Finding the bishops we need – Catholic World Report

Bishops attend Mass Nov. 15, 2021 at the National Shrine Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore during the fall general assembly of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. (SNC Photo/Bob Roller)

There was considerable excitement in some quarters this summer when Pope Francis appointed three women members of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Bishops, which makes recommendations to the pope for episcopal appointments in much of Latin-rite Catholicism. Whether this innovation will make a meaningful difference at the final stage of a long and complex process remains to be seen; given the Byzantine ways of the Roman Curia (and its boys’ club atmosphere and dynamic), I have my doubts. But we will see.

In any event, a profound reform of the selection process for bishops in the Latin Rite Church would begin by involving women, not to mention the laity, in the process at a much earlier stage.

Nuncios and Apostolic Delegates – the official representatives of the Holy See abroad – are, in theory, expected to consult widely when selecting candidates for the episcopate whose names they transmit to the Dicastery for Bishops for exam. In practice, however, this consultation on a given man’s suitability for the office of bishop is almost always limited to inquiries of bishops and priests. Such consultations have real value, but they risk filtering out candidates who may be gifted for evangelism and the apostolate in a way that makes their more placid and less energetic colleagues in the clergy uncomfortable. And whether a man is “clubbable” should not be a determining factor in his potential candidacy for the bishopric.

Today, throughout the Western world, the Church finds herself in a de facto missionary situation. Culture no longer allows to transmit and sustain “the faith which was transmitted to the saints once for all” (Jude 1:3). On the contrary, this faith is constantly under attack culturally and, in some cases, legally. Under these circumstances, Catholic leadership that focuses primarily on institutional upkeep – making the mechanisms of parishes, schools, etc. work, but not growing the Church – inevitably leads to “controlled decline.”

This phrase, now heard in more than one diocese in the Northeast and Rust Belt of the United States, testifies to a melancholy reading of the signs of the ecclesiastical times, often caused by serious financial problems. These problems are very real, thanks to the sexual abuse crisis, predatory tort lawyers and the effects of two years of Plague on Catholic practice. But for Church leaders, imagining their role as “managers of decline” may also reflect a lack of faith in the power of the gospel to win hearts, minds, and souls today.

In an increasingly post-Christian Western world, the Church of the 21st century needs an episcopate of apostles. Management is important. But the main task of the bishop is to bring people to Christ and strengthen the faith of those who have already allied themselves to the Lord Jesus and his cause. This was the teaching of the Second Vatican Council in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church and its Decree on the Pastoral Care of Bishops in the Church. An energetic and efficient apostle can always find the help he needs to manage the part of the Church entrusted to him.

But if he does not live his episcopate as an apostolic witness, teacher and sanctifier — if he is not effective in encouraging everyone in his diocese to be the missionary disciples for whom they were baptized, and if he does not support his brother priests in their empowerment of an evangelically vibrant laity – all the management skills in the world will not prevent his diocese from sliding down the slippery slope of “managed decline”.

Lay Catholics can be helpful in identifying potential bishops with this apostolic zeal, and with the personal qualities and skills to be a leader others are eager to follow. The laity see things in their pastors that the confreres perhaps do not see or do not take seriously enough. Thus, serious consultation with committed (and discreet) lay people at the local level helps prevent the episcopate from becoming a self-sustaining club – or worse, an upper clerical caste. Bishops should undertake this kind of consultation when preparing for provincial meetings where candidates for the episcopate are discussed. Nuncios and apostolic delegates must also be knowledgeable enough to know Catholic lay people who can be trusted to give honest, non-ideological, and apolitical assessments of a priest’s suitability for the office of bishop.

Being a bishop in the Western world today is a very, very difficult job, which is why more than a few priests refuse an episcopal appointment when offered. Finding the kind of men who can be true apostles of the 21st century starts at the local level. This is where a profound reform will begin in the process of providing the Church with the bishops she needs.

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