Who would want to be a bishop?
Who would want to be a bishop? Plenty it would seem, as there is very little evidence to suggest that dioceses remain permanently vacant because of a lack of candidates. Candidates, yes. Suitable candidates, well that’s another question, as it goes without saying that those who regard themselves as suitable and willing are probably the worst possible choice in the long run.
That’s not to say too that, like the famous Mr Hacker in ‘Yes, Prime Minister’, there aren’t plenty of candidates who spend almost every waking hour carefully placing themselves in pole position for any episcopal vacancy.
How? By oiling the appropriate wheels, not saying anything that anyone, here or in Rome, might take exception to and indicating that while they know they’re not worthy of the august position, they’d be prepared, reluctantly of course, to embrace high office for the good of the Church. God help us.
There is no more pathetic species of clerical life than the ambitious cleric, waiting for every opportunity to ingratiate himself with the people who matter, carefully honing every comment to fit the official CV, fine-tuning his existence in expectation of a life-changing call from the nuncio to his residence on the Navan Road – even possibly planning a wardrobe-enhancing visit to Rome.
Of course, Pope Francis regularly excoriates the ambitious clerics in the Vatican who prowl the corridors of power, seeking preference because he has come to believe that careerists are the bane of the Catholic Church. So we know what he thinks of the home-grown version.
However, at present in Ireland something strange seems to be happening about the appointment of bishops. For whatever reason there’s an unexpected go-slow at the moment. In less than five years since his appointment in November 2011, Archbishop Charles Brown, the Papal Nuncio (who plays a key role in bishops’ appointments) has co-ordinated the filling of nine dioceses (Ardagh and Clonmacnoise, Cashel, Cloyne, Derry, Elphin, Kerry, Kildare, Killaloe and Waterford) and is, presumably, at present in the process of appointing five more (Clonfert, Cork, Meath, Killaloe, Raphoe).
Some of the dioceses, for example Raphoe and Clonfert, have bishops well beyond the usual retirement age of 75, which has led one clerical wag to suggest that, as someone said once about the Leitrim team, it seems to be harder to get off the episcopal bench it than to get on it.
The presumption is that vacancies remain unfilled because those being asked to take them are turning them down. That’s one interpretation for the present go-slow. Another is that Pope Francis may have declared a moratorium on bishops’ appointments because he’s happily stealing even more of the clothes of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP)?
Readers of this column will know that in the 2015 AGM of the ACP, members passed a strong resolution objecting to some of the policies being pursued by the present nuncio in relation to the appointment of bishops in Ireland: the lack of any credible process of consultation; the preference in the main for candidates drawn from a particular mindset; the apparently haphazard ‘American’ policy of appointments to distant dioceses that pays little regard to the traditions and heritage of a diocese; and not least the choice of candidates who seem to be out of sync – sometimes spectacularly so – with the realities of life in Ireland today and uncomfortable with the openness of Pope Francis to change and reform in the Church.
It wouldn’t be the first time Francis purloined our policies though it gives, I have to say, a quiet satisfaction that a platform so obviously out of sync – when the ACP was founded five years ago – with the mind-set of the John Paul/Benedict approach is now in danger of becoming mainstream.
But I’ve wandered. To get back to the question, who would want to be a bishop? It’s a fair question because it’s an impossible task. For one thing the ground has shifted under bishops’ feet in recent years, robbing them of authority and even influence. An episcopal statement in support of something can be the kiss of death, as happened in the recent same-sex referendum. And Catholicism is now a very broad Church and achieving a balance, as bishops are supposed to do, between disparate perspectives and groups, is becoming increasingly difficult if not impossible.
On the one hand, the Catholic Church is being blamed for almost everything that’s wrong in Ireland, apart possibly from the weather, and on the other, instead of defending ourselves we seem to have developed an unerring tendency to shoot ourselves in the foot at every opportunity. A recent example was the decision of a priest in Cobh to ban a reader at Mass, a member of the Social Democrats, because of his party’s support for removing the Eighth Amendment. Who would want to be a bishop? Who would want to be bishop of Cloyne?
Once when someone was appointed a bishop, he could be sure of two things in life: one, he would never again be told the truth; and, two, he would always be sure of a good dinner. Unfortunately, now both of those are untrue: the former as bishops are now in receipt of oceans of advice, much of it unsolicited and a lot of it delivered uncompromisingly from the hip; and the latter is also untrue as more and more bishops are sampling the limited delights of episcopal cuisine.
So who would want to be a bishop? Well, a few of us might even at this late hour be prepared, for the good of the Church and reluctantly, of course, to accept high office though in advanced years, as Archbishop Joe Cassidy used to say, the colour purple does very little for the complexion. So if the nuncio is really, really stuck, I have a few in mind who would loosen things up a bit.
This piece is not without wit. However, the real issue should not be who wants to be a bishop. The real issue should be what kind of person should be a bishop and how should he be selected.