Archbishop Diarmuid Martin will soon be coming to the end of his time as Archbishop of Dublin, and already speculation has started as to his successor. But there are several other dioceses in Ireland that have been waiting for months and even years for new bishops, and several bishops who have been obliged to minister deep into retirement age. It’s not easy for them, or their priests and people.
Perhaps the Nuncio and his Vatican colleagues are taking their time, giving thought to a radical reorganisation and reduction of the number of dioceses in Ireland. (They could easily be cut by 12 or 14). Or perhaps they have a problem finding suitable candidates. A man is invited to the nunciature to be offered a diocese, but he politely declines, or makes his intentions known even before that.
It’s understandable why good men would be reluctant to become a bishop in Ireland today. He’d be destined for a life of dealing with crisis.
The pool of potential bishops is made smaller by the reduction in the number of eligible candidates. There are not many fit and able priests between the ages of 45 and 60.
And then, of course, the criteria a candidate must fulfil to be considered for a bishopric reduces the pool even more. You have to be sound on Church teaching, a defender and supporter of the party line, with a patron or two in Rome (though, hopefully, this may have eased a little under Francis, who prefers shepherds to culture warriors). It’s why I, or anyone like me, will never be made a bishop. (I always wanted the See of Cashel in order to be patron of the GAA and get the best seats at matches!)
It’s clear that something is wrong with the method for choosing bishops. It’s clear that it needs to be reformed. It’s clear that much wider consultation needs to take place, and it must involve all interested parties in the diocese.
Imagine if we were to go back to the manner of selection that was the norm in the early church.
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 (or, hopefully before long, she) 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 have an intimate knowledge of his flock 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, many 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. 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 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.
Given the challenges it faces, the Irish church requires good bishops, people with the smell of the sheep. In order to reclaim the understanding of bishop as one who is called by his local ecclesial community to be its leader and shepherd, maybe it’s time to look closely at how bishops are chosen and to return to our ancient practice.
And, while we’re at it, let’s get rid of the medieval titles and robes and headgear. These are anachronisms from the past, but today only invite ridicule especially from younger people. The bishop’s authority will be seen by what he says and does, not by what he wears.