Third Wound

The wound in the side of holy Church: disunion among the bishops
The six golden links

The word “collegiality” has often been heard since Vatican II. What does it mean? It is the doctrine finally hammered out at Vatican II according to which the bishops form a college which, together with its head, the pope, governs the Church. “The Order of bishops is the successor to the college of the Apostles in their role as teachers and pastors, and in it the apostolic college is perpetuated. Together with their head, the Supreme Pontiff, and never apart from him, they have supreme and full authority over the universal Church” (Lumen Gentium,22).
Tensions between the primacy of the pope and the collegiality of bishops have always been very strong. Significantly, Vatican II needed to stress that the bishops are all truly “vicars and legates of Christ” and not “vicars of the Pope”. However, as recently as 1996, retired Archbishop John Quinn complained that the papal curia too often considers itself as superior to the college of bishops and so hinders the development of collegiality. As yet, there are few collegial structures, apart from an Ecumenical Council. The Synod of bishops established by Pope Paul VI simply advises the pope: “It is not a collegial organ of leadership for the universal Church” (Ratzinger).

This union of the bishops among themselves and with the pope in a Collegium is still some way off. Many believe that we need a Vatican III to define precisely how this perfect unity of bishops among themselves and with the pope, in a way that shows their “full authority over the universal Church”, can be accomplished. There is no doubt that immense progress has been made on healing this “wound” since the time of Rosmini: bishops meet more regularly at every level, many of them come to know each other quite well; through national Conferences of bishops common documents are approved and promoted. But do bishops feel that each of them is responsible not only for his own diocese but for the universal Church? Are there structures that allow them to govern together the universal Church, always under the leadership of the Pope? Are they all teaching the same doctrine, the same liturgy, the same ethical code?

Rosmini claims that “collegiality” or the union of all bishops was practised by the bishops and popes of the first six centuries of the Church. It was only when the bishops entered into the political arena that the evil of disunion and conflict plagued the Church right up to his own time. This is his historical analysis:

  1. JESUS, before His passion and death, begged the Father to form his apostles into a perfect unity. Unity in the divine nature of the blessed Trinity is the source of unity within the Episcopate of the Church.
  2. The Apostles guarded jealously their unity and the unity of their churches. Their interior unity was guaranteed by their communion of doctrines and sacraments; their exterior unity by the powerful links among the Apostles and their leader, Peter and later by their successors.
  3. Although scattered throughout many nations, bishops were conscious of forming a single body of the highest authority. Their hearts and minds were dominated by this great concept of unity, and they used every possible means to bind themselves together. All maintained exactly the same faith, and love for each other.
  4. How was this perfect unity achieved? Rosmini mentions “six golden links” that bound bishops together in perfect unity.


    • The bishops knew one another personally. Titus, Timothy, Polycarp, Ignatius, Irenaeus, John Chrysostom, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus were bishops who knew personally many other holy bishops even before they became bishops. It was well known that the house of St. Augustine was the house where many future holy bishops were formed. These great bishops formed other great bishops and kept their profound ties of Christian love and friendship.
    • The bishops, even the most isolated, were in constant correspondence, although they lacked the means of communication available to us. The letters of bishops were read reverently at public assemblies. The Apostles wrote letters to their churches, other bishops followed their examples: Clement, Ignatius, Soter, Athanasius, John Chrysostom, etc. Particularly moving are the letters written by Ignatius to various churches as he was taken to Rome for his martyrdom (to the Ephesians, Magnesians, Trallians, Romans, Philadelphians, and Smyrneans). In his letter to the church at Rome St. Denis says, “Today we have celebrated the Lord’s Day, and have read your letter. We shall continue to read it for the sake of our instruction, as we do with the letters already sent to us by Clement”. Seven letters of this great bishop of Corinth are extant, written to different churches: to the Romans, the Lacaedemonians, the Athenians, the Nicodemians, the Pontians, the Creteans, the Gnossians
    • The bishops visited one another out of mutual charity, or from zeal for church affairs. Their devotion embraced the universal church even more than the particular church entrusted to them. They were conscious of being bishops of the Catholic Church, and they realised that one diocese cannot be separated from the entire body of the faithful. Each local Church embodied the totality of the reality which is the Church, but their bishops were aware of the fundamental necessity of being one with the other bishops and with the bishop of Rome.
    • Assemblies and Councils, especially provincial councils, were held frequently. Bishops of a province sought each other for advice, for clarifying doctrine, for finding common solutions. Bishops would consult regularly with their priests and with the people, giving them an account of their government. People’s assent on all matters was valued so highly that if they rejected a bishop they were not forced to accept him and another suitable person was appointed in his place. St. Cyprian wrote to his priests, “At the beginning of my episcopacy I decided not to make any decision without your advice and the assent of the people”.
    • The metropolitan bishop had authority over the bishops of a province, while greater sees had several provinces and metropolitans subject to them. This arrangement provided for uniformity in doctrine and in practice and strengthened the bonds among churches and bishops.
    • The overall authority of the Pope which was the foundation rock of the unity of the universal Church. In all their serious needs bishops and churches of the entire world appealed to him as to a father, judge, teacher, leader, centre and common source. Rome was seen as the great see where sound doctrine and the unity of the Church on earth could be found visibly in the successor of St. Peter. The pope was the symbol of unity of the universal Church, and bishops made continuous pilgrimages to Rome to pray over the tomb of St. Peter and to report to the Pope.

