November 30, 2012

Bishop selection process is thorough and strictly confidential

By Sean Gallagher

Most priests who are named bishops and most bishops who are named to lead a different diocese use words like “shocked” and “surprised” after learning of their appointment by the Holy Father.

Most have no idea that the appointment is coming because the process by which bishops are chosen is marked by strict confidentiality—and for several good reasons.

Canon 377 of the Code of Canon Law stipulates that, at least once every three years, the bishops of an ecclesiastical province must submit to the apostolic nuncio a list of priests who, in their opinion, are qualified to be bishops.

An apostolic nuncio, also known as a papal nuncio, serves as an ambassador of the Vatican to a particular country and as a liaison between the Church in that country and the Holy See.

An ecclesiastical province is made up of the dioceses in a geographical area where an archdiocese also exists. All five dioceses in Indiana make up the Province of Indianapolis.

This same canon also states that individual bishops can recommend potential bishops to the nuncio at any time.

Since becoming a bishop in 1987, Archbishop Emeritus Daniel M. Buechlein has participated in the process of submitting the names of possible bishops several times.

“I give the process a great deal of thought and prayer, and try as best I can to provide a full and accurate biography of the priest whom I recommend,” he said in a 2009 interview with The Criterion. “I take this responsibility seriously to help the papal nuncio in drawing up lists of potential candidates for the office of bishop.”

According to Father James Bonke, defender of the bond for the archdiocesan Metropolitan Tribunal, when a diocese no longer has a bishop—either because the bishop has died, resigned or been transferred—the nuncio begins a process of assembling a list of three recommendations, known as a “terna,” to succeed that bishop.

“Those three names have to be ranked in order according to his preference,” Father Bonke said during a 2009 interview.

Canon 377 sheds some light on the process by which this terna is created. Those who can be included in the list can be both priests who have not yet been ordained as bishops or bishops serving in other dioceses or at the Vatican, such as Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin, who will be installed as the sixth archbishop of Indianapolis during a Dec. 3 Mass at SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Indianapolis.

The canon says that in ordinary cases when a diocese is awaiting a new shepherd, the nuncio will seek out the opinion of several groups of people to develop the terna of potential new bishops to be reviewed by the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops and, ultimately, the pope.

These people include the other diocesan bishops in the province and the president of the bishops’ conference of the country. The nuncio can also seek out the opinion of members of the diocese’s college of consultors—a group of priests in the diocese who advise its bishop—other diocesan and religious clergy, and members of the lay faithful.

A 2009 Catholic News Service article explained that nuncios ordinarily gather 30 to 40 written evaluations of each of the recommended potential bishops. The terna, along with the evaluations, is forwarded to the Congregation for Bishops.

Archbishop Buechlein discussed being asked to assess potential bishops.

“When the papal nuncio seeks information and judgment concerning a particular candidate, the process becomes more focused. So does one’s prayer and responsibility,” he said. “Candidates proposed for nomination to the office of bishop may or may not be from the Metropolitan Province of Indianapolis. For thorough investigation, the nuncio ‘throws the net wide’ at times.

“Those who are consulted are presumed to respond as completely and honestly as possible. Usually, a good number of people—clerical, religious and lay—are consulted.”

The bishops and cardinals who are members of the various congregations at the Vatican—such as the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints or the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith—meet only a few times a year at most.

The CNS article explained that the Congregation for Bishops ordinarily meets every two weeks for an entire morning at a time. Members of the congregation receive “extensive documentation” on each episcopal candidate to review in advance of the meeting.

American members of the Congregation of Bishops are cardinals Raymond L. Burke, William J. Levada and Justin F. Rigali.

Much of the paperwork on episcopal candidates that the congregation’s members receive is made up of the evaluations gathered by nuncios.

When asked to evaluate potential bishops, they are told that their answers and the name of the person they have been asked to assess are to remain strictly confidential.

“Their responses are supposed to be top secret, equal to the seal of confession,” Father Bonke said.


“It is done so in order to ensure the protection of the objectivity and integrity of the process,” said Archbishop Buechlein. “It is also kept confidential out of sensitivity for the potential candidate being considered.

“Obviously, it also obviates the possibility of politicizing the process. The Church has a long and vast experience of ensuring that competent and faithful candidates are selected to serve as bishop for the common good.”

The process of gathering evaluations of potential bishops and assembling a list of three recommendations is not specifically laid out in the Code of Canon Law, but is a procedure established by the Congregation for Bishops.

Although a nuncio and his staff will have done much work to assemble the terna, the Congregation for Bishops or the pope may reject all three recommendations. Then the nuncio may have to start work on a new terna.

But if one of the recommendations is accepted first by the members of the Congregation for Bishops and then by the pope, then the nuncio must pick up his phone and make that fateful call to the man chosen to become a bishop.

“The phone call to become a bishop changes one’s life immediately,” Archbishop Buechlein said. “It usually comes as a shock. One time when I visited the papal nuncio’s residence I asked him if I could see the phone that changed my life. He laughed, but he showed it to me.” †

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