The Office of Bishop

Author: Pope Paul VI


Pope Paul VI

Teacher, Authoritative Witness and Custodian of Divine Truth

In the Holy Mass of the Epiphany—during which he conferred the Episcopal Ordination upon twelve new Prelates—the Holy Father, after the Liturgy of the Word, addressed this Homily to the large gathering of Cardinals, Bishops, Prelates, Priests and faithful.

Most venerable Brethren, Beloved sons!

Today the Church celebrates the mystery of the Epiphany, the divine plan by which "God has made known to us in all his wisdom and insight the mystery of his will (Eph. 1,9) through which men by means of Christ, Word made flesh, in the Holy Spirit have access to the Father and are made participants in the divine nature (cfr Eph. 2,18; 2 Peter 1,4). In fact, with this revelation, God, the invisible (cfr. Col. 1,15; 1 Tim. 1,17) in his great love speaks to men as if to friends (cfr. Es. 33,11; John 15, 14-15) and he lingers with them (cfr. Bar. 3,38) to invite them and to admit them to communion with Him" (Const. "Dei Verbum", n. 2). It is the feast day of Revelation. It is the feast of God's self-manifestation, in a new, different and higher order, but not contrary to that in which He is known in nature by reason. It is a manifestation which opens up for us in some degree—but which is immensely rich and ineffable—a higher vision of the divine truth in itself, a vision of the divine plan concerning us and concerning the truth of our being and the truth of our salvation. It inaugurates a marvellous supernatural relationship between God and man, it establishes from this point on a vital relation, a true religion, a communion between the living and transcendental Truth of Divinity and our individual persons, and with humanity which welcomes the gift, the light, and the life of this Revelation.

This plan is realized in Jesus Christ, and is communicated to us through our acceptance, that is, our faith, and is then spread by means of that current deriving from the Holy Spirit which we call charity, and grace, and making of the regenerated and favoured believers a single Body in Christ, the Church.

Revelation, this heavenly light, has its own multiform moment, but one which is precise in time, in history, and in the human, social and visible reality. It is a moment, as We said, which irradiates its fullness in Christ. But after him and by his arrangement, it reaches us through a transmission, a tradition; that is, through a human ministry, vehicle of the Revelation, a magisterium: the Apostles, who, to the unique and original mediation of Christ, coordinate their mediation which is subordinate and instrumental but which is indispensable as a channel nourished by the charism of their election by Christ himself (John 6: 70; 15,16) and of their institutional and permanent function (Math. 28,19; Luke 10,16). Their charism does not derive from the community of the faithful but is intended for its edification. The Apostles, together with men of their circle, committed the news of salvation to writing, and then "in order to keep the Gospel forever whole and alive within the Church, they left bishops as their successors, handing over their own teaching role to them" (as taught by S. Irenaeus, Adv. Haer., III, 3, 1; P.G. 7, 848; Dei Verbum, n. 7).


And here we are, then, logically and happily led to consider in you, venerable and beloved brethren—whom today we have assumed into the Episcopal Order and joined to the Episcopal College—the mystery of the Epiphany, the plan of Revelation. You are the heirs of this treasure of revealed truth, you are the custodians of the "deposit" (1 Tim. 6,20), you are qualified representatives of Christ, you are the ministers of his magisterial, priestly and pastoral powers; and with respect to the Church you represent the Lord in the authentic and fullest form. "Where the Bishop is, there the community is assembled (S. Ignatius of Antioch, Smyrn. 8,2), just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church". You are its rulers, and as such you are responsible for her, and to such a high and demanding degree that in the Bishop charity has its most perfect evangelical expression, and it qualifies him as one who dedicates all his life to identifying himself with that love which gives itself (cfr. John 15, 13), and which makes of the following of Christ the salient and determining norm of existence (cfr. John 21, 19 and 22).

Thus you, more than any others, are consecrated to the service of the Church. This is the recurring idea in Tradition, in every discourse on the Episcopate. Among the many voices let Us recall one, that of Origen, who said of the Bishop:"quivocatur... ad episcopatum non ad principatum vocatur, sed a servitutem totius Ecclesiae" (In Is. Hom Vi. 1; P. G. 13, 239). Saint Augustine never tired of repeating: "Vobis non tam praesse sed prodesse delectet (Serm. 140, 1; P. L. 38, 1484).


