How a Priest Becomes a Bishop

The US Catholic Conference of Bishops offers an inside look into how US bishops are named here. Paraphrasing, here are the basic steps.

Step 1 begins when a diocese becomes vacant, and it often takes 6-8 months:

Step 1: Bishops’ Recommendations. Individual bishops recommend priests who would make good bishops to the archbishop of the province. So, for example, Arlington Bishop Paul Loverde would submit the names and resumes of qualified priests to Baltimore Archbishop Edwin O’Brien, since Baltimore is the Archdiocese of the Province of Baltimore (a region which includes all of Delaware, Virginia, and West Virginia, as well as most of Baltimore – the five southernmost counties being part of the Province of Washington, D.C., of which Archbishop Wuerl is the head). This is one of the very few times that there’s a notable difference between bishops and archbishops, in that archbishops. The archbishop, after recieving the nominees, sends their bios, with resumes, to the bishops of the province, and they meet and vote. They send the results of the vote to both the apostolic nuncio and the USCCB, both of which are based here in D.C.

Step 2: Apostolic Nuncio. For diocesean bishops, the nuncio looks at all the candidates, researches them pretty thoroughly, and creates a terna (a list of three top choices) which he sends to the Congregation for Bishops, along with about a 20 page report. The terna lists the three men alphabetically, but the nuncio explains who he prefers on the list, and why.

In the case of auxiliary bishops (that is, bishops whose responsibility it is to help the diocesean bishop), he submits a request explaining why he needs an auxiliary, along with his own terna, to the nuncio. The nuncio marks which of the three he thinks is best, and sends a somewhat detailed report to the Congregation for Bishops.

Step 3. Congregation for Bishops. If this is a case of a priest becoming a bishop (instead of a bishop changing dioceses), the Congregation for Bishops meets (they normally meet twice monthly). A cardinal relator summarizes the documentation, and makes a report to the Congregation. They then follow the recommendation of the nuncio, chose another of the candidates on the terna, or even ask that another terna be prepared.

Stage 4: The Pope Decides. After the Congregation chooses a candidate, the prefect (right now, it’s Cardinal Re, one of the more liberal members of the Vatican) has an audience with the pope, and presents the Congregation’s recommendations. If the pope agrees, the Congregation notifies the nuncio, who notifies the priest, who can either accept or decline. The whole process takes 6-8 months.

The Importance of the Papal Nuncio:
Obviously, the papal nuncio’s job is a very important one. In the past, some of the bad US bishops have been the result of bad apostolic nuncios, or in particular, Archbishop Jean Jadot, the only US Apostolic Delegate* to never become a Cardinal. Pope Paul VI made him nuncio to the US in 1973, and he served until Pope John Paul II accepted his resignation in 1980. A liberal born to Belgian aristocracy, Abp. Jadot was responsible for a slate of notorious bishops in the US – the Wanderer takes him to task here with all of the tact that publication is known for.

In fairness to Abp. Jadot, he seems to have been looking for good men on the basis of their public actions. Unfortunately, this meant that he often advanced the careers of showmen priests who knew which popular movements to parade, and it meant that he added a really unfortunate political element into the episcopacy (that is, priests on the right side of political social issues, like unions, were more likely to be made bishops). Much of the blame for polarization within the American Catholic Church comes from his actions, although though I suspect (and hope) it was the result of his Christian charity unfettered from Christian wisdom. Jadot’s legacy signals the tremendous importance a nuncio holds in his country.

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