‘You water the hills from your lofty abode; the earth is sated with the fruit of your works’ (Psalm 103:13). This simple material reality presented by the sacred text – of rain that irrigates the mountains, giving rise to springs and streams that in turn water the Earth – was chosen by the Angelic Doctor for his inaugural lecture at the University of Paris. Like a soaring eagle, with his characteristic genius, Saint Thomas summed up an important law of the spiritual order from this simple natural fact: ‘The King and Lord of the heavens set down this law from all eternity that the gifts of his Providence should come to the lower through intermediaries’ (St. Thomas Aquinas, Principium Rigans montes, preface).
Indeed, the Most High created a succession of intermediaries, and is pleased to grant His graces through their agency. We can observe this in the Scriptures themselves. For example, the innumerable occasions on which Moses interceded for the Chosen People, delivering them from chastisement, and sometimes even from extermination, and obtaining the divine pardon. Or within the incomparable Sacerdotal Prayer of Jesus (John Ch.17), when He prayed to His Father for the Apostles, and for all of those who would believe through them. In our daily lives too these intermediations are also present: either in the case of priests – who are instruments chosen by Christ to dispense the precious fruits of the Redemption among the faithful by means of the Sacraments – or even in the case of parents who, by virtue of the common priesthood received in baptism, bless their children.
These are some considerations that come to mind as we recall March 13th 2013, when the universal Church breathlessly awaited the blessing of its new Supreme Pastor. The Bishop of Rome appeared on the Central loggia…but, inclined himself and expressed his desire to receive the divine blessing invoked by the people!
What happened? By any chance, can the earth irrigate the mountains? Had the disposition of the Eternal Wisdom been inverted? Let’s take a look at what the Magisterium says.
Enter in the various parts of our study
II – The Bishop of Rome: merely one inter pares or Universal Pastor?
I – The Pope and the people: who should invoke the divine blessing for whom?
Unquestionably, a lesser person is blessed by a greater. (Heb 7: 7)
The ministry of the blessing is united to a particular exercise of the priesthood of Christ, and, according to the place and the office proper to each of those within the people of God, is exercised in the following manner:
a) It corresponds principally to the Bishop to preside over those celebrations concerning the entire diocesan community, undertaken with particular solemnity and large attendance of the people […] b) It corresponds to the priests, as requires the nature of their service to the people of God, to preside over the blessings […]; therefore, they may celebrate all of the blessings contained in this book, as long as a presiding Bishop is not present.
c) It corresponds to the deacons […] in their quality as ministers of the word, of the altar and of charity, to preside over some celebrations, as is indicated by their corresponding place. But always, when a priest is present, it is better that he concede to the priest the presiding. […] d) The laity, men and women, through the efficacy of their common priesthood, of which they were made participants through baptism and confirmation, in virtue of their own position (such as parents with respect to their children), or in virtue of an extraordinary ministry, or due to the fulfilling of a function particular to the Church […] may celebrate some blessings, with the rite and the formulas predetermined for them, according to the indication for each one of the blessings. But in the presence of the priest or deacon, they should concede the presidency to them. (Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. Book of Blessings, General Indications, no. 18. Spanish Episcopal Liturgical Commission (Spain) and Episcopal Conference of Latin America (CELAM), Bendicional, Ripollet, (Barcelona), Coeditores Litúrgicos, 1986, p. 19-20)
