The (s)elect .0004% of church members

Catholic church needs better way to select bishops
Robert Mickens   
‪By now it should be clear.
‪Pope Francis really believes there is a serious lack of quality among priests and bishops in the Catholic church. Otherwise, he would not talk so often about the negative traits of certain men in ordained ministry, as he’s done again several times in recent days.
‪”The world is tired of lying charmers and — allow me say — of ‘fashionable’ priests or ‘fashionable’ bishops,” the pope said on Sept. 16 to a group of 94 bishops consecrated in the last two years for dioceses in mission territories.
‪”The people ‘scent’ — the People of God have God’s ‘scent’ — the people can ‘scent’ and they withdraw when they recognize narcissists, manipulators, defenders of personal causes and standard bearers of worthless crusades,” the pope warned the so-called “baby bishops,” who were in Rome for a training seminar.
‪He also cautioned them about too easily accepting seminarians or incardinating already ordained priests into their dioceses.
‪”Don’t allow yourselves to be tempted by numbers and quantity of vocations, but rather look for the quality of discipleship. … And be careful when a seminarian seeks refuge in rigidity — because underneath this there’s always something bad,” he said.
‪The pope also warned the bishops to beware of a certain “sickness of our times,” which he said was incardinating “clergy who are wandering or in transit from one place to another.” He told them to act with “prudence and responsibility” in this area.
‪Why does Francis feel the need to say all this? Because he obviously sees it as a common problem throughout the Catholic world.
‪”It’s a horrible thing for the church when its pastors act like princes,” he said just two days earlier at his Wednesday general audience.
‪He was not being hypothetical.
‪He was denouncing something he believes is far too prevalent — that there are Catholic bishops who, in contrast to the people they’ve been appointed to serve, live more like royalty or wealthy CEOs.
‪He made that observation already in the first weeks after becoming pope at a meeting with papal nuncios (or Vatican ambassadors), men who play a key role in the selection of bishops.
‪”In the delicate task of carrying out the investigation required prior to making episcopal appointments, be careful that the candidates are pastors close to the people,” he told them.
‪”Pastors! We need them! May they be fathers and brothers, may they be gentle, patient and merciful; may they love poverty, interior poverty, as freedom for the Lord, and exterior poverty, as well as simplicity and a modest lifestyle; may they not have the mindset of ‘princes’,” Francis warned.
‪On that occasion he instructed the nuncios not to be recommending men who are “ambitious” — whether they be priests who are lusting for the episcopate or those already bishops who are angling to be promoted to a more prestigious diocese.
‪The quality and appointment of bishops is something Pope Francis has also discussed at least two or three times with his group of nine cardinal-advisors, known colloquially as the C9. In fact, it was on the agenda at their most recent meeting (Sept. 12-14).
‪”The cardinals reflected extensively on the spiritual and pastoral profile necessary for a bishop today,” said Vatican spokesman, Greg Burke, in a statement following the latest C9 gathering.
‪”They spoke of the diplomatic service of the Holy See and of the formation and duties of apostolic nuncios, with particular attention to their great responsibility in choosing candidates for the episcopacy,” the spokesman added.
‪Burke gave no further details in his statement. But Andrea Tornielli — veteran Vatican reporter for the Turin-based daily La Stampa and its Vatican Insider website — said the talks dealt merely with revising the questionnaire currently used to assess the qualities of bishop candidates.
‪Re-elaborating this highly confidential inventory, which the nuncio asks select members of the clergy and some baptized faithful to fill out, was also discussed at the last C9 meeting in April.
‪”The procedure [for selecting bishops], which always allows for a certain degree of discretion,” wrote the usually well-informed Tornielli, “is apparently not to be reformed. What is going to change is the questionnaire used.”
‪This may be quite necessary and urgent for the short-term. But it is bad news for the long haul, because it is precisely the procedure for selecting bishops that must be overhauled.
‪The current system the church uses to seek out and appoint candidates for episcopal service is far too often based on cronyism inherent in an old boys’ network, which — since the mid-1800s — is almost exclusively anchored in and controlled by officials (other bishops) based in or beholden to Rome.
‪The apostolic nuncio plays a major role in drawing up the terna of (the top three) candidates for a particular episcopal post. These are then sent to the Vatican — either the Congregation for Bishops, for most dioceses, or the Congregation for the Evangelization of People (Propaganda Fide), for mission territories.
‪The members of these offices (e.g., there are roughly 30 cardinals and other ranking prelates from around the world who are members of the Congregation for Bishops) discuss and vote on the candidates. Then the congregation’s prefect (with help of his staff) presents the recommendations to the pope who makes the final decision on the appointment.
‪However, well before this happens, bishops, in too many cases, have already begun “grooming” someone — perhaps a star seminarian or their priest-secretary — to be a future member of their very exclusive club, the episcopal college.
‪(How exclusive? Numbering just over 5,200 men, bishops constitute only .0004 percent of the nearly 1.3 billion Catholics throughout the world.)
‪Customarily, the ordinary of large diocese has a fairly good chance of pinpointing the man or men he wants as an auxiliary bishop. And if he’s well connected in Rome, especially with members of the pertinent congregation, this major hierarch can often help advance an auxiliary (or another bishop friend) to head his own diocese.
‪The congregation members, themselves, have a major say in appointments. This is why it was considered significant that Pope Francis did not renew Cardinal Raymond Burke’s membership on the Congregation of Bishops, but replaced him and the retired Cardinal Justin Rigali (another member), with Cardinal Donald Wuerl and Archbishop Blase Cupich, two men seen as moderate, sensible and more in line with the current pope’s vision of the episcopacy.
‪Replacing the current “players” in the episcopal appointment system — nuncios, as well as the members and prefects of congregations — and making more explicit the pastoral qualities required for good bishops (through a revised questionnaire) is important. But, again, it is temporary solution.
‪Francis says he wants to promote a healthy decentralization of the church. And it is hard to think of anything that currently is more centralized that Rome’s appointment of bishops around the world.
‪There would probably be just as many problems — and more — if the church adopted (or returned to) some mythical process whereby priests and people held general elections to vote for their local bishop.
‪Rather than opting for a democratic procedure, it would certainly be advantageous if the church were to re-appropriate a process of discernment based primarily at the local level.
‪If Francis is right and the holy people of God really do have a “scent” — or God’s “nose” — for what is right and good in a bishop, then we must find a way to include them more fully in the selection process.
‪As it stands now, the appointment of bishops is all too frequently the result of an incestuous old boys’ network of promoting people within its clerical club.
‪[Robert Mickens is editor-in-chief of Global Pulse. Since 1986, he has lived in Rome, where he studied theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University before working 11 years at Vatican Radio and then another decade as correspondent for The Tablet of London.]

