Pope Benedict XIV – Ubi Primum – On the Duties of Bishops, 3 December 1740

[Pope Benedict XIV]
To Our Venerable Brothers, the Patriarchs, the Primates, the Archbishops, and the Bishops. Venerable Brothers, Greetings and Apostolic Benediction.

When it first pleased God to raise Us to the supreme See of Saint Peter, He entrusted to Us the power of the Vicar of Christ as governor of His universal Church. We heard the divine voice:

“Feed my lambs; feed my sheep.” The care of both the lambs of the Lord’s flock (who are the people scattered through the entire world) and of the sheep, (the bishops who act as tender parents of the lambs) is entrusted to the pope. Therefore, brothers, receive the words of your shepherd through this letter. You are called to share in Our concerns. Understand from Our warnings and exhortations how much the desire to fulfill Our duties presses upon Us. Keep in mind also the strength of Our love for you, which leads Us to earnestly desire the eternal joy of the shepherds which comes from the progress of the flock.

Importance of Clergy

Above all, see to it that the clergy excel in character and in zeal for divine worship and that ecclesiastical discipline is kept in good condition or restored where it has suffered. The example of dedicated clerics is the best inspiration for the faithful. Therefore, direct the keenness of your mind so that those men are chosen for the clergy from whom it can reasonably be expected that their lives will command respect from all who walk in the law of the Lord and who go from virtue to virtue. Their work will bring spiritual benefit to your churches. It is better to have a few ministers who are upright and effective, than many who labor in vain to build up the Church. You are aware of how much caution the holy canons require the bishops to exercise in this matter. Do not allow yourselves to be led away from this rule, which should be observed in its entirety, by any human consideration or by the requests of patrons. Observe the precept of the Apostle not to conduct the laying on of hands too hastily-especially when it concerns the promotion to the sacred mysteries and Holy Orders. Attaining the age which the holy laws of the Church have prescribed for each order is not sufficient. Neither should everyone who is now in lower orders be indiscriminately promoted to a higher order, as if it is his right. You should diligently investigate whether the way of life of those in lower orders and their progress in sacred learning are such that it may be said to them: “Rise to a higher place.” It is more expedient for some to remain in an inferior position, rather than be promoted to a higher one, which would bring danger to them and scandal to others.

Seminaries

2. Because this matter concerns those who are called to the Lord’s portion, you should take care to educate them to piety, integrity of life, and to the canonical discipline from an early age. Where there are still no seminaries, they should be established as soon as possible. Where seminaries exist already, they should be enlarged if it is necessary due to the increased number of students. The bishops have already been instructed in the means to use to that end. We shall add other things to these instructions if We learn of their necessity from you. You should cherish these colleges with special concern by visiting them often, by studying the life, talent, and progress in studies of each of the young men, and by appointing suitable teachers and men endowed with an ecclesiastical spirit. Honor their literary exercises and their ecclesiastical functions with your presence occasionally. Finally, confer some benefice on those who are outstanding examples of virtue or who win the greatest honors. It should not grieve you to water these tender shoots in this manner as they mature. Your work will then bring you a happy harvest in an abundance of good laborers. Bishops usually complain that the harvest is indeed great, but the laborers are few. Perhaps it also ought to be lamented that the bishops did not expend the necessary efforts in order to prepare enough good laborers for the harvest. Good and strong laborers are not born, but made. But the making of them is a matter for the work and the skill of the bishops.

Selecting Clerics

3. It is of the utmost importance that you entrust the care of souls to exemplary men who are conspicuous for their doctrine, piety, purity, and good works. They should truly be and should be considered the light and the salt of the people. These men are your principal aides in forming the flock entrusted to your care, governing it, purifying it, leading it in the path of salvation, and rousing it to Christian virtue. You should choose as parish priests men who may be judged suited to the fruitful governing of people. Concentrate on this matter above everything else, so that all those who exercise the care of souls may nourish the people entrusted to them with salutary words at least on Sundays and other feast days. They should teach those things which the faithful must know for their salvation and explain the main principles of divine law and Catholic dogma. They should also teach the children the basics of that same faith once they have completely removed any wicked habits contrary to it. How can the people hear if there is no one to preach to them? How can they know the faith and lead holy lives if the men who have the care of their souls are sluggish, idle, or remiss? It is impossible to overstate the tremendous threat to the Christian community which arises when those who have care of men’s souls neglect the training of the young, especially their catechetical instruction. Those who exercise this office and others who hear confessions would benefit greatly if you could see to it that they have a few days rest each year for spiritual exercise. They will be spiritually renewed by such a retreat and strengthened from on high. They will return to their tasks quickened and eager to work for the glory of God and the salvation of souls.

Necessity of Residency

4. You know, brothers, that the divine precept commands all pastors to know their sheep and to nourish them by preaching, by the administration of the sacraments, and by the example of every good work. Those priests are by no means able to fulfill these or the other duties of the pastoral office who neither look after their flock nor assiduously guard the Lord’s vineyard, over which they have been placed as watchmen. Therefore, you should remain at your post and maintain your personal residence in the church or diocese to which you have been bound by the duty of your office. The many decrees of the general councils and the constitutions of Our predecessors clearly commanded this.

