A national conference of Catholic bishops exists so that pastors of the Church might "share the fatigue of their labors." But, according to Pope Benedict XVI, those national conferences can never substitute for an individual bishop's authority and duty to guide his people.
The Pope turned a Nov. 15 address to a group of bishops from Brazil into a lesson on the function of the bishops' conference.
The Catholic bishops of the world are divided into bishops' conferences depending on their geographic locations and language groups. For example, the more than 400 bishops of the United States, form the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; the English and Welsh bishops are combined into a single bishops' conference.
Since the Second Vatican Council (1963-1965), some critics have argued that bishops' conferences have assumed too much influence in the lives of local churches and in some cases have diminished the authority of local bishops.
In his address, Pope Benedict reminded the Brazilian Church leaders that “the counselors and structures of the episcopal conference exist to serve the bishops, not to replace them.”
The bishops' organization is meant to allow for "the joint and harmonious exercise of certain pastoral functions, for the good of the faithful and of all the citizens of a particular territory," the Pope added.
This cooperation of bishops leads to a more effective exercise of their duties while not giving up their responsibility to provide for the spiritual needs of members of their individual dioceses.
A conference of bishops "promotes unity of effort and intention among the bishops" and serves as "an instrument that enables them to share the fatigue of their labors," said the Pope. The conference, he said, must serve “the pastoral solicitude of bishops, whose principal concern must be the salvation of souls, which is also the fundamental mission of the Church."
The Pope reminded the bishops that they must employ the best and most appropriate ways of presenting Church teaching within their dioceses. Furthermore, they must be up to date on the issues of the day to guide the consciences of the people and provide adequate solutions for the problems posed by changes in society and culture.
Issues such as promoting and protecting faith and morals, fostering vocations and defending human life, religious freedom and human rights require a united action from bishops, he said.
The Brazilian bishops were in Rome as part of their “ad limina” visits, trips that bishops make to Rome once every five years to update the Pope on their ministries and to seek his guidance and direction.