How Diocesan Bishops Are Selected
A Diocesan Bishop is selected when a vacancy of that office is created in a given diocese. Bishops are required to submit their request for retirement at age of 75, although it is not effective until the Pope accepts it. Bishops may also resign before the mandatory age, albeit for a grave reason such as debilitating illness or some other situation that prevents them from fulfilling their ministry. A vacancy can also be created when a Bishop is transferred from one diocese to another.
The nomination and appointment of bishops in the Catholic Church has a significant impact on the lives and ministerial focus of the Catholic Faithful – the Clergy and Laity inclusive. The current process for selecting bishops typically begins locally. Each diocese is part of a larger grouping — these larger territories are called metropolitan provinces, each with an Archbishop.
Any Bishop in a province is invited to submit names of priests whom they believe would do well to serve as a bishop. Normally, bishops in a province meet at least yearly, and the province’s archbishop circulates the names he has collected along with a resume of each priest. Together the bishops of the province discuss the nominated priests and take a vote to decide which names should be recommended. This list then is submitted to the country’s Apostolic Nuncio, the Pope’s Representative in a country and a pivotal player in the process of selecting bishops there.
As Bishops are nearing retirement or suffering from ill health, they may sometimes request or be given a coadjutor bishop. A coadjutor serves alongside the diocesan bishop, also known as the ordinary, and effectively serves as his co-administrator and fills the role of diocesan vicar general. Coadjutors will automatically succeed the diocesan bishop at the time of his 75th birthday, his death, early resignation or his reassignment.
When deliberating on candidates for diocesan Bishops, the Nuncio will find out as much as possible about the diocese in question. A report is compiled by the current bishop or diocesan administrator after consultation with various officials within the diocese. During this process, the Nuncio could make contact with persons in diocesan offices, certain clergy as well as previous bishops of the diocese in question or other bishops in the province. Once the Nuncio shortens his list of candidates, he seeks the input of as many as several dozen people who know the candidates in consideration by asking them to respond to a questionnaire completed in strictest confidentiality. After the Nuncio has reviewed all of this information, he composes a report of three candidates — called a “terna” — in which he notes his preferences. All this material is forwarded to the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops.
When the Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops approves the dossier submitted by the nuncio, the process moves ahead to select a Bishop for a given post. The prefect chooses a member of his staff to create a summary of the information submitted by the nuncio, which in turn is submitted to the entire congregation — staffed by Bishops and Cardinals from around the world. The congregation members discuss Bishop appointments twice monthly on average.
Members of the congregation discuss the candidates and take a vote. They can either support the Nuncio’s recommendation, choose another priest to move to the top of the terna, or ask that another terna be composed.
The process finally draws to a close when the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops meets privately with the Pope. During the meeting, he presents the terna, given in a particular order with the congregation’s choice at the top. At this final stage, the Pope can do one of four things: 1. He may agree with the congregation’s proposal. 2. He may choose another candidate on the list. 3. He may ask for a new terna to be submitted or, more unlikely, 4. He could choose his own candidate.
Within a few days, the Pope’s decision is rendered to the Congregation. Once the Nuncio is informed, the nominee is contacted by the Nuncio and given the option to accept the appointment. Nominees may refuse episcopal office, but it is rare and must be for good reason.
When an affirmative answer is given, the Nuncio arranges with the Holy See to set a date to make an announcement of the appointment. There is usually a two- to four-week period before the public announcement. During this time, the Bishop-Elect is not allowed to discuss his appointment.
The entire process of nominating and appointing a bishop usually takes six months to a year from the date a diocese becomes vacated due to sudden resignation, death or transfer of the diocesan bishop, or when an auxiliary is requested. In the case of a bishop reaching retirement age, the selection process often will happen before the retirement of the outgoing bishop is accepted. Bishops-elect are to be ordained within three months of their nomination, according to the Law of Catholic Church.
To be continued…
Cc: Godwin Basil