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Christ Case

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When he established His Church, Jesus placed the Apostles in charge of caring for the faithful, of teaching them the faith and caring for their souls. And He placed Peter at the head of the Apostles. Through Apostolic Succession, that same hierarchy willed by Jesus, exists today in the Church with the Pope (the successor of St Peter) at her head, leading the Bishops (the successors of the Apostles) who themselves lead the faithful in their local Churches.

The Pope

At the head of the College of Bishops and called to lead the whole Church of Christ is the Successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome, the Holy Roman Pontiff, the Pope.

The Pope is the Vicar of Christ on Earth. He stands in Christ's place, on Christ's behalf, to shepherd Christ's flock.

Lumen Gentium states:

"[T]he Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered."

The College of Bishops

Successors of the Apostles, the Bishops of the particular Churches throughout the world form the College of Bishops. Individual bishops have charge of a particular diocese. Together as a group the Bishops may exercise power over the Universal Church by coming together in an ecumenical council (such as Vatican II). However, even ecumenical council's must be recognised and agreed to by the Successor of Peter to be valid. To the extent that the College of Bishops is not united with its head, the Pope, then it has no authority at all.

The Laity

The lay faithful are those baptised faithful not called by God to ordained ministry within the Church. The laity, being immersed in the world, are called in a special way to bring Christ to the world.

Pope Pius XII said:

"Lay believers are the front line of Church life; for them the Church is the animating principle of human society. Therefore, they in particular ought to have an ever-clearer consciousness not only of belonging to the Church, but of being the Church, that is to say, the community of the faithful on earth under the leadership of the Pope, the common Head, and of the bishops in communion with him. They are the Church."

The College of Cardinals

Although not forming part of the official hierarchy of the Church, certain bishops are granted special status and position within the Church by being elevated to the College of Cardinals. The primary role of the College of Cardinals is to act as special advisors to the Pope and to come together on the death of a Pope to vote for his successor.

Episcopal Conferences (National Conferences of Bishops)

The individual Bishop has the primary duty of caring for the faithful in his diocese. It is he who must teach them and shepherd them. However, every country or region now also has an Episcopal Conference (eg, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in the United States, the ConfĂ©rence des EvĂȘon;ques de France). The new Code of Canon Law reserves certain disciplinary decisions to the Episcopal Conference for a region. For example, the general law in the Code of Canon Law is that Catholics must do penance on Fridays by abstaining from eating meat, but it allows the Episcopal Conference for each region to substitute a different penance if they choose (which most appear to have done).

The Episcopal Conferences are not part of the Magisterium of the Church. They have no authority to teach in and of themselves. Their interpretations of doctrine and pronouncements on them are only binding insofar as your own bishop has lent his name to the interpretation



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