Again, as in nature a body is not formed by any haphazard grouping of members but must be constituted of organs, that is of members, that have not the same function and are arranged in due order; so for this reason above all the Church is called a body, that it is constituted by the coalescence of structurally untied parts, and that it has a variety of members reciprocally dependent. […] That those who exercise sacred power in this Body are its chief members must be maintained uncompromisingly. It is through them, by commission of the Divine Redeemer Himself, that Christ’s apostolate as Teacher, King and Priest is to endure. (Pius XII. Encyclical Mystici Corporis, no. 16-17, June 29, 1943)
The Scripture teaches us, and the tradition of the Fathers confirms the teaching, that the Church is the mystical body of Christ, ruled by the Pastors and Doctors (Eph 4, 11) – a society of men containing within its own fold chiefs who have full and perfect powers for ruling, teaching and judging (Mt 28: 18-20; 16:18-19; 18: 17; Tit 2:15; 2Cor 10: 6; 13:10 etc.). It follows that the Church is essentially an unequal society, that is, a society comprising two categories of persons, the Pastors and the flock, those who occupy a rank in the different degrees of the hierarchy and the multitude of the faithful. So distinct are these categories that with the pastoral body only rests the necessary right and authority for promoting the end of the society and directing all its members towards that end; the one duty of the multitude is to allow themselves to be led, and, like a docile flock, to follow the Pastors. (Pius X. Encyclical Vehementer nos, no. 8, February 11, 1906)
But if anyone should affirm that all Christians without distinction are priests of the New Testament, or that they are all endowed among themselves with an equal spiritual power, he seems to do nothing else than disarrange [can. 6] the ecclesiastical hierarchy, which is ‘as an army set in array’ (cf. Ct 6,3), just as if, contrary to the teaching of blessed Paul, all were apostles, all prophets, all evangelists, all pastors, all doctors (cf. 1Cor 12:29; Eph 4:11). (Denzinger-Hünermann 1767. Council of Trent Session XXIII, Doctrine on the Sacrament of Orders, July 15, 1563)
The Church is a society, and as such requires an authority and hierarchy of her own. Though it is true that all the members of the Mystical Body partake of the same blessings and pursue the same objective, they do not all enjoy the same powers, nor are they all qualified to perform the same acts. The divine Redeemer has willed, as a matter of fact, that His Kingdom should be built and solidly supported, as it were, on a holy order, which resembles in some sort the heavenly hierarchy. Only to the apostles, and thenceforth to those on whom their successors have imposed hands, is granted the power of the priesthood, in virtue of which they represent the person of Jesus Christ before their people, acting at the same time as representatives of their people before God. (Pius XII. Encyclical Mediator Dei, no. 39-40, November 20, 1947)
[The Lord] commanded that the offerings and ministries be fulfilled, not by chance and without order or harmony, but rather in determined times and seasons. And where or by whom they be performed, He himself determined with his sovereign will, in order that, performing everything in a pure and holy manner according to his satisfaction, it be acceptable to his divine will. […] (For) they do not go astray who follow the commands of the Lord. Inasmuch as peculiar gifts have been bestowed upon the chief priest, a special place has been assigned to the priests, and particular duties are incumbent upon the Levites. The layman is bound by the precepts pertaining to the laity. Let each of us, brethren, ‘in his own order’ (1Co 15,23) with a good conscience not transgressing the prescribed rule of his own office give thanks to God honorably. (Denzinger-Hünermann 101. Saint Clemente I of Rome, Letter to the Corinthians, ~ 96 AD. – Latin)
And so, even though all the baptized enjoy the same dignity before God, in the Christian community, which was deliberately structured hierarchically by its divine Founder, there have existed from its earliest days specific apostolic powers deriving from the sacrament of Holy Orders. (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Letter Sacerdotium Ministeriale, III, no. 3, August 6, 1983)
