Collegiality Made Visible: Three ways to revitalize the apostolic character of the episcopacy

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.

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Colin Donovan
10 years 1 month ago

Three good ideas in principle, the last one of which Rome has already accepted in theory, if infrequently in practice.

Michael Barberi
10 years 1 month ago

I enjoyed your article on episcopal collegiality.  Your suggestions were very appropriate.  As I thought about this issue, I could not help but to take a broader view.  You are correct to state that the Doctrine of Collegiality says that Bishops, united with the Pope, are responsible for the governance of the universal Church.  The governance of the universal Church is an important responsibility.  It covers many things especially ensuring that the sacramental quality of the Church's teachings are clear and understandable.  Collegiality demands that there are no conflicts or confusion between the Pope and his Bishops over serious matters that impact the greater body of Christ, that being each Bishop's flock.  If my interpretation of episcopal collegiality is generally correct, it is often breached.  Humane Vitae is a good example.  The Vatican believes practicing artificial birth control is a grave mortal sin while most Bishops around the world do not.  The guidance issued by most Bishops regarding conscious versus obedience is clear.   This is in marked contrast to the teachings of the Vatican.  There is much confusion and no clear giudance about the difference between the Vatican's position on Birth Regulation and that of most of its Bishops.  There are other examples but the subject of episcopal collegiality touches many aspects of the Church.   Then again, I could be wrong about this issue.

John-Otto Liljenstolpe
10 years 1 month ago

While I appreciate that the author of this article is trying to suggest a reform that appears feasible sometime in the not-too-distant future, the reform he is suggesting is hardly what we should be aiming at. When the assembled bishops at Vatican II spoke, it was made clear that they were to speak on behalf of the faithful in their perspective dioceses. That many could readily do so with authenticity is questionable. For with the exception of a few dioceses in the Church, the people of a diocese have little say about who becomes their bishop.

If, the presbyters of a diocese had some formal participation in the choice of their bishop, that would be an improvement but still not satisfactory. For as all too many of us painfully experience, parish pastors also are often out of touch with the faith of their people. This state of affairs must be challenged. The inability of the Roman Catholic clergy to trust that the Spirit is at work in and among the people they are called to serve is slowly but surely undermining the health of the Roman Catholic Church.

And, though it is seldom mentioned, this state of affairs also calls into question the validity of Roman Catholic ordinations. For that liturgical remnant in the rite of ordination where the people cry out, "Dignus est!" was once decisive in the ordinal process. Today people at ordinations and consecrations still cry out, "He is worthy," but now it is at best a laudatory exclamation. If this were not so most of those now holding the office of bishop would still, at best, be presbyters.. 

10 years 1 month ago

John- Otto, please do not categorise all RC clergy as "out of touch of the faith of their people" With respect Sir, that is a sweeping generalisation and simply is not true.

Another sweeping generalisation you make is that this 'faith' is somehow more 'real' than that of the clergy. I profoundly challenge that remark!

Let me assure you, I did not become a priest until I was 42. I actively confront clericalism wherever I find it, including 4 years in Rome, which is an acheivement I am actually quite proud of, in the fact that I still got ordained!

I certainly agree that a great deal of priests are perfunctory and power-crazy. But not all of us! l also challange my parishioners to understand the difference between faith and mere religiosity, and I although it would appear you have no difficulty with that, the fact is that the "faith" of many people de facto contains a great deal of superficial, vacuous religiosity, as does many of the presbyterate!

However, I am fortunate to be Parish Priest in a parish that is spiritually mature, mainly because they did not have a resident PP for three years!

Mike Evans
10 years 1 month ago

What is a bishop?  I have happy memories of our now long retired bishop who had the courage to sleep on the capitol lawn with the homeless, to simply serve the hungry with an apron and a ladle, to preach to the lonely, suffering and hurt words of commiseration and encouragement. He was a liturgist? Not so much. But did he celebrate with genuine reverence, awe and sincerity? Always. He also took many pains to make people comfortable in his presence, to truly try to be one with our young folk and make their Confirmation a really sacramental moment. He exuded a warmth of spirit, cooperation, sympathy and common sense. We continue to mourn that he no longer our 'ordinary;' and we beg Rome to allow us to find many more such bishops.

