Regína sacratíssimi Rosárii, ora pro nobis!

From the March AD 2000
Our Lady of the Rosary
Parish Bulletin

    Question: What is the difference between Bishops, Archbishops, and Monsignors? (A-M J)

    Answer: At the Last Supper, our Lord Jesus Christ established His priesthood and gave the fullness of priestly power to His Apostles. Thus the Apostles became the first bishops, having the power to confer all of the Sacraments of the New Law.1 The Scriptures record that the Apostles passed on these powers in full to St. Matthias, who replaced Judas, and in part to a number of Deacons, who were ordained to relieve the burden of the Apostles.2 Though not clearly recorded in Scripture, the Church also ordained simple priests having powers intermediate between those of bishops and deacons. In all cases of Sacramental ordination, the outward sign is the laying of hand(s) by the bishop(s) on the heads of those being ordained (although we usually speak of bishops being "consecrated").

    In addition to their priestly powers, our Lord gave His Apostles powers of jurisdiction; the authority to act in His name. He founded His Church as a whole upon St. Peter, giving to Him the power of "binding and loosing" universally, and to the others within the realm of their apostolates.3 They were given the canonical mission to "make disciples of all nations, baptizing them...."4 The Church has seen fit to order this power of jurisdiction by making distinctions of rank among Her bishops and clergy.

    At the apex of church authority is the Pope, who, though, as a bishop, having no more priestly power than the bishop of Tim-buck-too, exercises universal jurisdiction over the Church.5  He is the Vicar of Christ, Patriarch of the West, Archbishop of the Roman Province, Bishop of Rome (these titles will be explained below).

    Through the heroic determination of many priests, bishops, and religious -- long before the advent of modern communications and transportation -- the Gospel had been preached to many of the "all nations." Christianity generally took root first in the larger cities of antiquity, and then spread to the countryside. As his apostolate grew the bishops in the cities found it necessary to consecrate additional bishops for the outlying areas. Quite naturally, there remained a kinship between the bishop of the city and those whom he consecrated. The various bishops and dioceses banded together under the leadership of the metropolitan bishop to preserve the Faith, even though they were rather isolated from the central authority of Rome.

    The individual bishop presided over the churches in his charge. But he looked to the metropolitan bishop and his other rural counterparts to insure that his successor would be legitimately elected by the people and clergy of his diocese, that an arbiter would rule on any irregularities, and that bishops would be available to consecrate his successor or to aid him in times of disability. In time the metropolitans came to be known as "archbishops."

    In the really major cities of the early Church (Jerusalem, Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, and later Constantinople) the archbishops came to be called "patriarchs," and had other archbishops and their "suffragan" bishops subject to them. Once again, these men were bishops like all other bishops, but they have been endowed by their fellow bishops, clergy, and faithful with the governance of the pivotal regions of Europe and western Asia.6

    The archbishop generally holds power (often very theoretical power in today's world) over a few dioceses -- perhaps five to ten. In medieval times archbishops actually exercised such power, but in modern times the title "archbishop" has become more honorary than real. Yet, it was real in the middle ages, and even today the bishops of the metropolitan archbishopric of Rome -- the Cardinal Bishops -- are the leaders of the body that elects a new Pope, the Archbishop of the Roman province (at one time they were the only electors).

    Originally the Cardinals were the clergy of Rome. Like many other Metropolitan - Archbishops, the pope had several suffragan bishops. The suffragans directed the suburban sees around Rome: Ostia (the most important), Albano, Frascati, Palestrina, Porto and Santa Rufina, Sabina, and Velletri. The bishops of these cities came to be called the cardinal bishops. The pope also had seven priests responsible for maintaining each of the four major basilicas of Rome: St. Peter's, St. Paul's, St. Mary Major, and St. Lawrence. These twenty eight clerics formed the cardinal priesthood. The Roman deacons were also represented. Originally responsible for Rome's charitable work, the Roman archdeacon, together with six municipal deacons and twelve suburban deacons, constituted the cardinal diaconate. For some reason the Roman subdeacons were excluded although at least one of them was accorded the title of cardinal subdeacon in papal correspondence. The College of Cardinals thus theoretically numbered fifty four (reduced to fifty three in the late eleventh century) although this maximum was often not met in the middle ages and has been substantially exceeded in modern times.7 Today the Cardinals are often non-Romans and non-residents, with the Cardinal's red hat being bestowed upon the most important bishops throughout the world. Yet, in theory and occasionally in practice, simple priests and even laymen can be named to the College.

    With the few possible exceptions in the College of Cardinals, all of the men mentioned above -- popes, patriarchs, archbishops, bishops, and cardinals -- are bishops, having the same priestly powers, but exercising different degrees of jurisdiction. All are "prelates," from the Latin "prælatus," meaning "one set before."

    In most European countries prelates -- at least the bishops and archbishops -- are referred to by the term "Monsignor," which might be rendered in English as "M'lord," or, perhaps, as "Your Lordship." In America, we tend to reserve the title "Monsignor" for a lesser class of prelates who are not bishops.

    The Church designates simple priests as prelates for one of two reasons, either to designate them as leaders over their fellow priests and associated laypeople, or to honor them for their distinguished service. Most of the "Monsignors" known to Americans by that title fall into the latter category. They are men honored by the Pope for career service to the Church within their respective dioceses, made prelates in one degree or another. Some may go to Rome and work in curial positions, then to be sent back as possible future candidates to become bishops. Others may be winding down careers as distinguished pastors or diocesan officials.

    Other prelates are created to exercise more active leadership positions. Some monsignori of the Roman Curia remain there for lifetimes as technical experts in a given field. A priest might be made a prelate to govern an inaccessible mission territory where Christians are few, perhaps as a Vicar Apostolic.. Or a priest might be elected by his fellow monks to govern them as their Abbot. Diocesan bishops may designate a priest to be Vicar General of the diocese, or to be one of the Canons of the Cathedral Chapter. These various active prelates are sometimes empowered to perform functions usually reserved to bishops (e.g. consecration of chalices, Confirmation and Ordination to Minor Orders of their subjects). They may be authorized to wear some of the accoutrements of bishops -- mitres or pectoral crosses, for example. Apart from Abbots, who continue to wear the habit of their order, adding only a ring and pectoral cross, the everyday dress and choir dress of these priest-prelates is often enhanced with red, or purple in various hues.


1. It can be argued that the Sacraments of Penance and Confirmation did not exist until Easter Sunday night and Pentecost morning, respectively, but by virtue of their full priestly power the Apostles were able to confer these two Sacraments without additional ordination.

2. Acts i: 21-26; Acts vi: 1-7.

3. Matthew xvi: 13-20; xviii: 18.

4. Matthew xxviii: 18-20; Mark xvi: 14-18..

5. First Vatican Council, Session IV, Chapter 3.

6. There are other (Latin Rite) patriarchates, created more for political reasons than for reasons of leadership within a geographical area.

7. Charles T. Brusca, Boniface VIII and the Decline of Papal Power.


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