CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy, SEPT. 19, 2003 ( John Paul II says the first priority of a bishop is to be holy.

The Pope expressed this conviction today when he received in audience the 180 participants in a course of formation for bishops of English-speaking mission territories. The Vatican Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples organized the course.

"Be holy!" the Holy Father said during the audience held at the papal summer residence. "On different occasions I have noted that holiness is the urgent pastoral need of our times."

"It is a pressing requirement first of all for those whom God has called to serve him more closely," he said. "Indeed, in order to be vigilant guardians of the Lord's flock, in order to protect it from all kinds of dangers, in order to feed it with the food of the Word and the Eucharist, pastors themselves must be nourished by intense and constant prayer, and must cultivate a deep intimacy with Christ."

"Only in this way will they become, for priests and for the faithful, examples of fidelity and witnesses of an apostolic zeal enlightened by the Holy Spirit," the Pope added.

"No activity, no matter how important, should distract you from this spiritual priority that sets the tone for the apostolic mandate received with episcopal ordination," he insisted.

"Be pastors who, by their example more than by their words, honor the Gospel and inspire in those around them the desire to know it better and to put it into practice," he concluded. On Oct. 16 John Paul II plans to publish a postsynodal apostolic exhortation on the role of bishops.