Chosing bishops

At Stella Borealis, which blog covers churchy news of my native place and region, there is an interesting entry about the appointment of bishops in the zone… and a brief description of how appointments are made.

Search for a new bishop shrouded in secrecy.

There have been quite a few episcopal appointments in the area in the past few years.

  • 2004 — Bishop Raymond Burke of La Crosse became Archbishop of St. Louis and then in 2008 went to Rome
  • 2004 — Bishop Robert Carlson (formerly an Auxiliary in St. Paul-Minneapolis) left Sioux Falls for Saginaw and then went as Archbishop to St. Louis in 2008
  • 2004 — Bishop Jerome Listecki replaced Bishop Burke in La Crosse, coming from Milwaukee, and then today replaced Archbishop Tim Dolan, now in New York, in Milwaukee
  • 2005 — Bishop Daniel Di Nardo of Sioux City headed off to Galveston-Houston as Archbishop and soon thereafter as Cardinal
  • 2006 — Bishop Ralph Nickless came from Denver to fill the vacancy in Sioux City
  • 2006 — Bishop Paul Swain came from Madison to fill the vacancy in Sioux Falls that had been overlooked because of the simliarity of names, it is thought.
  • 2007 — Bishop Peter Christensen went from Nativity Parish in St. Paul to Superior to fill the vacancy caused by the retirement of Bishop Raphael Fliss.
  • 2008 — Bishop John Nienstedt, originally from Detroit, came to St. Paul Minneapolis from New Ulm as Coadjutor Archbishop. He succeeded in 2009
  • 2008 — Bishop John Levoir went from Winona to Crookston to full the vacancy caused by the retirement of Bishop Victor Balke.
  • 2008 — Bishop Richard Pates, an Auxiliary in St. Paul Minneapolis went to Des Moines as Bishop
  • 2008 — Bishop John Quinn came from Detroit to Winona to fill the vacancy caused by the retirement of Bishop Bernard Harrington.
  • 2009 — Bishop Lee Piche’ became the Auxiliary Bishop in St. Paul Minneapolis
  • 2009 — Bishop Dennis Schnurr of Duluth went to Cincinnati as Coadjutor Archbishop and just recently succeeded.
  • 2009 — Paul Sirba just became Bishop of Duluth.

So where do all these bishops come from? How do they decide in Rome who gets to be a bishop and who gets moved or promoted? The Diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania, is now awaiting the appointment of a successor to their bishop who retired for health reasons. The newspaper there has printed an informative article on the appointment process.

Four months after Bishop Joseph F. Martino resigned as head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Scranton, the search for his successor is well under way. But the exact progress of the search is unclear because the timeline for selecting a bishop is not fixed and the process is largely kept secret.

A spokesman for the diocese declined to specify the status of the process or to say whether the diocese’s administrators have submitted a report on the condition and needs of the diocese to the Vatican’s ambassador, or apostolic nuncio, in Washington, D.C. – an early step in the process of appointing any diocesan bishop.

In a written statement, spokesman William Genello said, "The process to select a new bishop typically includes inquiries by the papal nuncio to people in the diocese, regarding conditions in the diocese and potential candidates. This is confidential. It is not known who might have been contacted."

The clearest timeline for the selection process was outlined by Cardinal Justin Rigali, the apostolic administrator of the diocese who also sits on a key Vatican council that helps select bishops, on the day that Bishop Martino’s resignation was accepted by the Vatican.

"I would hope – and it is only my hope – I would hope that within six months we would have a bishop," he said during an Aug. 31 press conference. "Maybe sooner, maybe it will take longer."

If the selection process takes six months, which would fall around the end of February, the appointment of Martino’s successor will have taken far less time than many appointments of U.S. bishops. The four vacant sees most recently filled in the U.S. waited an average of a year to receive a new leader.

The process for selecting a bishop begins before a see is vacant. During periodic meetings, the bishops in each province vote on well-regarded priests to add to a list of potential bishops to be sent to the nuncio. Scranton is part of a statewide province whose metropolitan is Rigali, the head of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Once a bishop resigns, is appointed elsewhere, or reaches the retirement age of 75, the nuncio, currently Archbishop Pietro Sambi, requests a report from the leader of the diocese about its condition, needs and challenges. The nuncio also does his own investigation into the needs of the diocese and suitable candidates to lead it. He consults past bishops of the diocese, other bishops in the province and around the country, and the metropolitan. He may also consult priests and lay members of the diocese.