The same Lord, however, has established ministers among his faithful to unite them together in one body in which, ‘not all the members have the same function’ (Rom 12:4). These ministers in the society of the faithful are able by the sacred power of orders to offer sacrifice and to forgive sins, and they perform their priestly office publicly for men in the name of Christ. Therefore, having sent the apostles just as he himself been sent by the Father, Christ, through the apostles themselves, made their successors, the bishops, sharers in his consecration and mission. The office of their ministry has been handed down, in a lesser degree indeed, to the priests. Established in the order of the priesthood they can be co-workers of the episcopal order for the proper fulfillment of the apostolic mission entrusted to priests by Christ. (Vatican Council II, Decree Presbyterorum ordinis, no. 2, December 7, 1965)
In the same way, actually that baptism is the distinctive mark of all Christians, and serves to differentiate them from those who have not been cleansed in this purifying stream and consequently are not members of Christ, the sacrament of holy orders sets the priest apart from the rest of the faithful who have not received this consecration. For they alone, in answer to an inward supernatural call, have entered the august ministry, where they are assigned to service in the sanctuary and become, as it were, the instruments God uses to communicate supernatural life from on high to the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ. Add to this, as We have noted above, the fact that they alone have been marked with the indelible sign ‘conforming’ them to Christ the Priest, and that their hands alone have been consecrated ‘in order that whatever they bless may be blessed, whatever they consecrate may become sacred and holy, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Roman Pontifical, Ordination of a priest: anointing of hands) (Pius XII. Encyclical Mediator Dei, no. 43, November 20, 1947)
That is why the visible, external priesthood of Jesus Christ is not handed down indiscriminately to all members of the Church in general, but is conferred on designated men, through what may be called the spiritual generation of holy orders. This latter, one of the seven sacraments, not only imparts the grace appropriate to the clerical function and state of life, but imparts an indelible ‘character’ besides, indicating the sacred ministers’ conformity to Jesus Christ the Priest and qualifying them to perform those official acts of religion by which men are sanctified and God is duly glorified in keeping with the divine laws and regulations. (Pius XII. Encyclical Mediator Dei, no. 41-42, November 20, 1947)
Besides this power over the real Body of Christ, the priest has received other powers, august and sublime, over His Mystical Body of Christ, […] The Christian, at almost every important stage of his mortal career, finds at his side the priest with power received from God, in the act of communicating or increasing that grace which is the supernatural life of his soul. […] Thus, from the cradle to the grave the priest is ever beside the faithful, a guide, a solace, a minister of salvation and dispenser of grace and blessing. (Pius XI. Encyclical Ad Catholici sacrdotii, nos. 17- 19, December 20, 1935)
Finally, the priest, in another way, follows the example of Christ. Of Him it is written that He ‘passed the whole night in the prayer of God’ and ‘ever lives to make intercession for us’; and like Him, the priest, is public and official intercessor of humanity before God; he has the duty and commission of offering to God in the name of the Church, over and above sacrifice strictly so-called, the ‘sacrifice of praise,’ in public and official prayer; for several times each day with psalms, prayers and hymns taken in great part from the inspired books, he pays to God this dutiful tribute of adoration and thus performs his necessary office of interceding for humanity. […] The Christian […] in every distress, in every peril whether private or public, has recourse with special trust to the prayer of the priest. To it the unfortunate of every sort look for comfort; to it they have recourse, seeking divine aid in all the vicissitudes of this exile here on earth. Truly does the ‘priest occupy a place midway between God and human nature: from Him bringing to us absolving beneficence, offering our prayers to Him and appeasing the wrathful Lord.’ (Pius XI. Encyclical Ad Catholici sacerdotii, no. 28-29, December 20, 1935)
II – The Bishop of Rome: merely one inter pares or Universal Pastor?
