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Colleen DulleJune 27, 2023
Pope Francis greets Bishop Joseph E. Strickland of Tyler, Texas, during a meeting with U.S. bishops from Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas during their "ad limina" visits to the Vatican Jan. 20, 2020. Bishop Strickland tweeted May 12, 2023, that he "rejects" Pope Francis' "program of undermining the Deposit of Faith." (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Bishop Richard Stika of Knoxville, Tenn., on June 27 following an apostolic visitation looking into the mismanagement of finances and abuse cases in that diocese. Meanwhile, on June 26, the Diocese of Tyler, Tex., confirmed to the National Catholic Reporter that it had been subject to a recent apostolic visitation as well.

In both cases, rumors circulated for weeks about the visitations, but confirmation from official sources only came after the visits were completed. The Vatican generally does not comment on ongoing apostolic visitations. The first comment from the Vatican on the process is usually the news of a final decision—which, in the case of Knoxville, meant the resignation of the bishop.

So, what is an apostolic visitation, and why is the process so secretive?

An apostolic visitation is when one or more representatives travel to a diocese, religious congregation or ceremony to investigate it on behalf of the Vatican. As America’s veteran Vatican correspondent Gerard O’Connell explained for a forthcoming episode of the “Inside the Vatican” podcast, “The decision to have an apostolic visitation is a signal of something very serious in a given diocese…. It means there’s something really problematic in the diocese.”

The first comment from the Vatican on the process is usually the news of a final decision—which, in the case of Knoxville, meant the resignation of the bishop.

In the case of the Knoxville diocese, that problem was the alleged mishandling of abuse cases and mismanagement of finances. No official sources have confirmed the reason for the visitation of the Tyler diocese, but it comes after Bishop Joseph Strickland, a staunch critic of Pope Francis, tweeted that he “reject[s]” the pope’s “program of undermining the deposit of faith.”

Religion News Service reported that the pope’s ambassador to the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, had previously confronted Bishop Strickland about his outspoken and controversial Twitter account.

An apostolic visitation is ordered by a Vatican body, like the Dicastery for Bishops, and the “visitors” who are sent to investigate are delegated to do so by the Holy See. They are usually bishops or canon lawyers.

During the visitation, the delegates conduct a review of the governance of the diocese or religious institute and interview people within the institution who are familiar with the problems that prompted the investigation. In Tyler, Tex., the process reportedly took a few days over the course of a week. Some visitations take much longer: for example, the Vatican’s apostolic visitation of American nuns, which happened concurrently with a doctrinal investigation into the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, one of the two umbrella organizations for U.S. sisters. The visitation lasted from 2009 to 2014 and involved 90 on-site visits.

[Related: Vatican's Apostolic Visitation Report Suggests Challenges, Hope for U.S. Nuns]

Following the visit or visits, the delegates draw up a report that is circulated to the Vatican office that ordered the visitation as well as to the pope, who makes a final decision about what action, if any, is needed.

The investigation does not always involve the removal of a leader as it did in Knoxville; for example, in the case of the American religious sisters, both investigations were closed without any major changes being made.

The Vatican does not have a publicly available list of the apostolic visitations that have been undertaken in recent decades, but they are not uncommon: A 2014 report by Global Sisters Report traced 10 high-profile visitations in a 25-year period.

As for what may happen in the Diocese of Tyler, Tex., Mr. O’Connell said that the bishop’s statement about the pope undermining the faith was “a red line,” according to his Vatican sources, and that “it would not be surprising if they come back, and he would have to walk back that statement.”

[When bishops attack: How Pope Francis handles his critics]

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