Bishop transition can take many forms
(Iobserve file photo)
By Father Bill Pomerleau
SPRINGFIELD – When Springfield Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell sent a letter to Pope Benedict XVI Dec. 23 asking to retire as head of the Diocese of Springfield, he took an important step that is leading to new leadership for the local church.
But the letter, dated on Bishop McDonnell’s 75th birthday, is just one part of a sometimes-lengthy process that will lead to the appointment of his successor.
Under church law, “a (Latin-rite) diocesan bishop who has completed his seventy-fifth year of age is requested to offer his resignation from office to the Supreme Pontiff, who, taking all the circumstances into account, will make provision accordingly.”
But how, and how quickly, does that “provision” occur?
In most cases, the pope privately accepts the resignation of a retiring bishop, notifying him that it will take effect on the day that his replacement is named. He then takes up to a year to complete the process that leads to the naming of a new bishop.
But there are exceptions to this pattern.
(CNS file photo by Nancy Wiechec)
The Vatican still considers Bishop Francis Hong Yong-ho to be the Bishop of Pyongyang, North Korea, even though he was imprisoned by the communist government there in 1949 and later disappeared. If still alive, Bishop Hong is 106 years old.
Closer to home, Pope John Paul II permitted some U.S. cardinals to remain as head of their archdioceses until age 80, but Pope Benedict XVI has not continued that practice.
Other extenuating circumstances may delay the appointment of new bishops in certain locales. Mogadiscio, Somalia has not had a bishop since 1989, while some dioceses in equally war-torn areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo have been waiting four years for bishops.
Ireland, where severe criticism of several bishops’ handling of the sexual abuse crisis has divided the clergy and lay Catholics, currently has three vacant dioceses: Limerick, where Bishop Donal Murray retired early in December, 2009; Kildare, where Bishop James Moriarty resigned in April, 2010 and Derry, where Bishop Séamus Hegarty resigned in November 2011. Press reports, citing unnamed church authorities, claim that the Vatican may be considering the reconfiguration of diocesan boundaries or other reforms of the hierarchy in Ireland.
On the other hand, on March 9, 2004, Pope John Paul II appointed Bishop McDonnell as the eighth bishop of Springfield just 26 days after former Bishop Thomas L. Dupré suddenly resigned as leader of the diocese. Bishop Dupre was accused of abusing two boys earlier in his life.
Bishop McDonnell came with what was seen as very unique but necessary skills, having overseen New York’s Covenant House years before when sexual accusations rocked that well known Catholic youth crisis center. At the time, the Diocese of Springfield was not only learning about Bishop Dupre’s past, but was also actively seeking to settle a number of misconduct claims. Within six months a settlement had been reached.
In the United States, the Diocese of El Paso, Texas currently has the longest episcopal vacancy. It has been without a bishop since December, 2011, when Bishop Armando Ochoa became the new Bishop of Fresno, California.
The Diocese of Las Cruces, New Mexico is still headed by Bishop Ricardo Ramirez, who celebrated his 75th birthday 15 months ago. But all other active U.S. bishops are under 76, which makes it likely that one of three scenarios will occur within the next year in Springfield.
First, the Holy Father could delay the implementation of Bishop McDonnell’s resignation until the appointment of his successor. This has been the case in most diocesan transitions similar to Springfield’s, where the bishop is retiring rather than moving to another diocese, and is in good health. Under this scenario, the diocese would continue to be governed by a leader who is empowered to make certain actions that only a diocesan bishop is empowered to make under church law. This includes the establishment or closing of parishes, the naming of pastors, or making major financial decisions.
Second, the pope could accept Bishop McDonnell’s resignation, and appoint either him or some other bishop as a diocesan administrator until a new bishop is named. This recently occurred in the Diocese of Portland, Maine. Bishop Richard Malone was installed as the new Bishop of Buffalo, New York on August 10; but he continues to administer the church of Portland.
In Rochester, N.Y., the resignation of Bishop Matthew Clark was accepted on Sept. 21, just two months after his 75th birthday. Syracuse, N.Y. Bishop Robert Cunningham is currently the apostolic administrator in Rochester. The exact reasons for the arrangements in Rochester and Portland are not publicly known, since the canonical process is kept confidential.
A third, unlikely, scenario would have Pope Benedict soon publicly accept Bishop McDonnell’s resignation, but not appoint an administrator within eight days. In this case, the diocesan consultors, a group of nine priests who regularly gives advice to Bishop McDonnell, would elect a priest or bishop to administer the diocese.
In theory, this group could elect Bishop McDonnell, Springfield Bishop Emeritus Joseph F. Maguire, or even a bishop or priest from another diocese to lead the church in Springfield until a new diocesan bishop is named. In practice, an experienced priest in the diocesan administration is usually elected in this situation.
But who will be the next Bishop of Springfield?
Under church law, any priest who is at least 35 years old, ordained at least five years and “outstanding in solid faith, good morals, piety, zeal for souls, wisdom, prudence and human virtues, and endowed with other qualities which make him suitable to fulfill the office in question."