Butto return to the thoughtwhich, with the liturgy of the day, now occupies Our mind. We must mention the manifold relationship which exists between the Apostle, his successor, and divine revelation. No one, more than he, receives it, listens to it, meditates upon it, makes it his own. The words of Christ at the Last Supper teach us this and repeat it to us (John 15,14, etc; Mark 4,11). You are the disciples par excellence of revelation. No one more than youis the custodian of this heritage of divine truth, custodian of its exact words (1 Tim. 6,20) and custodian of its practical fulfillment (Luke 11,28; John 14, 15; 21,23). And to you, more than to any others in the Church of God is promised a particular outpouring of the Holy Spirit, which gives understanding and opens up the depths of revelation (John 14,26; 15,26). And from being privileged hearers you have become teachers of the divine doctrine. The teaching office is one of the greatest powers specifically entrusted by Christ to his Apostles and to those who willsucceed them in the spreading of the message of truth and salvation, which is the Gospel (Math. 28,20). And with the teaching office there must be a witnessing. The doctrine of the faith does not impose itself like the truths of the rational order which as soon as announced arc accepted and spread because of their intrinsic evidence. The doctrine of the faith is based on the word of God and of Christ and of him who is a faithful witness to it (cfr. Luke 24,48; Act. 1,8 etc; 10,39), an authoritative and decisive witness (cfr. Gal. 1,8: Const. "Dei Verbum" n. 10; Denz. Sch. 3884-3887/ 2313-2315). This witnessing involves danger and risk, the choice of the divine truth if need be at the risk of one's own life. (cfr. Jo. 16, 2; Hebr. 10, 20 ss; 11,1 ss).


You have become with Us, with all the Catholic Episcopate, Brothers, beloved ministers, and witnesses of Christ (cfr. Act 26,16), the defenders of the Gospel (Phil 1, 16), set apart in order to serve the Gospel (Rom. 1, 1) the confessors of the Gospel (cfr. Rom. 1,16). The Word of God must so penetrate ourlives as to establish a living relation of spiritual kinship with Christ (Luke 11,28); we the imitators, the followers, the living images of the Lord (cfr. 1 Cor. 4, 16; 11, 1 Peter 5,3); we must in a certain way, personify, we must incarnate in our humble lives the Word of God, so that his revelation, through our ministry and our example, will continue to shine in the Church of God and in the world. Ours is a great destiny, a grave destiny. We are, as Christ said, the light of the world (Math. 5,14); this light cannot and must not be extinguished. This is the meaning, this is the value of the sacramental act now fulfilled in your persons. We have made of you an ardent flame of the truth and the charity of the Master. Oh! that you may always burn and be consumed in this way, glowing and spreading the Easter light of Christ.


We will say no more about the mystery we have celebrated. You already know it all. But you will accept a few exhortations which We, who have had the honour of raising you to the Episcopate (cfr. 1 Cor. 4,15) carry inOur heart not only for yourbenefit, but even more for Our own edification, in order that Our gratitude and Our acceptance answer as worthily as possible to so much divine favour.

Above all We think that Our first attitude toward OurEpiscopal vocation must be faith, as in the Magi, as in every believer, a pure and complete faith towards the revealed truth, a coherent and magnificent fidelity towards the duties which it involves. This is not an original attitude because it concerns every Christian, but in us Teachers, in us Pastors and Bishops this attitude must be perfect and exemplary. If orthodoxy must characterize a member of the Church, then by us first of all and by us above all orthodoxy must be clearly and strongly professed. Today, as each one of you realizes, orthodoxy, that is, purity of doctrine, does not seem to take first place in the minds of Christians. How many things, how many truths have been questioned and doubted; how many liberties are taken with the true heritage of Catholic doctrine, not only in order to study its riches, to deepen the understanding of it and to explain it to modern man, but sometimes to subject it to the relativism in which profane thought experiments with its insecurity and seeks a new expression, or to adapt it by adjusting it to modern tastes and to the receptive capacities of the current mentality. Brothers, let us be faithful, and let us have confidence that to the degree of our fidelity to catholic dogma, neither the aridness of our teaching, nor the deafness of the present generation will hinder our word, but that its fruitfulness, its liveliness, its capacity of penetrating will find their proper and marvellous power (cfr. Hebr. 4,12; 2 Cor. 10,5).


There is no contradiction between what We have said about the jealousobservance of doctrinal orthodoxy and one's ability as a teacher to communicate to contemporary man the message of' Revelation in the form and in the language which will make it most acceptable, and, to a certain extent, most understandable, and, in every case, bringing most happiness.

