What is a Bishop?

According to Catholic teaching, the Lord Jesus appointed twelve men, called Apostles, to whom He gave the mission of preaching His message, of ministering His sacraments, and of shepherding His disciples in the unity of one flock, one Holy Church.  Jesus thus gave to His Apostles a share in His unique role as Teacher, Priest, and Pastor of humankind.  This sharing we call the ministerial priesthood – ministerial, because it is subordinate to the Risen Lord, whose servant or minister the Apostle is; and priesthood, because Jesus preeminently fulfilled His mission of reconciling humankind to the Father by the free offering of His life, by a sacrifice in which He was both priest and victim.  He redeemed humankind by a priestly act and directed His Apostles to make this one sacrifice ever present to us through the Eucharist.

As they fulfilled the Lord’s command to “preach the Gospel to all nations,” the Apostles chose other men to help them and succeed them in the ministry.  From apostolic times, the principal successors of the Apostles have been called bishops, from the Greek word episcopos, meaning overseer or superintendent.  By a special rite, the laying-on-of-hands and prayer, the Apostles gave to the bishops the fullness of the ministerial priesthood which Jesus had bestowed upon them.

The bishop is thus the successor of the Apostles as teacher, priest, and pastor of the Church.  Associated with him in this apostolic ministry are presbyters (or priests of the second rank) and deacons.  Together with priests and deacons, or sometimes by themselves alone, bishops are referred to as the hierarchy, which means a sacred ruling office.

Every bishop, by virtue of his episcopal ordination, is a member of the Episcopal College, the whole body of bishops throughout the world, of which the Pope, Successor of St. Peter and Bishop of Rome, is the uniquely empowered primate.  The bishop therefore exercises his ministry in the communion or fellowship, of the entire episcopal college, with and under the Holy Father, the Pope.  

A bishop appointed to head a diocese is the vicar or ambassador of Christ in that particular Church or Diocese.  He has full authority, subject only to his communion with the Episcopal College and the Pope, to teach, sanctify, and shepherd that particular Church (diocese) in Christ’s name.

The bishop who heads the diocese is called the Ordinary.  An Ordinary is appointed by the Pope usually after consultation with priests, religious and laity of the diocese, the bishops of the Province, the National Conference of Bishops and the Apostolic Delegate.

Dioceses are gathered together in another larger unit called the province, over which presides a metropolitan archbishop.  Timothy Cardinal Dolan is Metropolitan Archbishop of the Province of New York, the Dioceses of Albany, Brooklyn, Buffalo, Ogdensburg, Rochester, Rockville Centre and Syracuse.

According to the Norms for the Selection of Candidates for the Episcopal Ministry in the Latin Church, the “candidates are to be examined in such a way that it may be seen whether they are endowed with the qualities necessary for a good pastor of souls and teacher of the Faith: whether they enjoy a good reputation; whether they are of irreproachable morality; whether they are endowed with right judgment and prudence: whether they are even tempered and of stable character; whether they firmly hold the orthodox Faith; whether they are devoted to the Apostolic See and faithful to the magisterium of the Church; whether they have a thorough knowledge of dogmatic and moral theology and canon law; whether they are outstanding for their piety, their spirit of sacrifice and their pastoral zeal; whether they have an aptitude for governing.  Consideration must also be given to intellectual qualities, studies completed, social sense, spirit of dialogue and cooperation, openness to the signs of the times, praiseworthy impartiality, family background, health, age and inherited characteristics.”