Brian Thompson
10 years 1 month ago

I like those three ideas in principle.

The liturgical one is just a great idea. However, I could see how chatechesis would be needed so as to not confuse people into thinking Bishop>Jesus in Blessed Sacrament.

The Selection idea is also intriguing, especially since it would likely lead to more "local boys" being appointed to the dioscese they commited themselves to serve in perpetuity when they professed candidacy way back in seminary

The last one is similarly a good idea. pretty much for the same reasons. It seems ideal that the exception, not the rule, should be a cleric ministering in his home dioscese for his whole ministry.

10 years 1 month ago

This is right on the mark. How sad that the vision and decisions of Vatican II continue to be ignored because the obsession for power. Looking at a bishop's ring now seems such a farce. You wonder if or when the divorce will take place. The Church is suffering because of the present system of appointment of bishops. Almost if not every other organization is becoming more decentralized in order to be more effective. On the other hand, we seem to be regressing more and more to a middle age model. This certainly is not what Jesus meant when he washed the feet of the apostles or what he proclaimed to be his ministry (to serve, not to be served).

Brian Thompson
10 years 1 month ago

I misspoke that last bit. what i meant is that it should be an exception when a cleric does NOT minister in his home dioscese.

Nuala Cosgrave
10 years 1 month ago

Where is the space for the laity with their giftedness and holiness to have their views heard? Clericalicism is not dead is my opinion on reading this article and many of the comments. Come Holy Spirit!

Jeff Bagnell
10 years 1 month ago

I can't agree with the suggestion that the tabernacle be removed when the bishop is present, or that the bishop is the "font of the sacramental life" in his diocese.  Jesus is the font of sacramental life, mediated by the bishop and his priests.  I don't see this suggestion as helping along a continuity hermeneutic in any way.

james belna
10 years 1 month ago

I guess I would take this column seriously if I thought that Michael Sean Winters could actually:

1) Name a single parish church that has kept a tabernacle on the altar when Mass is said by a visiting bishop at that particular altar; (Bonus question: Name a single parish church that still keeps a tabernacle on the altar where Mass is usually said, whether or not the bishop presides);

2) Cite any official teaching (or any theologian more eminent than Fr Gil) that supports the remarkable claim that the tabernacle needs to be removed from the altar because the bishop (and not the Blessed Sacrament) is the "font" and "centerpiece" of the sacraments; 

3) Name a single bishop who was appointed without the nuncio having first consulted local priests and bishops;

4) Name a single bishop who treated his diocese as a mere "steppingstone" to another position;

5) Name a single decision made by a bishop that was motivated by a desire to get "promoted" rather than the best interests of his diocese.

Eric Stoltz
10 years 1 month ago

Bravo, well said. All excellent points.

Jim Belna, however, apparently does not believe there is any careerism in the hierarchy. Ignorance, I suppose, is bliss! I almost hope no one gives him any examples so that he can continue in such a marvelous state!

james belna
10 years 1 month ago

Deacon Stoltz: You have got me. I am ignorant. I truly cannot think of a single bishop who has used his seat as a steppingstone, or who has put his own interests before that of his flock. From what I can tell,neither does MSW. But apparently you do. I beg you to lift the scales from my eyes. I am sure that you can give dozens of examples, but I will be suitably edified if you would be kind enough  to name just a single member of the hierarchy who has engaged in "careerism". Thank you in advance for helping me to see the light. I know you won't let me down. 

Roger Hurt
10 years 1 month ago
That's all very interesting but shouldn't the laity have some say in the selection of a bishop for their diocese? What can possibly be right by having the pope select fellow bishops? Whatever happened to the teaching of the early church that the Bishop of Rome is 'Primus inter pares'? The Popes fellow bishops are certainly not his equal. About time for a true Reformation within the Church of Rome, I say, instead of ever-more clericalism which is strangling the very life out of the Church and leading many to leave it. I wonder what the 'sensus fidelium' is here?
10 years 1 month ago
Just adding my two cents to the "Collegiality Made Visible" article with which I agree.

