The process for selection and appointment of bishops has varied throughout the ages. The Apostles chose their successors. The first bishop-apostle, St. Matthias, who was chosen by lot after the 120 gathered together before Pentecost, nominated two candidates to replace Judas.
The early history of the Church does not describe in detail how bishops were chosen, nor precisely describe their function. By the Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325), bishops were chosen by the bishops of a province with the intervention of the metropolitan. The Roman See soon became the focus of the process.
By the time of the Council of Trent, the popes had reserved some form of appointment or approbation of new bishops to themselves. This did not preclude delegation of the power to name and elect bishops to synods, chapters, etc. By Trent, an investigative process was in place to assure the choice would be a good one and benefit the church.
The legal codes of our century have prescribed the bare structure of the process, resulting in its universal application. Gradually eliminated is all interference of civil authorities in the process, while maintaining any obligations from concordat which are not able to be revised, or the few special privileges in certain countries, e.g. Switzerland.
The importance of the bishop in the Church
We are an apostolic Church (see the Creeds), and we know that the bishops are the successors of the apostles. The pope is the chief bishop of the church with a unique role and duty to confirm the bishops in their ministry of service to the People of God. Each bishop is a Vicar of Christ within his own church, a pastor of souls (shepherd-ruler), teacher and chief priest. He also is a member of the College of Bishops with a duty of concern for the Universal Church.
The Second Vatican Council
The council spoke of bishops in many documents. A bishop is to expound the whole truth of the Gospel as teacher, and sustain the earthly goods and human institutions needed to build up the Body of Christ. He is to be an advocate for peace. He is to have an option for the poor. Humility, gentleness, charity, prudence, friendliness are to mark his character. His lifestyle is to be simple. He is to foster ecumenism, encourage and coordinate all apostolates, and be a father and friend to his priests.
The council called for an end to rights of election, presentation, and nomination by civil authorities. Nomination and appointment of bishops is to belong to the competent ecclesiastical authority properly and exclusively.
The appointment of bishops in the Latin Church
The right belongs exclusively to the pope, no matter what process is followed, and no matter how many assist him in this work by nomination and advice (papal legates, cathedral chapters, curial offices, etc.)
Nomination of bishops
Who may be nominated? A priest who is qualified; outstanding in faith, morals, piety, zeal, wisdom, prudence and human virtues; held in good esteem, at least 35 years old; ordained at least five years; well versed in theology, Scripture and canon law, preferably with at least a licentiate in one of these; and he must be unmarried (even in the Eastern Churches).
How is one nominated (limited to the United States)? At least every three years the bishops of a province are to draw up by common accord and in secret a list of priests, even religious priests, suitable for the episcopate (canon 377.2). This process requires exchange of information, voting and consensus, according to the norms of law. It is a secret process.
In addition, each bishop retains the personal right to suggest the names of suitable priests to the Holy See. Bishops have the right to seek opinions of individual clerics, lay persons, etc., but never as a collective group. Collective consultation is to be avoided lest it lead to division, politicking or pressure group activity. It is said that bishops usually consult by letter; the return is said to be low.
The provincial process results in a name bank being established. The list is forwarded to the papal representative, the nuncio in Washington, D.C., by the metropolitan or his delegated suffragan.
The investigative or informative process: The pro-nuncio prepares the informative process in each case according to the norms given by the Holy See. This process is protected by the pontifical secret. A questionnaire is sent out to persons who know the candidate and are reliable, prudent, and have good sense and calm judgment.
The questionnaire: A copy of the questionnaire could not be obtained, since this is a secret. However, it is known that the following items are considered: personal characteristics, such as health and family; human qualities, such as temperament; human, Christian and priestly formation, such as possession of the virtues noted above; behavior, that is, moral conduct, relationships, etc.; cultural preparation, including sensitivity to current issues; orthodoxy in doctrine, with emphasis on questions such as ordination of women and sexual ethics; discipline, acceptance of celibacy; pastoral fitness, experience in ministries; leadership qualities, a fatherly spirit, ability to foster collaboration; administrative skills; public esteem; and a judgment of the suitableness of the candidate, and what type of service he is best suited.
The pro-nuncio forwards the results of his investigation to the congregation of bishops in Rome. They in turn draw up the “terna,” or list of three names, to be presented to the Holy Father when needed.
For an auxiliary bishop
The incumbent diocesan bishop can forward his request, but must send a list of three names with his request. (The usual investigative process is carried out.) In practice, the pro-nuncio is involved.
For a diocesan bishop or coadjutor
A terna is sent, together with the results of the investigations. The pro-nuncio also seeks individually the opinions of the metropolitan of the province for which the bishop is to be appointed, as well as the suffragan bishops of the other dioceses within that province. Suggestions may be received from the president of the nation’s bishops’ conference. (It is not public whether this is done or not at the present time for all nominations.)
Some of the diocesan consultors of the diocese for which the candidate is being appointed are asked to give their opinions, especially about the state of the diocese involved. The nature of this consultation is secret. The papal legate may consult others, individual clerics and lay persons, both as to the state of the diocese needing a bishop and suggested candidates for the office. He gathers all the information together, and sends them to the Congregation of Bishops in Rome with his own opinion. Research indicates the importance of the role of the pro-nuncio. In a practical way he brings all the parts of the process together. He sends reports on both the candidates and the state of the diocese involved. He is critical to the time period involved.
The congregation of bishops then studies all the information they have received. They consider all the information they have on hand in their files. For a first appointment as bishop there is a cardinal relator. Voting takes place and there is a selection made of three candidates to be presented to the Holy Father with their own recommendations, as he may have instructed them to do. In practice, the opinion of the pro-nuncio is usually followed.
The Holy Father decides. His role is clearly to set the tone of the process. He is more active in cases of promotion and transfer of bishops and in difficult situations. The pope informs the Congregation for Bishops of his decision, which then informs the pro-nuncio. The pro-nuncio asks the candidate if he accepts the appointment, and requires of him to write his acceptance to be sent to the Holy Father. Once received, the formal appointment is made and in due time announced. In the interim, strict secrecy is observed by all, including the candidate himself.