Do not consider it appropriate for a bishop to be absent from his diocese for any reason for a period of three months each year. For this to be permitted to bishops, it is necessary that there be a compelling reason requiring such an absence. At the same time, it should be determined that no harm would come to the flock in the interim. Remember that He who sees and knows everything will be your judge. Therefore, see to it that your reason is truly one which can be judged worthy by the Prince of the shepherds who will demand an account of the sheep entrusted to you. Certainly a shepherd would try in vain to protect himself in that judgment with the excuse that the wolf captured and devoured the sheep while he was away and unaware. If we consider the matter carefully, it is apparent that the evil which besets a diocese abandoned by its bishop can be attributed to him whose duty it is to recall his subjects who stray from the right path with warnings, to entice them with examples, to strengthen them by word, and to keep them together by his authority and love. In addition, everyone understands that it is much better for others to take care of business elsewhere than for the bishop himself, tarrying outside his diocese, to do so. The bishop, and not administrators, should take care of the protecting and the governing of the flock. As suitable and upright as the priests may be, nevertheless the sheep are not accustomed to hearing the voice of the priests as the voice of the true shepherd. Nor can their vicarious work substitute for the vigilance and the work of the bishop, to whom the special grace of the Holy Spirit gives assistance for this matter, as experience clearly shows.

Visitation

5. As in every domestic matter, there is nothing more beneficial than for the head of the family to examine everything frequently and nourish the labor and diligence of his family with his own vigilance. We therefore enjoin upon you the obligation of visiting your churches and dioceses yourselves (unless a serious matter arises which requires you to entrust this duty to others) order to acquaint yourselves with your sheep and with the appearance of your flock. That sentence which we recalled above is full of fear and terror: namely that no excuse is allowed to the shepherd if the wolf devours the sheep and the shepherd does not know it. The bishop will be unaware of many things and many things will be hidden from him if he does not visit every part of his diocese himself and if he does not look, listen, and examine everywhere for which evils a remedy may be prepared. He should probe the causes of those evils and then take preventive measures lest they come to life again. The condition of human weakness is such that thorn bushes, prickles, and weeds grow gradually in the Lord’s field, the cultivation of which is entrusted to the bishop. If the gardener does not return frequently to pluck them out, his seedlings will wither with the passage of time.

But neither is it sufficient that you examine your dioceses and that there is provision for the administration of the dioceses by your precepts. It remains that you put into effect those things which were decided during your visitations. For even the best laws are worthless unless that which is sanctioned in words is actually executed by those to whom this task falls. Therefore, after you have prepared remedies to cast out or prevent diseases of the soul, do not relax your concern. Rather, promote with all your strength the execution of the precepts you decreed. You can achieve this best through repeated visitations.

Exhortation

6. Finally, to cover many matters in a few words, it is fitting that you yourselves be the promoters, the leaders, and the teachers in every sacred and ecclesiastical function and in every exercise of divine worship and of piety. Thus, both the clergy and the whole flock may be enlightened, as if by the brightness of your holiness and may be warmed by the fire of your love. Therefore, be an example for your flock in the frequent celebration of the Mass, in devout offering, in solemn celebration of Masses, in administering the sacraments, in reciting the breviary, in respect for and in the splendor of the churches in the discipline of your household and of your spiritual family, in love for the poor and in helping them, in looking after the sick and supporting them, in welcoming pilgrims with hospitality, and finally in every good work of Christian virtue. Thus, all may be imitators of you just as you are imitators of Christ as is fitting for bishops whom the Holy Spirit placed in charge of the Church of God which Jesus redeemed by His blood. Look back often on the apostles to whose place you have succeeded. Follow in their footsteps in works, in vigilance, in bearing hardship, in keeping the wolves away from your sheep, in removing the roots of vices, in teaching the evangelical law, and in leading back to salutary penance those who have strayed.

The omnipotent and merciful God will surely be with you. In that comforter, we can do everything. We trust that religious princes will give you their help. In addition, this Holy See will assist you whenever you think Our Apostolic authority will be helpful. May all of you whom We love in Christ Jesus come to Us with confidence as Our brothers, Our helpers, and Our crown of glory. Come to the Holy Roman Church, your mother and the head and teacher of all the churches. The source of religion comes from her. The rock of faith and the fount of priestly unity resides here, as well as the teaching of uncorrupted truth. We desire nothing more and find nothing more pleasant than to serve the glory of God with you and to work for the protection and the propagation of the Catholic faith. We want to save souls for whom We would willingly offer Our lives if necessary. Finally, may the great reward which waits for you rouse you and spur you on. When the Prince of Shepherds appears, you will receive an unfading crown of glory and a crown of justice which is reserved for those faithful dispensers of the mysteries of God and for those energetic and vigilant observers of the house of Israel, the Holy Church of God. Though unworthy, We take the place of God on earth; accordingly, We bless your brotherhood lovingly. We impart Our apostolic blessing to your clergy and faithful people with paternal affection.

Given in Rome, at Saint Mary Major, on the third day of December, 1740, the first year of Our pontificate.