Once he narrows the list to a handful of candidates, the nuncio sends confidential questionnaires to people who know the candidates, including priests, religious and well-respected laity. Those who receive the questionnaire are bound by the code of papal secrecy: they cannot tell anyone that they have received the letters or what they write in response.

The nuncio then gathers the information and writes a report including a list of three candidates, a terna, and notes his preference, which he sends to the Congregation for Bishops at the Vatican, the body of about 30 cardinals, including Rigali, that oversees the selection process.

An English-speaking cardinal assigned to review the Scranton position studies the file and makes a recommendation to the body of cardinals at one of its twice-monthly meetings. The congregation then votes for its preferred choice, which may not be the same as that selected by the nuncio or the presenting cardinal, or it may ask for more information or to be given a new terna.

Once the congregation agrees on its choice, that information is passed on to the pope during a Saturday meeting with the head, or prefect, of the congregation. The pope can follow the council’s recommendation or, in a rare case, make a different decision. He is ultimately responsible for selecting the bishop.


In my opinion, during the pontificate of John Paul II, and into the present pontificate, the central part of the US was targeted by the Holy See for a faster overhaul of the episcopate. 

Slowly but surely bishops in this country are getting some traction and the younger bishops are making a big difference.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. O Holy Father, look west!

  2. Please, I beg all of you, that we in the Diocese of LaCrosse, Wisconsin, who now have no bishop, will be given a bishop “according to the Heart of Christ.” Thank you and God bless!

  3. Thank you, Father, for these very informative articles. I feel I am learning the “mechanics” of how the Church functions as a result of them. I do have a sense that we are receiving a higher caliber bishop of late and they appear quite orthodox. Keep them coming.

  4. DominiSumus says:

    Have you ever seen this file from the USCCB which explains the decision process?

  5. plaf26 says:

    Just a slight correction: Bp. LeVoir went from the parishes of St. Michael and St. Mary in Stillwater, Minn. to New Ulm to replace Abp. Nienstedt.

  6. JohnMa says:

    I agree that the quality of bishops that we are getting in the US is going up by a great deal but I just wish that these shepherds would take control of their ordinations and/or installation Masses. I always try to watch the live stream of these events and they always disappoint me.

    We see 1 million priests proceed into the church in ugly vestments. We see 20 bishops and cardinals con-celebrating the Mass. We see 5 minute standing ovations when the new bishop sits in the cathedra. We see horrible music selections.

    The obvious solution here is to do an installation or ordination in the Extraordinary Form, but even if these shepherds want Novus Ordo Masses at least ensure an orthodox, Do the red Say the black Mass.

  7. GregY says:

    Slowly but surely bishops in this country are getting some traction and the younger bishops are making a big difference.

    Would *love* to hear you expound on this, Father. Examples? Stories?

  8. John 6:54 says:

    I know a number of Bishops have come from the Lincoln Dioceses in the the Wichita Dioceses and beyond.

  9. idatom says:

    Fr. Z.

    What has taken the Holy Sea so long to send us these episcopal appointments?
    Why have dissident Bishops, those who seem to have lost their faith, Shepherds who have abandoned their flock, men who thumb their nose at Rome, protected evil priest, allowed once strong Catholic Collages to stray from faithful church teaching, or have permitted every manner of liturgical abuse etc. not been nipped in the bud so to speak? Why hasn’t Rome taken swift action and removed those Bishops who have for the past forty years done so much damage to our Church?

    Tom Lanter

  10. Norah says:

    Tom, you aren’t the only one who would like an answer to those questions.

  11. benyanke says:

    Cool! When our parish pastor left for Sioux Falls (Yep. Bishop Swain was my pastor until 2006.), I was wondering what happened to the bishop before him. btw, I am sooooo jealous that he’s going to have that awesome cathedral! Check some of these photos out!!