Similar Posts


  1. Phil Greene says:

    WOW, what courage this man has… thankfully the world is so much smaller now that we can all hear his words and draw real hope that change can happen! The sooner he can put more like-minded bishops (and in turn, priests) in place the brighter the future looks for all of us.
    Thank you for sharing these articles with both clergy and laity alike, they enlighten us all.

  2. Con Devree says:

    Dear Moderator,
    I smile when I imagine the nature of the article you would publish if the Nuncio in the Park referred to some members of the 1000+ strong ACP as “lying charmers.” Maybe you should count your blessings. Of course the Pope was not referring to any ACP member.
    In my experience the “scents” of the “the People of God” vary among groups. Fr Hoban implicitly asserted this in the early years of the ACP with his journalistic references to “elite Catholics.” His further implication must have been that these “elite Catholics” have not absorbed the appropriate “scents.” So it has to be a case of good and bad “scents.”
    Nothing new there. Christ predicted so in at least one parable. But on what criteria is each individual labelled? Who pastes the label? Mickens claims some skill in this department in his references to Cardinals Burke and Weurl. I’ll be attending a conference centred on Cardinal Burke in Limerick on Nov 5. I admire Cardinal Weurl’s stance on marriage and abortion. I get good scents from both.
    We Irish laity have in recent years rejected the Church’s teaching on marriage and seem about to reject the Church’s teaching on abortion. So Mickens rightly rejects the simplistic notion of democratic appointments. (As do many Labour MPs in Britain)
    According to Robert Mickens the Pope’s attitude to numbers suggests a disagreement in emphasis with the ACP in relation to “numbers.” Has Mickens misinterpreted the Pope? However he places great significance on another statistic – “the .0004 percent.” His solution to defective appointments calls for changes in personnel throughout the episcopal appointments system, reducing the number of zeros in the 0004 number. Effectively he’s saying to the Pope that numbers are important and they are to an extent.
    In effect Mickens is saying nothing new. Popes have always known that a percentage of priests were living at odds with their vocation. Both Saints Paul and John refer to it. Complaining about it may help but only marginally. The appointment of Bishops has to be based on some type of personal preference; undue favouritism and questionable procedures have always been a problem among every “Scent.” Remember Cardinal Daneels’ recent book in relation to the selection of the present Pope. Mickens seems to adopt the criterion of “I don’t like this guy; therefore the process of his appointment must have been defective.”
    Mickens places too much emphasis on bishops. Over a three year period in Zambia in the 1970s I played golf regularly with my local Bishop. We differed on Humanae Vitae but I liked my interaction with him. I admired his evangelical keenness. Looking back now I can see that his impact (or lack of it) on me arose from my disposition. We laity have our own responsibilities to seek the grace to grow in faith. This reality is mostly ignored by the ACP. The lack of response to this responsibility has been the principle factor in the decline in Catholic observance in Ireland since the 1960s.
    There was no shortage of priests or of nominal Catholic institutions or of sacraments of initiation. The core reason for the decline has been and still is a decline in faith.
    The blame game is counter-productive principally because there is no agreement on who to blame. Apart from that three-year period I have had possibly 3 minutes interaction with Irish bishops, ever, and only relatively little with priests. But I believe that in the past 10 years my faith has deepened on a “so-many-steps-forward-so-many-steps-backward basis. It starts with an offer by God, an isolated invitation in the form of a type of suggestion or incidental reminder from God. (In my case there was no burning bush or awareness of being actually told something.) It was a grace during the week preceding the death of St John Paul II. It was a grace to make an act of will to seek to do better. More prayer and more spiritual reading began to seem exciting until eventually I hit a wall, confronted by the need to go to confession. The ensuing struggle, huge in my case was, I believe now, intruded on by Satan and eased by grace. And that tripartite pattern has continued. One never divests the aroma of the “sheep.”
    I related this in order to say that whereas we need to conduct Church affairs with the highest standard of ethics and truth, I find the bulk of the material on your website, and Mickens article relatively redundant. After a long absence I have taken to reading your website again, temporarily. Generally it’s as dour and as sour as ever. You are to be commended for your Sept 20 article. But the responses to it displayed a typical lack of awareness of grace, and a lack of belief in its effectiveness that characterises most articles and comments.
