The Visible Hierarchical Church

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"You are Peter, the rock, and upon this rock I will build my Church" (Mt 16:18).

 We know that Christ founded his Church and willed her basic structure.  He built her on Peter.  Our Lord himself gave us the outlines of the Church's hierarchy.  As is mentioned numerous times in the Gospels, Christ chose twelve apostles, and he gave them the power to carry on his work - teaching, governing, and through the sacraments sanctifying the faithful.  He said to the apostles.

"Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in Heaven; whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in Heaven (Mt 16":19).

Successors to the Apostles

Christ gave the apostles the mission of evangelizing all nations.  Since all nations could evidently not be evangelized by the apostles during their lifetime, Jesus was of course addressing all those who would be their successors down through the centuries.

The apostles also understood him in this way, because immediately after the Ascension, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles (1:15-26), Peter stood up and told the disciples that he and they must choose someone to replace Judas.  They chose Matthias.  Thus they began to exercise their power to bind and loose by electing the first successor to an apostle.

Christ in his wisdom chose this structure.  He knew that the Church, like any society, would need authority to govern.  Without it the Church would be in chaos.  In the Old Testament we also see a certain amount of structure among the chosen people.  There were different tribes with clearly defined territories, and, sometimes, special functions.  For instance, priests came only from the tribe of Levi.  There were leaders chosen not by men but by God, such as Abraham, Moses, and David.  In the New Testament, which is the fulfillment of the Old, we see the establishment of a hierarchical Church, with divine authority.  It is important to realize that the Church is not a federal union or democracy where majority opinion prevails, a corporation where managerial skills are uppermost, or an organization where efficiency is first.  The Church may use human wisdom, but she is far above human wisdom.  She is supernatural in her essential structure.  God says, "As the heaves are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts" (Is 55:9).

As we have seen, this hierarchical Church started to function at the very outset, after Christ's Ascension.

Later in the Acts we find the account of the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15).  At this council several of the apostles and other leaders of the early Church met to solve certain questions concerning the gentile members of the Church.  Both of these incidents show us that the apostles understood Our Lord's command for them to build up the Church.

The apostles received from Christ the fullness of his powers which they, in turn, passed on to the bishops, their successors.  In the early Church each bishop was responsible for the Christians in a particular area.  As the Church grew, the apostles passed on their power to other men, increasing the number of bishops.  It is this same power that the bishops today have received, making them the successors of the apostles.

Church Structure

Today the Church is spread throughout the world and is divided into various dioceses.  At the head of each diocese is a bishop, whose role is to teach, govern, and sanctify the faithful in his care.  Some bishops have received the title of archbishop.  An archbishop is the head of an important diocese - usually the oldest in a particular area.  His diocese is then called an archdiocese.  The archbishop has the same power and responsibility as a bishop.  All of the bishops are united under the bishop of Rome - the Pope, who is the Vicar of Christ on earth.  Just as Peter had authority over the other apostles, the bishop of Rome has the authority to lead the other bishops and to teach the entire Church.

As the Church continued to grow in the early days, other men - deacons and priests - were appointed and given a share in his powers by the bishop.  This is still true today.  Because the bishop cannot personally care for all the people within his diocese, the territory is further divided into parishes.  The bishop then delegates his authority and the power to celebrate some of the sacraments to the priests in charge of these parishes.  Each parish is headed by a pastor, who usually has one or more assistants to help him care for the spiritual needs of the parishioners.  As a pastor (which comes from the Latin word for shepherd), he is to lead and serve the flock entrusted to his care.  The pastor's work is one of service.  Christ asked the shepherds to give their very lives for those in their care.  Like the bishops, priests share in the priesthood of Christ, principally by celebrating Mass and forgiving sins.  They do not however, have the power of the bishop to ordain others to the priesthood.  The priest also shares in the teaching office of the bishop when he preaches at Mass or Instructs the faithful of his parish.

There are also deacons, whose role is to assist the bishop.  They, like priests, are usually assigned by the bishop to work in a parish and help in the care of the faithful.  The deacon is ordained by the bishop but does not have the power to say Mass.  He can administer the sacrament of Baptism and witness marriages for the Church.  He also shares in the teaching office of the bishop through his preaching.  The deacon may also help the priest by visiting the sick, counseling the bereaved, or practicing other works of mercy in the diocese.

Some priests and bishops are made cardinals with the job of electing the Pope and being his closest advisors.  Some priests are given the honorary title monsignor.  These two groups are not steps within the sacrament of Holy Orders as the others are.  Monsignor is an honorary title given by the Pope to many priests.  The office of cardinal is also an honor bestowed by the Pope.  At the present time most cardinals are chosen from among the bishops of the Church, although at other times in history some were priests or even laymen.  The primary function of the cardinals is to elect the Pope, who has for many centuries been elected from among the college of cardinals.

In addition to this, the cardinals assist the Pope in the curia.  The curia consists of the many administrative and judicial offices by which the Pope directs the Church.  We might think of it as similar, in some ways, to the President of the United States and his various cabinet offices.  Each of the curial offices is usually headed by one of the cardinals, although some may be headed by a bishop or priest.

Not all of these offices in the Church are essential.  Since the bishops have the fullness of Christ's priesthood, they can provide for all of our spiritual needs.  Without the bishops we would not have the sacramental life, which Our Lord gave us for our salvation.  This simple structure may have been enough for the early Church.  However, now that the Church has grown so large, those who assist the bishops - priests and deacons - make it possible for many more people to receive the graces of Christ. 

Just as the authority of the Church comes from Christ, so Christ gave to his Church the power to sanctify. 

Used with the permission of The Ignatius Press 800-799-5534

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