  12. jimsantafe says:

    “During periodic meetings, the bishops in each province vote on well-regarded priests to add to a list of potential bishops to be sent to the nuncio.”

    I seem to remember reading that (at least in the USA) this periodic list is generated by each conference region, rather than each province. Does any know where this is specified? (I was lazy about consulting even CIC.)

  13. TNCath says:

    Fr. Z is right. The central part of the U.S. (particularly the Midwest) has seen the most dramatic change in types of bishops being appointed, I think, because those dioceses seemed to have suffered the most in the post-Vatican II crisis. I just hope other areas of the country get that same attention in the years to come.

  14. Andy Lucy says:

    Diocese of Owensboro has just gotten a new bishop… he was a parish priest over by Louisville. It took right at 11 months. He seems the good sort based on what I’ve read. It does seem to be a trend, good and orthodox bishops replacing others who are… well… not so good and orthodox.

  15. Steve says:

    Phoenix has a great Bishop – so perhaps the move from the midwest outwards is happening.

    Also, the list said Bishop Listecki came from Milwaukee, but actually he was in Chicago before going to La Cross.

  16. chironomo says:

    It would seem to me that one would want to target the most influential Dioceses, no? Imagine the effect of an Abp. Burke in, say, New York, Boston or Los Angeles. Or perhaps the most influential role for a Bishop…Portland Oregon.

    I’m with Tom and Norah as to wondering why there is not more action to “guide” some of the less cooperative Bishops. I suspect that one well placed public…umm…”reprimand” would do the job.

  17. frater says:

    Please save a good bishop for Rochester, NY. Our bishop, Matthew H. Clark is an appointment from “Club Jadot” and that was back in 1979. The bishop before Clark wasn’t any better. The diocese is fairly decimated. So I pray for a wonderful orthodox, thoroughly Catholic bishop will take over the diocese. Meanwhile, pray for Bishop Clark that he sees the devastation in the diocese and tries to either reverse it or just doesn’t do any further damage.

  18. Central Valley says:

    Pray for the faithful in the diocese of Fresno, that we not suffer much longer. Please send us a bishop who will not treat traditional catholics like lepers, a bishop who will only recruit and ordain heterosexual men to the priesthood.

  19. mrteachersir says:

    Seeing as the Citizens’ Voice article is mentioned, its worth noting that the title of the article is “Search for a New Bishop is Shrouded in Secrecy”. The author does a pretty good job at explaining the secrecy part, but it comes across as being a horrible, evil, conniving thing.

    Just thought I’d throw that out there!

  20. Dr. Eric says:

    I used to think that we have it bad here in my diocese, but it appears that you poor people out west have it worse.

  21. Central Valley says:

    Dr. Eric, if you only knew haw bad it was in Kalifornia….

  22. Penguins Fan says:

    Not to be left out are the number of bishops from the Pittsburgh Diocese, almost all of whom are recent appointments.

  23. I know that some folks here may have worries – but he’s a great social scientist. Thomas Reese’s Archbishop: Inside the Power Structure of the American Catholic Church is a great introduction to how things really work. He looked at archbishops because there are fewer of them – and because with the exception (then) of Abp Lipscomb they had all been bishops already.

    Reese is especially clear on the NAD connection to bishopping.

  24. JohnMa says:

    Penguins Fan,

    I want as few Bishops as possible coming out of Pittsburgh for the time being! Having suffered under Bp. Wuerl for the first 20 years of my life and now Bishop Zubik for the last 2 I don’t know why we would want to torture other dioceses with these bishops. The Latin Mass has been celebrated in Pittsburgh for 2 decades now and not once has the Bishop of Pittsburgh come to celebrate Mass or for Confirmation. Not to mention their views on Catholic Politicians and receiving Communion. Currently, Bishop Zubik uses lay men in albs to serve as his Master of Ceremonies during Confirmations, Installations, etc. What ever happened to using a Deacon or Priest? And if you are going to use a lay man, at least put him in a cassock and surplice.

  25. Nazareth Priest,

    As a resident of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, and one who is very thankful for the ministry of Archbishop Listecki, I will pray that God soon gives you a wise and godly man to be your new bishop.

  26. David Zampino: God love ya’! Thank you!

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