(Letter to B. Racrasy on Titles in the Church - continued)
As I was telling you last week, the hierarchy has a different meaning for Catholics than it does for most people. Hierarchy is usually taken to mean “chain of command.” Though obedience is at the heart of any Christian life, the manner of, and, motive for obedience in the Church is different than, for instance in the army. The Church is meant to be a family, parents and children, just as pastors and faithful are motivated by mutual concern for one another and for the family.
This is how Catholic hierarchy works: in any diocese, you have a bishop who is assisted by deacons and presbyters (priests) and these are tied to the universal Church by their relationship to the Bishop of Rome, (better known as the pope) who is the universal shepherd. This whole structure exists to guarantee the worship of God and to feed and nurture the faith of the people of God, that is the laity. In the earliest days, most churches were very small and probably had only a few hundred members, maybe a thousand. The Bishop offered Mass and the sacraments and instructed the faithful. He was helped in his work by the deacons. When there was a need for more help in sharing the sacraments, especially in large cities like Rome or Alexandria, the bishop might ordain a man, an elder, who would help him in his sacramental and liturgical work.
It is important to remember that the deacon is not the servant of the priest who is in turn the servant of the bishop. From the earliest days, priest and deacon both assisted the bishop in his work of teaching, governing, and leading worship, but in different ways. The bishop is the head presbyter in his diocese and he is also the head deacon. The bishop’s role is twofold. He is a teacher and a servant. He is priest and deacon. He is elder and table waiter. Every priest is first ordained a deacon and every bishop is first ordained a priest. All three dimensions of the sacrament of Holy Orders are present with the bishop. He is supervisor, elder, and servant. I’m just elder and servant. HOWEVER the bishop is a very busy man, so he can’t make it to St. Dymphna’s here in Frostbite Falls every Sunday, so he sent me as his substitute, which in Latin is “Vicar”. I am the vicar for the bishop in the two and a half square blocks that comprise St. Dymphna’s parish. I am not the vicar for the bishop anywhere else. That means I can order our Deacon Igor around when I am at St. Dymphna’s, but I can’t go over to our neighboring parish, St. Euflimsia’s and order Deacon Lurch around.
In the same way, the Bishop of our neighboring diocese, Minniehaha Estates, can’t come to St. Dymphna’s and order me or Deacon Igor around. I would certainly do my best to respect him, but in Frostbite Falls, Bishop Fenwick is the ordinary bishop and I obey him. If I am visiting Minniehaha Estates, I had darn well better obey that bishop. In the military, a sergeant can order any private around anywhere in the world because he outranks any private. I don’t outrank anybody. I don’t outrank a deacon. I am not more ordained than a deacon. I am responsible for the bishop’s presbyteral duties here at St. Dymphna’s and so have some of the bishop’s authority, and the deacon assists me when and where I substitute for the bishop. Where the parish ends, my authority ends.
The bishop is the real pastor of the parish and of the whole diocese. Thus he is called the “ordinary”. I’m just standing in for him. It is interesting to note that when a bishop visits a parish he is the main celebrant of the Mass, not the pastor. If for some reason a bishop does not want to be the main celebrant of the Mass, he kneels at the side and does not concelebrate the Mass. The bishop is the “ordinary” celebrant of the Mass. As a presbyter, I am only a substitute. When the real pastor is able to be present, I take a back seat.
So it’s pretty simple: Pope, bishop and priest/deacon, and the faithful. That’s the basic structure. Everything else fits into it.