What are Catholic Sacred Orders?

The Roman Catholic Bishops

Bishops report directly to the Pope

In the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, the bishops report directly to the Pope. The word "bishop" is derived from the Greek and means something like "overseer". But this term describes only very imprecisely the important position that bishops have within the church structure.

Even in early Christianity there were believers who were entrusted with the management of Christian communities. At that time it was a council of elders called presbyters, which was set up along the lines of Jewish synagogues. One cannot speak of bishops in the later sense in this initial phase.

Successor to the Apostles

The term bishop was coined in Rome, the most important nucleus of Christianity. The Roman Catholic Church sees the apostle Peter as the first bishop. He was born in Galilee and died probably a martyr in Rome in 64. According to the Church, he was the representative of Jesus Christ and received a special leadership role through him.

Since then, all bishops have appealed to the apostles. They see themselves as representatives of Christ and as successors of the apostles, especially of Peter. In his honor, St. Peter's Basilica was built over his presumed grave in Rome - today the most important monumental landmark of the Roman Catholic Church.

Like Peter, many of his fellow believers were murdered or publicly executed in the course of the persecution of Christians. There were also many bishops among these martyrs.

Many bishops died martyrs

Ignatius, the bishop of the Syrian city of Antioch in what is now Turkey, was one of the first bishops to be executed for his belief. He was abducted to Rome around 112 AD on the orders of the then Roman ruler Trajan and torn to pieces by lions in the Colosseum in front of a howling crowd of spectators.

In 257 AD, Emperor Valerian started a veritable wave of destruction: He was particularly interested in Christian leaders, priests and bishops. Many of the murdered bishops became idols of the Christian movement and later became saints of the Roman Catholic Church.

Bishops as folk heroes: Saint Nicholas and Saint Martin

Because of their special deeds, two bishops became true folk heroes. One of them is Saint Nicholas. In the first half of the 4th century he was bishop of Myra, a city in what is now Turkey. He is credited with miracles, good deeds, and great charity. In many countries and regions it is therefore customary to give each other small presents on December 6th on his name day.

The other is Saint Martin. The Roman soldier became famous for sharing his officer's coat with his sword to save a beggar from freezing to death. At the end of the 4th century he became a bishop in Tours, France. In many Christian regions today, lantern parades are used to commemorate this legendary bishop.

In the 4th century bishops gained power

After Christianity was recognized and legalized as a free religion by the Roman Emperor Constantine in the Edict of Milan in 313, the Christian faith spread further. Soon there were seven million professing Christians in the Roman Empire. That was around ten percent of the total population. Churches were being built everywhere.

Church congregations with administrative and leadership structures emerged. Bishops were entrusted with the management of the individual rural and urban parishes. In the west of the empire there were soon 600, in the east even 800 bishopric seats.

In the year 380 the Christian faith was elevated to the status of a state religion by the Roman emperor Theodosius. And even after the fall of the Roman Empire, Christianization continued to advance. Christianity gained more and more importance, its officials and dignitaries more and more influence. Above all the Pope and the bishops.

They gained ever greater worldly power, accumulated lands and wealth and were soon able to compete with princes and kings. The golden staff, the ring, the pectoral cross and the headgear called the miter were the insignia of their office then as now.

In the Middle Ages, bishops ruled the country

The large episcopal cities - such as Mainz, Cologne, Trier, Speyer, Worms, Regensburg or Strasbourg - became metropolises of secular and religious power in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.

The bishops mutated into church princes in the Middle Ages. And since the Pope resided in distant Rome, the bishops could act independently and undisturbed by him in many matters. Bishops became favorites and advisers to kings and emperors.

Rainald von Dassel was Archbishop of Cologne from 1154 to 1167. For his participation in the successful campaign against Milan he was rewarded by Emperor Friedrich I, known as Barbarossa, with the bones of the Three Kings.

The wise archbishop brought the spoils of war from Milan to his hometown of Cologne. It is doubtful whether the bones really come from the Three Kings. Nevertheless, the alleged relics made the city on the Rhine a tourist magnet of the Middle Ages and helped Cologne to great wealth.

Many bishops became important patrons and mentors in art and culture. Hieronymus von Colloredo was Prince Archbishop of Salzburg from around 1772 to 1812 and had a weakness for music. He was one of the main sponsors of the boy prodigy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Episcopal hierarchy

Prince-bishops were not only high-ranking spiritual leaders, but also possessed political and military power as rulers of their own territory. In the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation they had the rank of imperial princes.

The prince-bishops of Mainz, Cologne and Trier were also entitled to vote for the king. Since the German king had also been entitled to the Roman imperial title since 962, they also had a say in this.

Prince-bishops were abolished by Napoleon in 1806. His conquests also marked the end of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.

As Archbishops one designates the ecclesiastical leaders of a church province, which is divided into several dioceses. There are seven such church provinces in Germany. Their boundaries are not the same as state or administrative district boundaries. The title "Archbishop" can also be awarded by the Pope as a purely honorary title.

The seven archbishops are subordinate to 20 bishops who administer individual smaller dioceses. They are supported by consecrated and titular bishops who do not lead their own diocese.

The Pope appoints from among the Roman Catholic bishops - around 5,000 worldwide Cardinalswho are entitled to elect a Pope. The Curia, i.e. the supreme leadership of the Catholic Church in Rome, is made up of these cardinals. The tasks of these curia cardinals are comparable to those of ministers of state.

Bishops as church managers

Bishops are, so to speak, the shepherds of their diocese. They are responsible for pastoral care and the mediation of the Catholic faith. However, they only hold church services in special cases. They find support at the parish level through pastors, deacons, and female and male pastors.

The main task of the bishops is administrative work. They are the legal representatives of their diocese. Together with the various bodies of the diocese, they decide on financial and personnel issues, are responsible for public relations and take care of the many church facilities in their diocese, such as kindergartens, schools, hospitals and old people's homes.

The most important superordinate body for the German bishops is the Bishops' Conference, at which crucial questions are discussed and decided. In addition to the archbishops, the auxiliary bishops are also represented at the plenary assembly.

The Commission of the Bishops 'Conferences of the European Community is composed of the delegates of the Bishops' Conferences within the European Union. The secretariat is in Brussels.

At the international level, if necessary and urgent, the Pope can convene the Synod of Bishops, to which bishops from all over the world come. However, the synod is only an advisory body. The Curia and the Pope alone have the power to make decisions.

"Old, unworldly, unfashionable": Bishops under fire

Many church critics consider the office of bishop to be out of date. The bishops are too old, unworldly and represent unfashionable views on celibacy, women in the priesthood, contraception and divorced Catholics.

The Limburg bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst caused a real scandal in 2013. He is accused of being wasteful with church money. He was particularly criticized for a first-class flight to Asia, which he always denied, but which journalists could prove to him.

Ultimately, the skyrocketing costs of building and renovating the diocesan center in Limburg brought him down. After initially estimated costs of around ten million, the real costs in the final construction phase tripled.

This cost explosion is said to have been caused by bad planning, cover-up of information and exclusive special requests from the bishop. The redesign of the bishop's apartment alone cost three million euros.

A free-standing luxury bathtub for 15,000 euros or the purchase of works of art worth 450,000 euros made negative headlines and called the German Bishops' Conference onto the scene. After examination and consultation in March 2014, the found that the bishop was jointly responsible for the increase in construction costs and procedural errors.

Pope Francis, known for modesty and new reforms, drew the conclusions and removed Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst from his office as bishop.