    Mickens’ problem is that apart from an assertion re Cardinal Burke, he cannot produce any case study to support his contentions. I suggest to you that he would find it difficult to find evidence that Archbishop Cupich was ever a regular interloper among the “sheep” prior to his recent appointment. This is not to find fault with his Grace.
    In terms of vocations to the priesthood the ACP website seems to say that a priest is primarily a functionary who can be selected by a committee and appointed by same. He is characterised by what he does similar to a goalkeeper in hurling. This dumbing down of the ordained priesthood has developed over the decades, correlating with a decline in reverence for the Eucharist, correlating with a decline in the awareness of grace, correlating with a general perception of Baptism, first Holy Communion and Confirmation as essentially social, secular rituals. One could correlate further, but the most significant correlation is that of a decline in vocations to the ordained priesthood. After all who wants to be a functionary when he can do similar work in the public service with higher wages.
    I remember when I was a child the people in my area constantly complained about what they regarded as extortionary practices by local priests in terms of “collections.” But they condemned outright the physical assault by a local on a priest, not because they liked the priest but because they regarded it as an assault on his priesthood, an assault on God. The priest was different because of his priesthood, his Call, not because of his charm of personality, which of course could be an advantage.
    Mickens seems totally unaware of this distinction.
    The ACP seem to imply that adherence to Church teaching is a matter of choice. So also do many members of traditional religious orders and congregations in Ireland. Many of them were/are very good charitable people. Their congregations are all dying. 2.5 such orders have left Limerick city to be followed by more. The ACP constantly use the term “conservative” and so labels those who have acquired the inappropriate “scents” with the label “conservative” as a health warning. “Conservative” in this instance seems to refer to those who value clear teachings from the Church and make honest efforts to adhere to the practices and observances in keeping with them.
    The Holy Spirit does not create or reside in confusion. Is it therefore mere coincidence that those diocese and religious orders in the first world, whom the ACP leaders would label “conservative” are primarily the ones with increasing vocations? Three new such religious orders have taken up residence in Limerick city in recent years. Yes, I know, the ACP would further label these as the wrong type of priests and religious. Is this the same as saying that the goal scored by Dublin today was the wrong type of goal?
    Are your readers cocooned in a particular type of bunker? Am I being uncharitable in saying that two of your members have recently implied that the Sixth Commandment should now read “Thou shalt not commit bad adultery, but good adultery is OK.” Have good and bad “scents” any relevance here?
    I think your Sept 20 article was a move in the right direction. At least it creates a better mix. I will suggest another piece for a similar article later, always acknowledging of course that it is your website to organise as you see fit.
    Best wishes

  3. Lee Cahill says:

    The Blame Game is perpetuated, Con! You demonstrate Mickens’ capacity for “blaming” persons and groups. In turn you add to it. And here am I enjoying a week’s break in Spain, and finding myself being simply drawn into the “perpetuation” of the same …. Blaming you for blaming them. Perish this bloody process…..!!!! Let’s pull oars TOGETHER……SOME OF THE TIME….. In this Messy/Smelly barque of Peter … And maybe discover the incredible assurance of our Pilot. Lee. Cahill

Join the Discussion

Keep the following in mind when writing a comment

  • Your comment must include your full name, and email. (email will not be published). You may be contacted by email, and it is possible you might be requested to supply your postal address to verify your identity.
  • Be respectful. Do not attack the writer. Take on the idea, not the messenger. Comments containing vulgarities, personalised insults, slanders or accusations shall be deleted.
  • Keep to the point. Deliberate digressions don't aid the discussion.
  • Including multiple links or coding in your comment will increase the chances of it being automati cally marked as spam.
  • Posts that are merely links to other sites or lengthy quotes may not be published.
  • Brevity. Like homilies keep you comments as short as possible; continued repetitions of a point over various threads will not be published.
  • The decision to publish or not publish a comment is made by the site editor. It will not be possible to reply individually to those whose comments are not published.