About removing the Blessed Sacrament from the sanctuary when the Bishop is present, as for Confirmation, Ordination, whenever a Sacrament is administered, or just simply by being "there," I see nothing wrong with doing that, as long as the Blessed Sacrament is reverently reserved elsewhere. After all, the Bishop is the Custodian (the Caretaker) of the Sacraments, the Holy Eucharist being one of them. Also, I think assigning the Blessed Sacrament to another repository in deference to the presence of the Bishop, is another way of affirming the Ascension of Jesus into heaven "out of sight" having assigned the care of his Church to the Baptized, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. No disrespect is meant and I believe Jesus not only understands, but also approves removal the Sacrament in deference to the presence of the Bishop.

About the selection of Bishops, in its present form the selection of Bishops relegates to an obscure position about 99% of the Church, the laity, meaning that about 1% of the Church,its clergy,determine leadership. Of course the Church is hierachial, not democratic, where if the latter were true vox populi would play an important shepherding role. I've lived with that situation for almost eight decades and so, I accept the status quo, trusting a better arrangement for the up-and coming Church, something closer to the Church of the Upper Room and the Acts.

But the prevailing system of choosing Bishops was not always the way it now is. It was vox populi that called forth the layman Ambrose to become Bishop and what a Bishop, Saint and Doctor of the Church he became! Other examples allso exist.

Indeed, it seems to me Jesus himself turned from the existing ecclesia of his day, the priestly class, to choose a layman named Peter as his Chief Shepherd, naming him Pope before his Ordination on Holy Thursday a couple of years down the road, when in the district of Caesarea Philippi he said, "You are Peter and on this Rock I will build my Church!"

There are lots of worthy priests and also unmarried laymen that would make excellent Bishops. But especially the latter is unthinkable until the existing process of choosing Bishops is revised, perhaps freeing-up the Holy Spirit to more efficiently pastor the Church! Is such a thing possible?

Regarding the transferring of Bishops from one See to another, a practice which doesn't have to nurture ambition within the episcopacy, but often has, ought to be discontinued. In my opinion, once assigned a Bishop should stay put, espoused as he is to the People of God of that part of the Vineyard. It should be like a marriage, "until death do us part" and as in marriage the episcopal ring rather than being ornate and jeweled ought to be a simple wedding band. St. Paul says somewhere in his Letters, "Christian marriage is the most perfect model of the Church." The Bishop should see himself as married to one Diocese, allowing no one to disolve what God has joined together!

As least, so all of this seems to me, speaking as a simple layman.
Jim McCrea
10 years 1 month ago

“He is the sacramental centerpiece of the celebration.”

Dumb me:  I thought it was Jesus Christ.

 Chalk up another one for Tridentine Catholic idolatry.

Jim McCrea
10 years 1 month ago

"I truly cannot think of a single bishop who has used his seat as a steppingstone, or who has put his own interests before that of his flock."

Allen Vigneron who spent minimal time in Oakland to get minimal experience so that he could be rushed right back to Detroit.

10 years ago

I do wonder for which readers some articles in America are intended; professional church people or we in the pews? I look "hermeneutics" every time I see it, but it doesnt help; isnt there another, less 'insider' word that could be used?  And what on earth does "the bishop is the font of the sacramental life of his diocese" mean? Or "sacramental centerpiece of the celebration"?  Surely the bishop is not a sacrament!

If the "original reasons for this practice (moving the Blessed Sacrament) are cloaked in the mist of history" how does the writer know "the practice has a theological purpose"?  

And as for selecting bishops, why are the people not consulted? Should we not have a voice?  Once again, it is the priests and other bishops who may or may not be consulted. Insiders, one and all. Of course the church is viewed as an organized religion!  That is what it is.   And the rest of us are customers, clients, consumers, pick the management term you want to use, not "a communion of persons"  

John P Falcone
10 years ago

I have only one quibble with Michael Sean Winters’ fine article on episopal collegiality: the order of his list.  Enhancing the bishop’s centrality at parish Eucharists, increasing local input in his selection, and consecrating him to his diocese for life are excellent suggestions.  But I would hate to adopt the first (and easiest) of these practices, only to place far away, careerist clerics at the center of our liturgical lives.  In a time when the bishops themselves are causing profound scandal to the faithful, symbolic rehabilitation is (literally) the last thing our Church needs, not the first.


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