In the 40 years since the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, observers and journalists have highlighted the changes the council wrought. It is easy to see why: Change is news and captures the media’s attention in a way that continuity does not. Pope Benedict XVI has tried to correct this interpretation by arguing that the council should also be seen in terms of how it carried on the early traditions of the church. In the words of the pope, a “hermeneutics of discontinuity” must be countered with a “hermeneutics of reform.”
This hermeneutic of reform is advisable for both theological and historical reasons. Vatican II’s reforms were not plucked out of thin air. The ressourcement theology that informed much of the council’s texts looked back to the first centuries of Christendom to reclaim insights that had been lost. We can now see that the liturgical reforms begun by Pope Pius X and the biblical scholarship blessed by Pope Pius XII also prepared the way for Vatican II in essential and meaningful ways.
One of the more contentious issues at the council was that of episcopal collegiality, the idea that all the bishops, united with the pope, are responsible for the governance of the universal church. This, too, was an idea the council fathers sought to rescue from the practices of the early church—and they succeeded, despite significant curial opposition. The council’s doctrine of collegiality presented bishops less as branch managers for the Vatican and more as successors of the Apostles in their own right.
Unfortunately, Vatican II did not choose to reclaim three earlier church practices that could have helped to fulfill its goals regarding the episcopacy. One such practice is liturgical, a second is canonical and a third might be called managerial. Rediscovering these older practices could help to reinvigorate the council’s teaching on collegiality and help to re-emphasize the role of the bishop as a successor of the Apostles.
Removing the Blessed Sacrament
The book of rubrics for episcopal liturgies (the Ceremoniale Episcoporum) includes in its discussion of cathedral churches the recommendation that “when, in a particular case, there is a tabernacle on the altar at which the bishop is to celebrate, the Blessed Sacrament should be transferred to another fitting place.” Today the rubric is now observed only in the breach. Rarely is the Blessed Sacrament removed from the central altar when the bishop comes to a parish church, apart from the celebration of the Tridentine rite.
The original reasons for this practice are cloaked in the mist of history. The rubric could be a practical holdover from the days of the Tridentine high Mass, when the bishop would vest in the sanctuary, his vestments laid out on the altar. Yet the practice also had a theological purpose that remains central to the role of the bishop today.
Removing the Blessed Sacrament during a pontifical Mass is a symbolic reminder that the bishop is the font of the sacramental life of his diocese. By placing the Blessed Sacrament elsewhere, it becomes clear that the bishop is at the center of the liturgical celebration. “The bishop is the chief priest of the local church and as such carries out an irreplaceable role in the celebration of the sacred liturgy that some today may find unsettling,” says the Rev. G. Dennis Gil, director of the Office of Worship for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. “He is the sacramental centerpiece of the celebration.”
The centrality of the bishop to the liturgy is echoed in Vatican II’s “Decree on the Bishops’ Pastoral Office in the Church”: “Bishops are the principal dispensers of the mysteries of God, as well as being the governors, promoters, and guardians of the entire liturgical life in the church committed to them.” Removing the Blessed Sacrament during a pontifical Mass could help to bring this teaching to life for Catholics in the congregation. As Father Gil said, “A recovery of this unique liturgical understanding of the bishop in the celebration of the sacred liturgy re-establishes his simultaneous duties to teach and shepherd the local church.”
This is a profound theological claim and demonstrates a much more sacramental view of the relationship between the bishop and his flock than does the administrative–chief executive officer model often deployed. It also shows that the church is, in essence, a communion of persons, united sacramentally, not the “organized religion” much derided by cynics.
The Selection of Bishops
Today the selection of new bishops is largely the responsibility of the papal nuncio. Every three years, bishops send in the names of priests they think would make good bishops. When a see becomes vacant, the nuncio consults with both priests and bishops and draws up the terna—a list of three names—of candidates to become the bishop. This terna goes to the Congregation for Bishops in Rome, which can accept, reject or modify it. It then goes to the pope, who makes the final selection.
It was not always this way. There was no nuncio or apostolic delegate in the United States until 1893. At that time when a see became vacant, canon law required the “irremovable rectors of the diocese,” usually priests who served as pastors of key parishes, to meet and draw up a terna. After the process was completed, the bishops of the ecclesiastical province—a larger grouping of dioceses in a geographical region—would gather and draw up a separate terna. If an archdiocesan seat were vacant, then all the archbishops would meet and draw up their own terna or send in their comments on the other two. Rome had the authority to call for new ternas, but throughout the 19th century the Vatican sought more involvement by priests in the nomination of bishops, not less.