This golden era of the Church came to end after six centuries. The same destructive force that was responsible for the insufficient education of the clergy was also the cause of the progressive disunion among the bishops: the end of the Roman Empire and the sustained invasions of barbarian kings, with the establishment of the feudal system. In the crumbling of the old systems, the bishops became the intermediaries between the people and the barbarian rulers and they were forced to enter the political arena acquiring in the process power, wealth, and privileges. The “Christianisation” of Europe was the result of the presence and influence of bishops and clergy in public administration, but such involvement brought also evil consequences for the Church. The bishops soon learned to love their new political status, and surrounded themselves with courtiers, armies, and all the externals that they envied in royal princes. They devised protocols, invented titles, built palaces, and generally, distanced themselves both from their lower clergy and from the people. Avarice, hatred, disharmony, lust, licentiousness became widespread among them, having been made subservient to their rulers who guaranteed their position. “They became slaves of men dressed in soft garments rather than free apostles of a naked Christ”.  The bishops’ political involvement and power was the cause of profound disunion among them. Rosmini mentions the efforts of the ambitious bishops of Constantinople, of Ravenna, of the anti-popes, to secure more power for themselves and for their particular political rulers; the birth of “nationalistic” churches ruled by bishops who were more loyal to their kings than to the pope and to the gospel.

The bishops’ accumulation of wealth and power was envied not only by the people and the clergy but became soon attractive to the nobility and to the kings many of whom at different stages in history robbed the bishops of all their properties. The response of the bishops was to defend their riches by means of “excommunications”, thus making one reality of their wealth and of the Church and often achieving worse results.

Rosmini claims that the catholic faith might have been saved in some nations if the Church had been freed of the wealth that endangered it. “But is it really possible to find an immensely wealthy clergy courageous enough to impoverish itself, or even with enough sense to understand that impoverishing the Church is to save her?”

The Church longs for freedom not for wealth. Free from all political interference, and free from political involvement and wealth, the Bishops, poor and simple like the Apostles, would once again become a beacon of communion among themselves and ready to pursue with vigour the preaching of the Kingdom of God to all creatures.

But to achieve this political disentanglement the election of bishops must be a matter for the Church exclusively. It cannot be achieved unless the fourth wound of the Church is first healed.

From the Lumen Gentium and the Decree on the Bishops of Vatican II

“In order that the episcopate itself might be one and undivided, Jesus placed Peter over the other Apostles, and instituted in him a permanent and visible source and foundation of unity of faith and fellowship”
“The collegial nature and meaning of the episcopal order found expression in the very ancient practice by which bishops appointed the world over were linked with one another and with the bishop of Rome by the bonds of unity, charity, and peace”
“The Roman Pontiff is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity of the bishops and of the faithful… Each individual bishop represents his own Church, but all of them together in union with the pope represent the entire Church”
“Bishops are united in a college or body… The Episcopal order is the subject of supreme and full power over the universal Church. But this power can be exercised only with the consent of the roman pontiff”
“Bishops should always realise that they are linked one to the other, and should show concern for all the churches”.
“In exercising his office of father and pastor, a bishop should stand in the midst of his people as one who serves. Let him be a good shepherd who knows his sheep and whose sheep know him. Let him be a true father who excels in the spirit of love for all”.
“From the very first centuries of the Church the bishops who were placed over individual churches were deeply influenced by the fellowship of fraternal charity and by zeal for the universal mission entrusted to the apostles. And so they pooled their resources and unified their plans for the common good and that of the individual churches. And so there were established synods, provincial councils…. This sacred Council earnestly desires that the venerable institutions of synods and councils flourish with new vigour”.

Copyright © Rosmini Centre,
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