July 21, 2017

Bishop selection process is prayerful, consultative and confidential

Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States, announced on June 13 that Pope Francis had appointed Bishop Charles C. Thompson of Evansville, Ind., as the new archbishop of Indianapolis.

That announcement was the culmination of a months-long confidential process to select the seventh archbishop of Indianapolis and the 12th successor of the Servant of God Bishop Simon Bruté, the first bishop of the Diocese of Vincennes, Ind., which later became the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

It likely began shortly after Pope Francis, on Nov. 7, 2016, appointed Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, the previous archbishop of Indianapolis, to lead the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J.

The process of selecting bishops is guided by the Church’s Code of Canon Law. Two retired bishops who served in Indiana recently spoke with The Criterion about the experience of assisting the pope in selecting bishops.

Canon 377 requires the bishops of an ecclesiastical province to submit to the apostolic nuncio of their country at least once every three years the names of priests who, in their opinion, are qualified to serve as bishops.

An ecclesiastical province is made up of dioceses in a geographical region that includes an archdiocese. The five dioceses in Indiana make up the ecclesiastical Province of Indianapolis.

Canon 377 also notes that individual bishops can recommend potential bishops to the nuncio.

Bishop Gerald A. Gettelfinger, who served as bishop of Evansville from 1989 until his retirement in 2011, said that the bishops of Indiana would sometimes discuss potential bishops in their regular meetings.

“That does take place in provincial meetings,” said Bishop Gettelfinger, who was previously a priest of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. “Names are submitted, and then we each have a chance to raise issues about them.”

Bishop Dale M. Melczek has participated in this process for more than 30 years, from the time he became an auxiliary bishop of the Detroit Archdiocese in 1982. He led the Gary, Ind., Diocese from 1992 until his retirement in 2014.

“We knew that the Lord was relying on the Holy Spirit, using us as instruments to come up with those who would be successors of the Apostles in whatever role the Church required them to fulfill,” said Bishop Melczek of submitting names of potential bishops to the Holy See. “We were really trying to discern who had not only the gifts to be wonderful priests, but also had leadership gifts and would, in turn, be shepherds of priests, religious and laypeople.”

The process to select the leader of a specific diocese can be more complex, Bishop Melczek said, and requires more discernment.

“We really needed the gift of the Holy Spirit to help us understand the diocese, first of all, and the needs, challenges and opportunities of the diocese,” he said, “and then to strive to know the gifts of either brother bishops who would be asked to come to lead a diocese, or a priest who might be able to step up.”

Canon 377 requires a nuncio to seek the suggestions of several people when a specific diocese needs a new bishop. They include the other bishops of the province of the diocese and at least some members of the diocese’s college of consultors, a group of priests of the diocese who advise the bishop and elect an administrator of the diocese when it has no bishop, unless the pope appoints an administrator.

Other members of the clergy and laity “outstanding in wisdom” may also be consulted, according to canon 377.

“In my years as bishop, the nuncios have consulted a pretty broad number of people,” said Bishop Melczek. “Not only the bishops of the province, but often other bishops that they would suspect would have insight into the diocese.”

Canon 377 also refers to the confidentiality in which the bishop selection process is to take place.

According to Bishop Melczek, there are several reasons for keeping the process secret.

“I don’t think that we want to politicize something that we hold to be so sacred and spiritual,” he said.

Bishop Melczek also noted as a motivation for secrecy the potential harm done to the public perception of a priest considered as a potential bishop or a bishop considered to lead a diocese, but who were not ultimately selected by the pope.

“I also think it would be unfair to bishops or priests who would ultimately be tapped by the Holy Father to know that they’re engaged in that process, especially if they have a reason to decline the [appointment] for a very serious reason,” he said. “If they had a reason to decline, that would put them under undue pressure.”

Both Bishop Gettelfinger and Bishop Melczek said that prayer undergirds the consideration of human and pastoral qualities of a potential bishop and the state of a diocese in need of a new shepherd.

“Prayer was very much involved in that,” Bishop Gettelfinger said. “We depended on the Holy Spirit to deal with the appointment of new bishops. The Holy Spirit has got to have a part in this.”

“I would never want to approach a responsibility of giving my best advice to the nuncio without calling upon the guidance of the Holy Spirit,” Bishop Melczek said. “I am a firm believer that we need to rely on the gifts and the wisdom of the Holy Spirit in our ministry, and certainly in something so important as giving our best advice to the nuncio.”

After the nuncio has completed taking in the advice of various people in the Church of who might be best to lead a diocese, he submits a list of three names, called a “terna” to the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, along with detailed dossiers on each man.

The bishops and cardinals from around the world who are members of that congregation consider the list, and may either make a recommendation of one of them to the pope or ask for a new terna to be developed.

The pope likewise may accept the recommendation of the congregation, choose a man to lead a diocese on his own or ask for a new terna to be assembled.

When the pope does make his selection, though, it is the job of the nuncio or a member of his staff to inform the man chosen. This usually happens in a phone call that changes that man’s life forever.

“It changed everything in my life,” said Bishop Melczek of the phone call he received in 1982 informing him that St. John Paul II had selected him to serve as an auxiliary bishop in Detroit.

It was a bittersweet call for him, because he said that his vision of the priestly life and ministry was focused on serving in parishes.

“I knew that, unless God would bless me with retirement, as he has, I would never be a pastor again,” said Bishop Melczek. “And I had had my heart set on that.”

Bishop Melczek was able to be a pastor of a parish again after he retired at 76. He continues in this ministry. Although he is now 78, he continues to serve as a parish pastor in the Gary Diocese.

“I firmly believe, and this is part of my spirituality, that we’re always happiest and most at peace when we do what the Lord asks us to do,” Bishop Melczek said. “And the Lord generally speaks to us through superiors and through the needs of our people.

“So I found peace in knowing that, if this is what the Lord wants for us through the will of the Holy Father, then that’s what I should do. In his will is our peace.” †

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