under his direction and command, with every other portion of the Church universal for the furtherance of Christ's cause throughout the entire world.
Like the Church universal, the local Church lives and operates in the light of divine revelation. Its work is a corporate profession of faith, a social manifestation of belief in God and a sign of the acceptance of His message. It is a group held together by the inward bonds of faith, hope, and charity. It stands as a visible social unit by virtue of its outward bonds of unity, the profession of the same Christian faith, the communication in and admission to the same sacraments, and subjection to legitimate ecclesiastical superiors, to the bishop and to the Holy Father as Christ's vicar on earth.
The immediate purpose and function of the local Church is the Sacrifice of the Mass. Around this central and essential activity are gathered all the other operations God has assigned to the local Church. Thus the entire sacramental system is centered around the act of the Eucharistic Sacrifice. The doctrinal and jurisdictional authority wielded by the bishop and by the priests under his authority tends toward the instruction and the government of the supernatural household or family which is privileged to gather at the table of Christ for its corporate repast. And, precisely because the Mass is a sacrifice, a corporate and external expression or manifestation of all the other public or private acts of worship, the Mass is necessarily the act in which the entirety of the local Church's corporate life finds its expression and its meaning.
Now, according to the divine constitution of Christ's kingdom on earth, every completely developed local household of the Faith is a definite kind of organized social unit. It has its own father in Christ, its bishop, who is charged with the responsibility of presiding over or offering its sacrifice, of instructing this family in Christ in divinely revealed truth, and of governing or ruling it so as to direct it and its individual members to the good Christ died to obtain for them. Thus the bishop is the authorized dispenser of the sacraments for his people, and their leader in their common prayer to God.
To put this same truth in another way, the fully organized local Church is one presided over by a leader endowed with the apostolic powers of orders, and of authority, both doctrinal and jurisdictional. Our Lord gave the original members of His apostolic college the full power of the priesthood, the competence to offer the sacrifice of the Mass, to ordain priests who would be capable of offering this sacrifice, and to consecrate bishops, who would be competent to ordain priests and to constitute new bishops. He also promised and finally gave to the members of this brotherhood the power to govern His people and to instruct them in His doctrine, not as mere delegates from some higher ecclesiastical authority, but by their own authority as representatives of our Lord.
It is part and parcel of Catholic teaching that the men whom the Apostles ultimately set up as the rulers of the fully developed local Churches were endowed precisely with this apostolic power of orders and of jurisdictional and doctrinal authority. In that definite and complete sense, these men were the successors of the Apostles. They had the power to offer the Eucharistic Sacrifice, to make other men partakers of that power, and, finally to make some men capable of exercising all of that power of orders with which they themselves were endowed. They were competent to instruct and to rule their flocks, not merely as the delegates of some higher ecclesiastical authority, but in their own names and on their own responsibilities as our Lord's representatives.
It must be understood, of course, that it is one thing to say that these apostolic rulers of individual local Churches throughout the Church universal rule and govern their flocks in their own names, and not merely as delegates of a higher merely human authority within the Church. It is quite another thing to infer that this apostolic authority is supreme and independent. The other Apostles, in the ordinary exercise of their doctrinal and jurisdictional authority, were definitely not mere representatives or delegates of St. Peter, despite the fact that they were certainly subject to him. Similarly the residential bishops of the Catholic Church, the successors to the Apostles, are definitely subject and subordinate to the Roman Pontiff in the exercise of their authority, while, at the same time, they are not merely his delegates or representatives.
There are several varieties of territorial and quasi-territorial divisions within the Church universal. The local Church, over which the residential bishop presides as one of the successors of the Apostles, is, according to the canon law of the West, subdivided into deaneries and parishes. The dioceses themselves are grouped together into provinces, and these latter gathered again into patriarchates. More complex ecclesiastical organization in terms of metropolitans and primates has flourished at one time or another within the Church.
Only one of these divisions or parts, however, belongs to the Church by reason of its divine constitution. Patriarchates, provinces, deaneries, and the like, all exist within the Church by virtue of human ecclesiastical law. The human power which has brought these things into existence could, if it