Today the mystery of the Epiphany, that is, of Christian revelation, calls for being considered by men as the true and highest vocation of mankind, and indeed of every people and of every mind; forpeoples and minds must discover in themselves the deep, hidden predispositions for Christian faith, and must recognize in Christian faith the sublime interpretation of those predispositions, that is to say, of their characteristic trait of a humanity "fitted for God", and recognize also their calling to the fullnessof life which Christianity alone can offer in an expression ever new and modern. Let us recall St Paul: "I owe a duty to Greeks just as much as to barbarians, to the educated just as much as to the uneducated" (Rom 1,14).


Inthis way, Brothers, the Word, whose guardians we are, will become apostolic, that is to say, will be spread abroad, and will become missionary. This demand belongs to Revelation as its own. The feast we are celebrating, the Epiphany, teaches us that it is God's Plan that the Christian calling and the economy of salvation should be universal. It is also a demand that will become an active power in him who has the singular destiny to be chosen for the gospel, in the superior grade of that election, the election to the episcopate. "I chose you", says the Lord, "and I commissioned you to go out and to bear fruit" (Jo. 15,16). It is part or God's intention for Revelation that it should shine in the darkness of the world, not only without any preconceived discrimination, but with the widest diffusion possible. But this diffusion demands a service entrusted to men commissioned for it. Revealed truth demands a qualified doctrinal ministry (cfr. Rom. 10, 14 et seqq.); it demands brothers; it demands Pastors; it demands teachers who will carry the gospel message of salvation to men; it demands apostles; it demands bishops. You have been entrusted with this service of the truth and for the faith: a service that makes responsible before God, Christ, the Church, and the world, him to whom it has been committed. "It is a duty which has been laid on me", cries St Paul, "I should be punished if I did not preach the gospel!" It demands zeal, courage, the spirit of initiative, the daring of preaching: "Though you be of slight voice and tardy tongue, give yourself to the word of God" (Origen, ibid).


This duty we have as bishops to proclaim the message of divine revelation is very serious and may seem above our powers. However, it is here that another attitude completes the moral psychology of the herald of the Gospel. If fortitude is one of the characteristic virtues of the Bishop—especially in these times filled with difficulties for the authorized exercising of the ministry, nowadays often contested, and of the teaching office which is also today frequently weakened by criticism, doubt and doctrinal whim—the Good Pastor must not be afraid. He must perfect with psychological sensitivity (cfr. Math. 11,16; Jo. 2, 25), with humility (cfr. Math. 11,29), and with a spirit of sacrifice (cfr. John 10,15; 2 Cor. 12,15) his art of guiding men, sons and brothers, and of making them love that obedience within whose sphere the whole economy of salvation is unfolded (cfr. Phil. 2,8; Hebr. 13, 17). But he must not fear. The Bishop is not alone; Christ is with him (John 14,9; Math 28,20). He is assisted by a charism of the Spirit (Math. 10,20; John 15,18 ff). The habitual exercise of mastering himself and the awareness of the spiritual reality in which he has been called to live, will be that of confidence in the Lord and abandonment to his will and his providence (cfr. Luke 22,35). And finally We remind you, Our Brothers, and those who are listening to Us today, of the warning of Jesus: "In the world you will have trouble, but be brave, I have conquered the world" (John 16,35).


Ourdiscourse ends with the confirmation of the Bishop's function in the order of protecting and spreading the message of Revelation. In seeking to recognize that function as willed by Christ, We will thank God "for giving such power to men" (Mt 9,8). We will pay it honour, perceiving how necessary; and beneficial it is, since it is a ministry of truth and charity, indispensable for our advancement on the way of salvation. We bishops, who have been invested with so sublime an office, will do all to exercise it in humility of service, in fidelity of interpretation, and in the virtue that belongs to the Word of God. In spreading this divine Word among the People of God, we will take care to obtain from Him docility in listening and the comfort which our mission can receive from Himself, favoured by the "sensus fidei". We will not heed the destiny, good or perilous though it be, which can result from our preaching (cfr. 2 Tim. 2,9; Jn. 15,20-21). No, we will heed only the genuineness of our witness "lest the cross of Christ be made void" (1 Cor 1,17 et seqq.). "To Him be glory, and power for ever and ever. Amen" (Ap 1,6).  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
16 January 1969, page 1

L'Osservatore Romano is the newspaper of the Holy See.
The Weekly Edition in English is published for the US by:

The Cathedral Foundation
L'Osservatore Romano English Edition
320 Cathedral St.
Baltimore, MD 21201
Subscriptions: (410) 547-5315
Fax: (410) 332-1069