September 30, 2011

Bishop selection process is thorough and strictly confidential

Jackie Byers, left, speaks to Archbishop Emeritus Daniel M. Buechlein after a press conference announcing his retirement on Sept. 21. Byers, a member of St. Simon the Apostle Parish in Indianapolis, is past president of the Archdiocesan Finance Council. Bishop Christopher J. Coyne, right, the archdiocese’s new apostolic administrator, talks with Kevin Rader, a reporter for WTHR Channel 13 in Indianapolis. (Photo by Mary Ann Garber)

Jackie Byers, left, speaks to Archbishop Emeritus Daniel M. Buechlein after a press conference announcing his retirement on Sept. 21. Byers, a member of St. Simon the Apostle Parish in Indianapolis, is past president of the Archdiocesan Finance Council. Bishop Christopher J. Coyne, right, the archdiocese’s new apostolic administrator, talks with Kevin Rader, a reporter for WTHR Channel 13 in Indianapolis. (Photo by Mary Ann Garber)

By Sean Gallagher

During the Sept. 21 press conference at which Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein announced that Pope Benedict XVI had allowed him to retire early because of health reasons, Archbishop Buechlein noted that the process to choose his successor has already started.

In response to a question from the media, apostolic administrator Bishop Christopher J. Coyne said that it is impossible to know when Pope Benedict will select a new archbishop of Indianapolis.

Part of that is due to the secrecy of the selection process. Part of that process is defined in the Church’s Code of Canon Law.

Canon #377 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 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.

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.

Although the previous apostolic nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, died on July 27 and his successor has not yet been appointed, Archbishop Buechlein said that staff members at the nuncio’s office in Washington have already begun the process to gather information on possible successors.

“It’s always a confidential process, but it’s going on, which just amazed me because we don’t have a nuncio,” Archbishop Buechlein said at the Sept. 21 press conference. “But the staff at the embassy in Washington is really working at it.”

Canon #377 also states that individual bishops can recommend potential bishops to the nuncio at any time.

Canon #378 lists the requirements for potential bishops. They must be “outstanding in solid faith, good morals, piety, zeal for souls, wisdom, prudence and human virtues.” They also must be at least 35 years of age, and ordained a priest for at least five years.

The canon recommends—but does not absolutely require—that potential bishops have a doctorate or licentiate in Sacred Scripture, theology or canon law from a university approved by the Holy See.

Since becoming a bishop in 1987, Archbishop Buechlein has participated in this selection process 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 in 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.

Eventually, that terna will be prepared and forwarded to the Congregation for Bishops at the Vatican.

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

A 2009 Catholic News Service article explained that nuncios ordinarily gather 30 to 40 written evaluations of each of the recommended potential 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 in the 2009 interview. “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 CNS article explained that the cardinals and archbishops who are members of 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 for Bishops are cardinals Raymond L. Burke, Bernard F. Law, William J. Levada, Justin F. Rigali and J. Francis Stafford.

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

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 in the 2009 interview. “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 archbishop said. “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 will pick up his phone and make that fateful call to the man chosen to become the next archbishop of Indianapolis.

“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.” †

Local site Links:

Like this story? Then share it!