He also must be “in possession of a doctorate or at least a licentiate in sacred scripture, theology, or canon law from an institute of higher studies approved by the Apostolic See, or at least truly expert in the same disciplines.”
A set of guidelines issued by the Vatican in 1972 expands on those qualifications, listing several qualities that candidates for the episcopacy should have. These include good health and moral conduct, facility with foreign language, administrative ability and accountability for the proper use of church goods.
Future bishops should be “orthodox,” according to Vatican guidelines. They should demonstrate “adherence with conviction” to the “documents of the Holy See on priesthood, the sacrament of matrimony, sexual ethics and social justice.”
Jesuit Father Thomas Reese, who has written several books and articles about the church’s hierarchy, has said that, given the norms, it is highly unlikely that a priest known to favor women’s ordination or basic change in the church’s sexual teaching would be made a bishop. Neither would a man who rejected its social justice teachings, or someone lacking “a spirit of ecumenism” or the “formation of the laity in the apostolate,” Father Reese has noted.
At least every three years, each bishop in the Boston Province, which includes the dioceses of Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, compiles a list of diocesan or religious priests from his own or other dioceses whom he believes could be promoted to the episcopacy. Although group meetings to discuss potential bishops are not permitted to prevent public “politicking” during the process, bishops can, and do, consult with a wide range of individuals before bringing their lists to a provincial bishops’ meeting.
In January, 2006, Bishop McDonnell sent a letter to all the priests and deacons, as well as a representative group of religious and laity in the diocese, soliciting at least three names of potential bishops. He enclosed a copy of the criteria listed in the Vatican norms, and asked respondents to explain their nominations, and rank them in order of preference.
By broadening his consultation beyond the canonically required diocesan consultors, Bishop McDonnell has followed the so-called “Manchester Plan,” named after the process the late Bishop Ernest Primeau first used in the Diocese of Manchester, N.H. in 1967.
When the bishops of the Boston Province meet, they vote on each candidate in secret with a yes, no or “neutral” vote. Bishops who cast “neutral” votes because they are not familiar with the candidate are encouraged to learn about the candidate so they can vote again at the next meeting. Once the provincial bishops have compiled their list, it is sent to the papal nuncio (Vatican ambassador) in Washington, Archbishop Carlo Vigano.
Archbishop Vigano then investigates the names on the lists sent to him from the provincial bishops across the country, and makes recommendations about which priests should be made bishops.
A parallel process, which may occur in Springfield’s case, occurs when an auxiliary bishop of a small diocese is considered for transfer to a bigger diocese. When a diocese is about to become vacant, the provincial bishops compile a “terna,” or list of three names, of bishops whom they believe should head the diocese in question.
(CNS file photo)
Some auxiliary bishops never become diocesan bishops, especially those who were named to the episcopacy late in life and have health problems, or those who are perceived to be less than orthodox or administratively less competent. But many do, which has led to speculation about what auxiliary bishop from the northeastern United States might become the next bishop of Springfield.
But such speculation is even more speculative this year, with four dioceses in New England: Hartford and Bridgeport, Conn; Portland Maine and Springfield, in need of new bishops. With such a large number of regional vacancies, it is possible that Rome may appoint a “dark horse” bishop here from another region of the country.
Archbishop Vigano plays a key role in the entire process. He investigates the candidates sent to him by the provincial bishops by sending letters to other bishops, clergy and lay persons, asking them to comment on the candidate’s suitability for the episcopacy if they are not already a bishop, or the possibility of a bishop being transferred to another diocese. Another set of letters asks the recipient to state, without naming names, the kind of man his or her diocese needs as its bishop.
According to Father Reese, clergy and lay persons who receive the letters often under-estimate their importance. After interviewing several parties involved in the process, he concluded that the papal nuncio does consider well-informed opinions, regardless of its source. After the nuncio has completed his work, he sends an Italian-language report to the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, summarizing his finding and naming, by rank, three candidates for the position in question.
He also sends English-language input from those he had consulted to staffers at the congregation, which meet twice a month to consider episcopal appointments.
The Congregation of Bishops is currently led by Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the former Archbishop of Quebec. Other members of the congregation include cardinals in the Roman curia such as Raymond Burke, the former Archbishop of St. Louis who now heads the Apostolic signature court at the Vatican, and cardinals heading dioceses around the world. Although most can read English, they rely heavily on summaries prepared by bilingual staffers who can present information in Italian, the working language of the congregation.
After the congregation has made its recommendations, a list of three candidates for each position in presented to Pope Benedict by Cardinal Ouellet during a weekly, Saturday meeting. Usually, the pope accepts the congregation’s recommendations on the spot, although he may ask for more information or name someone not on the congregation’s list.
Once the papal decision is made, it is transmitted back to the Congregation for Bishops, then to the nuncio, who in turn informs the priest or bishop of his new position.
If the candidate accepts, the Vatican publicly announces the appointment, usually with a few weeks after the decision is made.