Who art thou? Thou art the High Priest and the Sovereign Pontiff. Thou art the Prince of pastors and the Heir of the apostles. By the primacy thou art an Abel; by thy office of pilot (in Peter’s barque), a Noe; by thy patriarchate, an Abraham; by thy orders, a Melchisedech; by they dignity, an Aaron; by thy authority, a Moses; by thy judicial power, a Samuel; by thy jurisdiction, a Peter; and by thy unction, a Christ. Thou art he to whom the keys have been delivered (Mt 16: 19) and the sheep entrusted (Jn 21:17). There are indeed other gate-keepers of heaven, and there are other shepherds of the flock; but thou art in both respects more glorious than they in proportion as thou hast ‘inherited a more excellent name’ (Heb I. 4). They have assigned to them particular portions of the flock, his own to each; whereas thou art given charge of all the sheep, as the one Chief Shepherd of the whole flock. Yea, not only of the sheep, but of the other pastors also art thou the sole supreme shepherd. Wouldst thou know how I prove this? I prove it from the words of Christ. ‘If thou lovest Me,’ He said to Peter, ‘feed My sheep’ (Jn 21:17). To which — I do not say of the other bishops, but even of the other apostles, was the entire flock entrusted so absolutely and so indiscriminately? For to what sheep did the Saviour refer? Was it to the people of this or that city? Of this or that country or kingdom? ‘Feed My sheep’ — these were His words. Who does not see plainly that, instead of designating some portion of the flock, they rather assign the whole? For there can be no exception where there is no distinction. (Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, Treatise on Consideration to Pope Eugene III, Book II, Ch. VIII, pg. 56-57)
From the beginning and with increasing clarity, the Church has understood that, just as there is a succession of the Apostles in the ministry of Bishops, so too the ministry of unity entrusted to Peter belongs to the permanent structure of Christ’s Church and that this succession is established in the see of his martyrdom. On the basis of the New Testament witness, the Catholic Church teaches, as a doctrine of faith, that the Bishop of Rome is the Successor of Peter in his primatial service in the universal Church; this succession explains the preeminence of the Church of Rome. (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, The Primacy of the Successor of Peter in the mystery of the Church, no. 3-4, October 31, 1998)
Thus, humbly attached to Christ, our One Lord, together we can and must encourage that ‘exemplarity’ of the Church of Rome which is genuine service to our Sister Churches across the world. The indissoluble bond between romanum and petrinum implies and indeed requires the Church of Rome’s participation in the universal concern of her Bishops. […] Rome is a very large Diocese and truly a very special one, because of the universal concern that the Lord has entrusted to his Bishop. (Benedict XVI. Address to the Clergy of Rome, May 13, 2005)
Today the new Bishop of Rome solemnly begins his ministry and the mission of Peter. In this city, in fact, Peter completed and fulfilled the mission entrusted to him by the Lord. […] Yes, Brothers and sons and daughters, Rome is the See of Peter. Down the centuries new Bishops continually succeeded him in this See. Today a new, Bishop comes to the Chair of` Peter in Rome, a Bishop full of trepidation, conscious of his unworthiness. And how could one not tremble before the greatness of this call and before the universal mission of this See of Rome! (John Paul II. Homily for the inauguration of his Pontificate, October 22, 1978)
The watchful care over the universal Church confided to Peter abides with him by reason of the Lord’s statement; for he knows on the testimony of the Gospel (Mt 16:18) that the Church was founded on him. His office can never be free from cares, since it is certain that all things depend on his deliberation. (Denzinger-Hünermann 234. Boniface I, Epistle Manet Beatum to Rufus and the other Bishops throughout Macedonia, March 11, 422)
The Good Shepherd, the Lord Christ Jesus (cf. Jn 10:11,14), conferred on the bishops, the successors of the Apostles, and in a singular way on the bishop of Rome, the successor of Peter, the mission of making disciples in all nations and of preaching the Gospel to every creature. […] This applies to each and every bishop in his own particular Church; but all the more does it apply to the bishop of Rome, whose Petrine ministry works for the good and benefit of the universal Church. The Roman Church has charge over the “whole body of charity” and so it is the servant of love. It is largely from this principle that those great words of old have come — ‘The servant of the servants of God’—, by which Peter’s successor is known and defined. (John Paul II. Apostolic Constitution Pastor bonus, no. 1-2, June 28, 1988)
