How Bishops are Appointed
Last week on Vatican Connections we talked about how a bishop gets appointed. It’s a rather long process, and some viewers wrote in asking if there was a text explaining the process. (I talk fast sometimes!).
The process begins at the local level. The bishops in a region submit to their metropolitan archbishop, names of priests who they believe would be good bishops. During regional bishops meetings those names are voted on. The final list of names is then sent on to the national bishops’ conference.
When an Episcopal appointment needs to be made, the bishops’ conference sends a list of relevant names to the papal nuncio, who begins his own investigation into the names presented to him. This involves getting to know the candidate’s character and is often done with a questionnaire, sent secretly to people who have had close contact with the would-be bishop. One of the goals of the investigation is to ensure there is nothing in the candidate’s past or present that would make him unsuitable to be bishop.
Once the nuncio has completed his investigation he picks the three candidates he thinks would be most suitable for the vacancy needing to be filled. The nuncio send those that list of three names (called a “terna”) to the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops.
The “terna” is handed over to the Congregation for Bishops. This is where things slow down somewhat. If the appointment involves a priest being made a bishop, the entire congregation needs to weigh in on the matter. Since the congregation only meets twice a month, it take a while for a given appointment to be considered. A cardinal-relator must be appointed to present the file on each candidate to the congregation, and then the congregation votes. There are two options: the congregation might pick a candidate, or they may decide none of the three candidates is right. If the congregation decides that none of the candidates are right for the vacancy, they send word to the Nuncio in that country to start over again and submit three more names.
If the congregation decides on a candidate, the prefect of the congregation takes that decision and all relevant information about the appointment, to the Pope.
If the appointment involves raising a Bishop to Archbishop, the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops can review the case and make recommendations himself, without needing the whole congregation to vote on it.
The Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops tells the pope what the congregation recommends for the appointment in question. He then leaves the matter with the pope. When the pope has considered the matter and made a decision, he informs the Congregation for Bishops of his decision, and the appointment is announced.
The process has encounter roadblocks at any point along the way: Early on it can be discovered that the candidate is unsuitable for a number reasons, the Congregation for Bishops might not approve of any of the names on the “terna”, the pope might not agree with the Congregation’s recommendations, or a candidate might discover he is being considered for an Episcopal position and ask to be removed from the list of candidates.