An episode in 1901 led eventually to the centralization of this power in Rome. With an episcopal seat open in Portland, Me., the priests of the diocese and the bishops of the larger ecclesiastical province drew up their ternas, settling on the same three names. The Vatican’s apostolic delegate voiced concerns about two of the candidates’ drinking habits, and the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, sometimes called simply Propaganda—the Vatican office in charge of the United States and other “mission” territories—rejected all three candidates and instead appointed the rector of the North American College in Rome, the Rev. William O’Connell, a rising star with influential friends in Rome. “Conflicting reports, a poor choice of candidates, and fear of scandal in the American Church provided the Vatican with the opportunity to take episcopal appointments solely into its own hands,” writes the historian Gerald Fogarty, S.J.
Three years later, when the archbishop of Boston sought a coadjutor, similar intrigues erupted, and in 1906 Propaganda once again ignored the ternas they received and appointed the same William O’Connell as coadjutor. Archbishop Patrick Riordan of San Francisco called the appointment “the most disastrous thing that has happened to religion in a century.” In 1908, the United States was removed from the jurisdiction of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, and in 1917 Pope Benedict XV issued the Code of Canon Law that placed the nomination of bishops firmly in the hands of the nuncios and Vatican congregations.
It is unlikely that the church will return to the system employed in the 19th century, nor would it be advisable. That process often led to politicking for posts, just as the secrecy of the process today invites alternate intrigues. Any process has the potential to promote cliquishness, with the 19th-century model fostering local grandees and the current system leaning toward candidates who attended the North American College in Rome. In the United States we have been blessed with a string of excellent nuncios, but the current system puts an enormous amount of power in the nuncio’s hands, which could lead to serious problems in the long term.
A proposal: Restore the practice by which local priests and the bishops of the province draw up their own ternas. This would provide useful information for the nuncio and for the Congregation for Bishops in Rome. If there were a significant difference between the terna of the presbyters and that of the provincial bishops, it would indicate deeper divisions that might need to be examined and addressed. Conversely, since the ternas would be only advisory, the politicking would be less vociferous than it often was in the 19th century. More information is always better; it would help the pope select bishops suited to their dioceses.
Stop Transferring Bishops
It is now common practice for Rome to appoint as the diocesan bishop of larger sees bishops who have cut their teeth as heads of smaller dioceses or who have served as auxiliaries in large ones. The rationale is obvious: the tasks confronting a bishop today are many and varied, and experience on the job may be the best indicator that a candidate will perform as needed.
The problem with this method is twofold, one theological and the other practical. The theological difficulty is that bishops are supposed to be wedded to their diocese the way a man is wedded to one wife. The rite of ordination includes the giving of an episcopal ring to the newly ordained bishop as the principal consecrator says: “Take this ring, the seal of your fidelity. With faith and love protect the bride of God, his holy Church.” Indeed, when a bishop is transferred from one diocese to another, the papal bull of appointment speaks of the candidate’s being freed from his bond to the previous diocese. Yet if a bishop is to be wedded to his diocese, should he not be joined to his flock for life?
The practical difficulty is that current practices too often lead to careerism. A young bishop might be tempted to make a decision based on how it will be perceived by those with the power to “promote” him. If instead a bishop knew he would have to live with the consequences of his decision because advancement was not a possibility, he would be more likely to take the long view. If a man wants to be the bishop of one town, let him be the bishop of that place, but it does not help that church to have a bishop who sees his assignment there as a steppingstone.
Certain circumstances might require the occasional transfer of a bishop from one diocese to another. Take Boston. With the scandal of sexual abuse by clerics still boiling and the first-ever resignation of an American cardinal from his diocese, then-Bishop Sean O’Malley had a unique combination of administrative gifts and personal authenticity needed at a moment of crisis. A bishop with the necessary experience might return to his home diocese to fix a large financial or other challenge. Yet these would be the exceptions, not the rule. Careerism would be dealt a fatal blow.
These three changes are not likely to be adopted anytime soon. Yet even thinking about them can help Catholics to reimagine the role of the bishop in the faith and life of his diocese. There are other ways, to be sure, to renew appreciation for the sacramental quality of the bishops’ relationship to his flock or to put an end to careerism. The point is to remain focused on the call of the council to see the bishop “as the high priest of his flock, the faithful’s life in Christ in some way deriving from and depending on him” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, No. 41). Sometimes this becomes obscured. It should be made clearer.