Dear Rev. Know it all,
I get very confused by all the titles and names used by Catholics. What is the difference between Cardinals and bishops or archbishops. You’ve got monsignors and pastors and archdeacons and mitred abbesses and protonotaries apostolic. Can you explain?
It’s really not that complicated, but, as with most things a little history is important. First let’s define hierarchy. In current language “hierarchy” means “chain of command.” This is not its original meaning. It’s a Greek word that means “sacred leadership.” The first sacred leadership was created by God at the beginning of time. It’s called “Mom and Dad.” They may be in charge, but the center of the household isn’t mom or dad. Ask any parent. It’s the kids. Real leadership is about service and if a hierarchy is doing its job it is serving. The pope is called “the servant of the servants of God.” That’s the sense of the word “hierarchy” in Catholic thought.
From the first century until now, the basic structure of the hierarchy is really very simple: bishop, priest, deacon and laity. “Bishop” comes from the Greek word “episcopos” which literally means supervisor, one who has oversight. “Priest” comes from the word “presbyteros” which means elder, one who is older in the Lord. “Deacon” comes from the Greek word “diakonos” which means table waiter or steward, and finally the word laity (or layman or laywoman) comes from the Greek word “laos” which means “the people.” So there you have it: bishop, priest and deacon, dedicated to the care of the people of God.
Are you ready for more Greek? (What’s with all the Greek? Why don’t you just use English? English!! English changes word meanings faster than Imelda Marcos changes shoes. In a hundred years English will be incomprehensible by today’s standards. Ancient Greek will still be ancient Greek. That’s why!) Where was I? Oh yes, another Greek word: Diocese. Diocese is a Greek word meaning administrative district. The Catholic Church is arranged into administrative districts served by supervisors, elder and stewards.
“Wait a minute. It can’t be that simple. The pope is a pretty big deal in Catholicism, as far as I’ve heard.” Well, the pope is the Bishop of Rome, and Rome is the city where St. Peter and St. Paul served, were martyred and are buried. The first Christians believed the role of St. Peter passed on to his spiritual descendants. Jesus had given him the keys of the kingdom and had told him to strengthen his brethren. (Matt16:19 and Luke 22:32) In particular the phrase “keys of the kingdom of heaven” refers to Isaiah, 22:15-25. In the Old Testament, the king had a kind of prime minister or vizier, called the “Albayit.” It was a hereditary position, but Hezekiah, the king threw Shebna and his family out of the job and replaced him with Eliakim son of Hilkiah. Jesus was referring to a hereditary post when he gave Peter the keys of the kingdom. The first Christians took this to mean that Peter’s successor would continue his ministry of teaching and governing. In 180 AD, St Irenaeus of Lyon, a Greek who was Bishop of a city in what is now Southern France wrote the following in “Adversus Haereses."
“We point to the tradition of that very great and very ancient and universally known Church, which was founded and established at Rome, by the two most glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul. We point, I say, to the tradition which this Church has from the Apostles...which comes down to our time through the succession of her bishops...., and so we put to shame . . . all who assemble in unauthorized meetings. For with this Church, because of its superior authority, every Church must agree.”
St. Irenaeus was born around 120AD and had been a disciple of St. Polycarp who had been a disciple of St. John, so this belief that the bishop of Rome had a unique role in the Church goes back to the first days of the faith. “Well,” you may ask, “What is the difference between the pope and the Bishop of Rome?” To which I would respond, “None at all.” The word “Pope,” or “papa” as most languages say it, means exactly that: papa. It derives from the Semitic word “abba” and means “dad,” “pappa.” It is a diminutive for Father. Hence, we call the bishop of Rome the Holy Father or the Pope, just as St. Paul thought of himself a father to the Corinthians. (I Cor.4:14,15) In the same way the Bishop of Rome has been thought of as a father to the whole Church since its first days and thus is called, the Holy Father, and “Papa,” but he is the bishop of Rome, the successor of St. Peter.
The bishop of Rome has jurisdiction over the bishops and faithful of the whole world and appoints bishops in consultation with the local community. He can also remove bishops, but in fact this is almost never done. When a bishop needs to go, the Pope will first call him over to Rome for a chat and suggest that, for the good of the Church, he resign. If he refuses, there will be canonical process to remove the bishop (“canonical” means having to do with Church law.) If a bishop does anything that excommunicates him, automatically he loses all his status and his powers immediately without a process. One thinks of the wacky bishop a few years back who joined the Moonies and got married.)
The pope is the visible source of the unity of the bishops and of the faithful. Vatican II reaffirmed everything Vatican I taught about the papacy and infallibility, but taught that bishops are not “vicars of the Roman Pontiff," but in their local dioceses they are “vicars (representatives)... of Christ." So, it would seem that the pope is the universal representative of Christ and bishops are the local vicars of Christ. He has this role, quite simply because he is the Bishop of Rome.
Two interesting side notes: What does it mean that the pope is the bishop of Rome and why do popes change their name when they become pope?
Though the pope is the diocesan Bishop of the Diocese of Rome, he delegates most of the day-to-day work of leading the diocese to the Cardinal Vicar, who has direct oversight of the diocese's pastoral needs. The Cathedral of Rome is not St. Peter’s, it is St. John Lateran. St Peter’s is where the pope lives and works as the universal shepherd.
Originally the popes used their baptismal names. In AD 533, a man named Mercurius was elected pope. He decided that it would be wrong for a pope to be named after a Roman god, so he changed his name to John and was known as Pope John II. From that time on some popes took a new name and some kept their baptismal name. The symbolism of taking a new name at Baptism or Confirmation is the same. In Christ we become new, thus a new name. As soon as the new pope is elected, and accepts the election, he is asked, “By what name shall you be called?" The senior Cardinal Deacon, or Cardinal Protodeacon, (believe it or not, a lower ranking cardinal. I’ll explain later) comes out onto the balcony of Saint Peter's and says "I announce to you a great joy: We have a Pope! The Most Eminent and Most Reverend Lord, (“Lord ," is used here in the medieval sense of “Lords and Ladies," not in the biblical sense) Lord (first name), Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church (last or family name) who takes to himself the name (name as pope)" It's quite an exciting moment. I still remember when Pope John Paul II was elected. I still remember thinking," Wotyla? That doesn't sound very Italian." And it wasn't!!!
A pope usually chooses his new name to indicate whom he wants to imitate in his papacy. The current pope chose the name Benedict, because the last Pope Benedict struggled through the crisis in Europe between the wars. Benedict XVI has a heart for the re-conversion of Europe and the revival of Christian culture. Interestingly Pope Benedict published the book “Jesus” (a wonderful bible study book) under both his baptismal and papal names. He implied by doing this that this was a book he had started as Joseph Ratzinger, and it was not to be taken as papal teaching.
(Much, much more to follow.)