All the Bishops are subjects of the sollicitudo omnium Ecclesiarum (Cor 11:28) as members of the Episcopal College which has succeeded to the College of the Apostles, […] In the case of the Bishop of Rome — Vicar of Christ in the way proper to Peter as Head of the College of Bishops — the sollicitudo omnium Ecclesiarum acquires particular force because it is combined with the full and supreme power in the Church: a truly episcopal power, not only supreme, full and universal, but also immediate, over all pastors and other faithful. The ministry of Peter’s Successor, therefore, is not a service that reaches each Church from outside, but is inscribed in the heart of each particular Church, in which ‘the Church of Christ is truly present and active’ (Vatican Council II, Christus Dominus, no. 11) and for this reason it includes openness to the ministry of unity. (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Primacy of the successor of Peter in the mystery of the Church, October 31, 1988)
All the Roman Pontiffs, who succeeding blessed Peter have entered canonically and will enter canonically, have succeeded blessed Peter the Roman Pontiff and will succeed in the same plentitude in the jurisdiction of power over the complete and universal body of the militant church which blessed Peter himself received from our Lord Jesus Christ. (Denzinger-Hünermann 1053. Clement VI. Letter Super quibusdam to the Consolator, the Catholicon of the Armenians, September 20, 1351)
On the contrary, our Redeemer also governs His Mystical Body in a visible and normal way through His Vicar on earth. You know, Venerable Brethren, that after He had ruled the ‘little flock’ (Lk XII,32) Himself during His mortal pilgrimage, Christ our Lord, when about to leave this world and return to the Father, entrusted to the Chief of the Apostles the visible government of the entire community He had founded. (Pius XII. Encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi, no. 40, June 29, 1943)
But just as the ministry of Peter as the ‘servant of the servants of God’ is exercised in relationship with both the whole Church and the bishops of the entire Church, similarly the Roman Curia, as the servant of Peter’s successor, looks only to help the whole Church and its bishops. (John Paul II. Apostolic constitution Pastor bonus, no. 7, June 28, 1988)
The connexion of the whole body makes all alike healthy, all alike beautiful: and this connexion requires the unanimity indeed of the whole body, but it especially demands harmony among the priests. And though they have a common dignity, yet they have not uniform rank; inasmuch as even among the blessed Apostles, notwithstanding the similarity of their honourable estate, there was a certain distinction of power, and while the election of them all was equal, yet it was given to one to take the lead of the rest. (Leo the Great. Letter XIV, no. 12, PL 54:149-150)
That blessed Peter the Apostle had no more authority than the other Apostles had nor was he the head of the other apostles. Likewise that God did not send forth any head of the Church, nor did He make anyone His vicar. […] That all priests, whether the pope or archbishop or a simple priest, are by the institution of Christ equal in authority and jurisdiction. […] We declare by sentence the above mentioned articles…..to be contrary to Sacred Scripture and enemies of the Catholic faith, heretics, or heretical and erroneous. (Denzinger-Hünermann 942.944.946. John XXII, Constitution Licet iuxta doctrinam, October 23, 1327)
From the midst of the entire world, Peter alone is chosen, who is placed in front of all of the nations called, of all of the apostles, of all of the Fathers of the Church: in such a way that, even though there be among the people of God many priests and many pastors, Peter specifically governs all of those who are principally governed by Christ. (Leo the Great, Sermon IV, c. 2 – PL 54:149-150)
That there is unity in the administration of the Catholic Church is evident. For as the faithful are subject to their priests, so are priests to their bishops, whom ‘the Holy Spirit has placed……to rule the Church of God’(Acts 20:28). So, too, every bishop is subject to the Roman pontiff, the successor of Saint Peter, whom Christ called a rock and made the foundation of His Church. It was to Peter that Christ gave in a special way the power to bind and loose on earth, to strengthen his brethren, to feed the entire flock. (John XXIII. Encyclical Ad Petri cathedram, June 29, 1959)
The college or body of bishops has no authority unless it is understood together with the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter as its head. The pope’s power of primacy over all, both pastors and faithful, remains whole and intact. In virtue of his office, that is as Vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole Church, the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme and universal power over the Church. And he is always free to exercise this power. (Vatican Council II. Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, no. 22, November 21, 1964)