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The Selection of a Bishop

The ultimate decision in appointing bishops rests with the Pope, and he is free to select anyone he chooses. But how does he know whom to select? The process for selecting candidates normally begins at the diocesan level and works its way through a series of consultations until it reaches Vatican City.

It is a process bound by strict confidentiality and involves a number of important players – the most influential being the metropolitan, the bishops of a region, the apostolic nuncio, the Congregation for Bishops, and the pope.

A metropolitan is an archbishop who heads a province.

A province is a grouping of an archdiocese and the dioceses under it. The United States is divided into 33 ecclesiastical provinces. The metropolitan for the Diocese of Portland is Cardinal Seán Patrick O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston.  

The apostolic nuncio is the Pope’s representatives to both the government and to the hierarchy of a given nation and is the key person in deciding which names are recommended to the Congregation for Bishops as possible episcopal appointments.

The Congregation for Bishops, currently headed by Cardinal Marc Ouellet, consists of approximately 35 cardinals and archbishops from around the world and has a range of responsibilities, including the moderation of all aspects of episcopal appointments.

Phase #1       Bishops’ Recommendations

Annually, the bishops of a province are invited to submit the names of priests that they think would make good bishops. During a regular province meeting, the bishops of the province discuss the names which have been submitted. Following a discussion, a vote is taken on which names to recommend. The vote tally, together with the minutes of the meeting, is then forwarded by the metropolitan to the apostolic nuncio in Washington. The list is also submitted to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

Phase #2       The Apostolic Nuncio

By overseeing the final list of names forwarded to Rome, the apostolic nuncio plays a decisive role in the selection process. He not only gathers facts and information about potential candidates, but also interprets that information for the Congregation for Bishops. After receiving the list of candidates forwarded by a province, the apostolic nuncio conducts his own investigation into the suitability of the candidates. A report is requested from the retiring bishop or the administrator of a diocese on the conditions and needs of the diocese. Broad consultation within the diocese is encouraged with regard to the needs of the diocese. Previous bishops of the diocese, bishops of the province, and the president and vice president of the USCCB are consulted. The report also includes the names of individuals in the diocese with whom the nuncio might consult and how to contact them. All material is collected and reviewed by the nuncio, and he prepares a report. Ultimately, the nuncio submits a terna (a list of three candidates for a vacant office) listed alphabetically with the nuncio’s preference noted. All materials are then forwarded to the Congregation for Bishops in Rome.

Phase #3       Congregation for Bishops

Once all the documentation from the nuncio is complete and in order, and the head of the congregation (the prefect) is satisfied, the process moves forward. If the appointment involves a bishop who is being promoted or transferred, the matter may be handled by the prefect and the staff. If, however, the appointment is of a priest to the episcopacy, a discussion of all bishop members of the congregation is ordinarily involved. A cardinal relator is chosen to summarize the documentation and make a report to the full congregation, which generally meets twice a month on Thursdays. After hearing the cardinal relator's report, the congregation discusses the appointment and then votes. The Congregation may follow the recommendation of the nuncio, chose another of the candidates on the terna, or even ask that another terna be prepared.

Phase #4       The Pope Decides

At a private audience with the pope, usually on a Saturday, the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops presents the recommendations of the Congregation to the Holy Father. A few days later, the pope informs the Congregation of his decision. The Congregation then notifies the nuncio, who in turn contacts the candidate and asks if he will accept. If the answer is "yes," the Vatican is notified and a date is set for the announcement.

A candidate for the episcopal ministry must be at least 35 years old, have five years in the priesthood and be “outstanding for his solid faith, good morals, piety, zeal for souls, wisdom, prudence and human virtues, and endowed with other talents which make him fit to fulfill the office.” (Can. #378, Paragraph 1)

He must hold firmly to the orthodox faith, have a devotion to the Apostolic See and be faithful to the magisterium (teaching authority) of the Church. He must have a thorough knowledge of dogmatic and moral theology, as well as canon law. He must also have an aptitude for governing, a social sense and openness to the signs of the times. A candidate must have reasonably good health, and possess the strength needed to fulfill the tasks of the episcopacy.