How bishops are appointed

The ultimate decision in appointing bishops rests with the pope, and he is free to select anyone he chooses. But how does he know whom to select?

The process for selecting candi­dates for the episcopacy normally begins at the diocesan level and works its way through a series of consultations until it reaches Rome. It is a process bound by strict confidentiality and involves a number of important players — the most influential being the apostolic nuncio, the Congrega­tion for Bishops, and the pope. It can be a time consuming process, often taking eight months or more to complete.

While there are distinctions between the first appointment of a priest as a bishop and a bishop’s later transfer to another diocese or his promotion to archbishop, the basic outlines of the process remain the same.


Apostolic nuncio

The pope’s representative to both the government and to the hierarchy of a given nation; a key person in deciding what names are recommended to the Con­gregation for Bishops for possible episcopal appointment.

Auxiliary Bishop

A bishop appointed to assist a diocesan bishop. Whether in a diocese or archdiocese, his title is bishop.

Congregation for Bishops

A department of the Roman Curia, headed by a Cardinal. The head of the congregation, called the “prefect,” is presently Cardinal Marc Ouellet, a Cana­dian. Among the congregation’s responsibilities are moderating all aspects of episcopal appointments; assisting bishops in the correct exercise of pastoral functions; han­dling ad limina visits (regular visits to Rome by bishops every five years); and establishing episcopal conferences and reviewing decrees as required by Canon Law. Its membership consists of cardinals and arch­bishops from around the world.

Diocesan Bishop

Pastoral and legal head and representative of a diocese.


A territory comprising one archdiocese, called the metropoli­tan see, and one or more dioceses, called suffragan sees. The Code of Canon Law spells out certain limited obligations and authority that the met­ropolitan archbishop has with respect to the dioceses within the province. The United States is divided into 33 ecclesiastical provinces.


A list of three candidates for a vacant office, including the office of bishop.


Stage 1: Bishops’ Recommendations

Every bishop may submit to the archbishop of his province the names of priests he thinks would make good bishops. Prior to the regular province meeting (usually annually), the archbishop distrib­utes to all of the bishops of the province the names and curricula vitae of priests which have been submitted to him. Following a dis­cussion among the bishops at the province meeting, a vote is taken on which names to recommend. The number of names on the provincial list may vary. The vote tally, together with the minutes of the meeting, is then forwarded by the archbishop to the apostolic nuncio in Washington, D.C. The list is also submitted to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

Stage 2: The Apostolic Nuncio

By overseeing the final list of names forwarded to Rome, the apostolic nuncio plays a decisive role in the selection pro­cess. He not only gathers facts and information about potential candidates, but also interprets that information for the congregation. Great weight is given to the nuncio’s recommendations, but it is important to remember his “gatekeeper” role, however, does not mean his recommendations are always followed. ­

For Auxiliary Bishops

A diocesan bishop must justify to the apostolic nuncio his need for an auxiliary bishop. This is easier if he is requesting a replacement for a retired or deceased auxiliary. The diocesan bishop prepares the terna, or list of three candidates, for his requested auxiliary and forwards it to the apostolic nuncio.

The nuncio then conducts his own investigation of the priests on the diocesan bishop’s terna, sending the names to Rome with a report and his own recom­mendations. On average, this part of the process may take two to six months.

Stage 3: Congregation for Bishops

Once all of the documentation from the nuncio is complete and in order, and the prefect approves, the process moves forward. If the appointment involves a bishop who is being promoted or transferred, the matter may be handled by the prefect and the staff. If, however, the appointment is of a priest to the episco­pacy, the full congregation is ordinarily involved.

A cardinal relator is chosen to summarize the documentation and make a report to the full congre­gation. The congregation discusses the appointment and then votes. The congregation may follow the recommendation of the nuncio, choose another of the candidates on the terna, or even ask that another terna be prepared.

Stage 4: The Pope Decides

At a private audience with the pope, usually on a Saturday, the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops presents the recommendations of the congregation to the Holy Father. A few days later, the pope informs the congregation of his decision. The congregation then notifies the nuncio, who in turn contacts the candidate and asks if he will accept. If the answer is “yes,” the Vatican is notified and a date is set for the announcement.

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