Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Hierarchy in the Third Century

Reading N°55 in the History of the Catholic Church

 Fr. Fernand Mourret, S.S.

While Christian apologetics was speaking in tones of confidence, the Church was enjoying comparative freedom. The last six years of Emperor Commodus and the first nine years of Septimius Severus were a time of peace. She profited thereby to develop her hierarchical, sacramental, and liturgical institutions, to complete the organization of Church property, to promote the study of theology, and to give a new impulse to her Apostolic expansion. We have now reached the point where we should take a general view of this internal activity of the Church. And then we shall have to resume the story of her struggles against persecution and heresy.

(l. to r.) Priest, Bishop and Deacon
from the Raganaldus Sacramentary, c. AD 845

Tertullian's works show us the Church as an essentially graded society. The laity are subject to the deacons and priests, and all owe obedience to the bishop. No longer is there any mention of the presbyterial council. The monarchical episcopate is established everywhere. The lists of bishops which the historian Hegesippus gives in the middle of the second century leave no doubt on this point. The bishop's authority comes from the fact that he is the depositary of Apostolic authority, handed down to him through an uninterrupted series of bishops connected with the Apostles. Unlike the Apostles, the bishop has a limited territory, first called a "parish," later a "diocese."

The first bishops were chosen and instituted by the Apostles; but at an early date it became the custom to nominate bishops by election. When a see became vacant, the lower clergy of the diocese met and elected one of their number, after obtaining from the people a good testimony in favor of the candidate. Then they presented this candidate to the bishops of the neighborhood, who assembled in the principal city of the vacant diocese to preside at the election and to give canonical institution to the bishop-elect. The documents of the second century and of the early third show us the bishop administering his diocese in complete independence of the lower clergy. Yet in many instances he takes counsel of them and sometimes even asks the advice of the people.

Simple priests and deacons, unlike bishops, are promoted to Orders only upon the good testimony of the people. They can exercise no function without the approval of the bishop who ordained them; in case of serious fault, they can be deposed by the bishop. They are his helpers in the work of instructing the faithful and in the administration of the Sacraments. At the meetings of the Christian community, they take their places around the bishop - as it were, his crown. While the episcopal see is vacant, they assume charge of the administration of the diocese and render an account of their administration to the new bishop.

The duties of deacons are: to preach, baptize, and - under the bishop's control - to administer the property of the Church, to serve the bishop at the altar, to announce the meetings of the faithful, to maintain order, to receive the offerings of the faithful and to divide them among the poor.

Virginity, so earnestly recommended by St. Paul and exemplified by the Savior, His blessed Mother, and the Apostle St. John, is the ideal which the faithful, and especially the clergy, endeavor to approach. But as yet it is not made obligatory upon the clergy by any positive rule. The imperial laws forbidding celibacy placed too great an obstacle in the way of recruiting the clergy if celibacy were made a strict obligation. The only requirement is that, following the precept of the Apostle (1 Corinthians 4:12; 9:7 ff; Acts 20:34) the candidate for the clerical state be not twice married.


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1 comment:

  1. Interesting to see deacons' duties so clear and plain. It seems they were to serve their bishop, not to replace and impinge on priests' duties.


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