The current papal nuncio to Ireland has found himself in a uniquely privileged position. He got the job in 2011 at a moment of extraordinary crisis in the Irish church and, as luck or otherwise would have it, he has had the opportunity to put his mark on the shape and orientation of the Irish bishops’ conference for many years to come. Since his arrival, Archbishop Brown has appointed 10 bishops, and is in the process of appointing six more. That amounts to 16 dioceses out of a total of 26. That’s a whole lot of influence and power.
But even with all this influence and power, when it comes to selecting bishops, the nuncio faces a number of problems.
One problem is that there is a shrinking pool of men from whom to choose. There are fewer available priests out there and fewer still who are under 60 years old.
A second problem is finding suitable candidates from among that under-60 age group. With a shrinking pool of priests and scare vocations, the number of clergy with the requisite education, pastoral skills and leadership ability has also gone down.
A third problem is the reluctance of clergy to become bishops. It’s impossible to prove because the process is so secretive, but anecdotal evidence suggests that a significant number of priests have said no to episcopal office in recent years. Who could blame them? They are all too aware of the challenges facing the church in Ireland today. They don’t feel qualified enough for the job, or would rather not have to spend years trying to staff parishes and find vocations and close churches and administer dioceses with ever dwindling resources.
But though all these problems exist, there still remains a pool of priests out there who would make fine bishops, if only chosen and encouraged.
Imagine, though, if bishops were chosen in a different way, if they were chosen along the lines adopted by the early church.
If that were to happen, each diocese would nominate its own bishop. The bishop would be chosen after wide consultation among priests and people in a manner that was open and transparent. The bishop would be elected at a synod attended by priests and people from throughout the diocese. The pope, who would be obliged to accept the candidate unless there was clear evidence of his incompetence and/or unorthodoxy, would then ratify the new bishop formally.
Imagine if each bishop came from within his own diocese. He would not be a ‘blow-in’ from another diocese or be from a religious order or congregation but would be one of the clergy of that diocese. From the local church, of the local church, called by his own people into leadership, he would know the smell of his sheep and their needs, and they would have knowledge of him. Only in exceptional circumstances, such as the danger of political interference in the selection process or major disunity in the diocese, would a non-native be appointed.
Imagine if each bishop remained in his diocese for the duration of his episcopal ministry. Chosen by the priests and people as their shepherd, it would be unthinkable that he would transfer elsewhere, or use his appointment as a stepping-stone for promotion to a larger or more significant diocese. In keeping with the understanding of the early church, his relationship with his diocese would be seen as being like a marriage relationship, and so to break that bond would be akin to divorcing the community he was ordained to serve.
When you compare how things were done in the past with how bishops are appointed today, it is clear that there have been significant changes from the practice and understanding of the early church.
The method of selecting bishops today is secretive. Some consultation is done but only with a select few whose recommendations do not have to be accepted. How the consultation is done and what questions are asked is never revealed. The local church gets very little say in the selection of its leader. The first engagement most people and priests of the diocese have with the process is when their new bishop is presented to them.
Nor is every bishop from the diocese he has been chosen to lead. In fact, all of the recently appointed bishops are from another diocese. When you are an ‘outsider,’ it inevitably takes time to settle in, to get to know priests and people, to understand the issues and challenges the diocese faces, as well as its history and heritage. It also weakens the sense of the shepherd as one of the local presbyterate who is called into leadership by his own flock.
And, of course, there is the long-established practice of transferring – or promoting – bishops. There is no guarantee that a bishop, once ordained, will remain always in the same diocese. Quite a bit of moving around takes place, which leads to the danger of careerism and undermines the image of bishop as being wedded to his diocese. There will always have to be some moving around, moving upwards, but it should be the exception.
One can debate how lucky or unlucky the Irish church has been in the bishops chosen to lead it. But what is clear is that the system of selection needs urgent reform. Given the many pressing problems that confront the church today and in order to reclaim the understanding of bishop as one who is called by his local ecclesial community to be its leader and shepherd, it’s time to change how bishops are chosen and return to our ancient, more transparent, practice.