How to become a Bishop

Fr Benjamin Kodai Kaje *

Many countries round the globe follow a democratic form of Government in choosing their leaders. India too follows the same modality. It will go for its General Election in 2024 to elect a new Government, possibly new leaders, to govern the country.

The Catholic Church, likewise follows certain norms and procedures in the process of electing the Supreme Pontiff, the Pope, to lead the entire Catholic Church in the world. At this juncture, we ask ourselves, “But how is a Bishop elected or appointed?” or simply,”how does one become a Bishop?” Not every person who desires or aspires for the office of episcopacy can become one. It is to be noted that any episcopal ordination is always a happy occasion and a time to rejoice with the whole Church.

The Archdiocese of Imphal in the State of Manipur is blessed to solemnize one of such milestones on 8 December 2023. The glad tiding of the new Archbishop was announced on 7 October 2023 at 15.30 pm. This piece of news may not be of significance to many; all the same, it could serve to quench the intellectual curiosity of a few.

In the Bible, there are ample instances where the choice of God puzzles ordinary minds and defies logic in his appointment of various prophets and kings. The best and the smartest are not always chosen, nor are the most well-read and articulate speakers chosen from the lot. Aaron was for sure a better choice in terms of public speaking, yet Moses, who was slow to speak, was chosen.

Mathew, the tax collector, was more literate than Peter, and yet the fisherman was handed over the baton of the disciples. In ordinary parlance, it is an oft-repeated phrase that love is blind, and God is love, therefore God is blind. He could have been blind in His choices of chosen ones.

In the first book of Sam 16:7b, one can find a cue as to the Lord’s way of choosing his beloved ones, “...for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart”. The way God selects His leaders in the Old Testament is simple, direct, and modest. The appointment of an Archbishop/Bishop is nuanced and follows certain specificities.

Rechoing the words of Benedict T. Nguyen (2010), it is for the Pope freely to appoint bishops. This shows the bond of communion that is shared between the dioceses of the world and the universal Church, of which the Holy Father is the visible sign of unity. When there is a need to appoint a bishop to a diocese, the Papal Nuncio, the Pope’s representative to a particular country or territory, consults with various people for the names of qualified individuals.

Canon Law prescribes that he consults with the Metropolitan Bishop (i.e. the Archbishop) of the province, other bishops of the province, the President of the national bishops’ conference and some members of the diocesan College of Consultors (a group of priests selected from the diocesan Priest Council). In addition, the Papal Nuncio is free to consult with others, including laity and religious.

The Papal Nuncio then reviews the suggestions, including background information on each, and selects a group of three names, called a turnus. He then communicates the turnus to the Vatican, and more particularly to the Congregation for Bishops, the office that assists the Holy Father in matters pertaining to bishops. The Congregation for Bishops then closely reviews the three candidates and their qualifications. If the Congregation for Bishops rejects the three names, the process begins all over again.

If not, the Congregation for Bishops then selects one of the three names to recommend to the Pope. The Pope can either accept the recommendation and, through the Nuncio, contact the candidate, for appointment, or he can ask for a new group of recommendations. He is also free to appoint his own choice outside the turnus.

The entire process is done under strict confidentiality so as to avoid lobbying, undue pressure on those involved or those being considered, and unnecessary jealousies that could only do harm to the people of the dioceses being considered.

The Canon Law of the Catholic Church also spells out the required qualifications for becoming a bishop in canon 378 §1. The person is to be outstanding in solid faith, good morals, piety, possess a zeal for souls, and other such qualities, including a good reputation. He is to be at least 35 years old and must have been a priest for at least 5 years. He is to possess a doctorate, or a pontifical licentiate degree, in Sacred Scripture, Theology, or Canon Law. If not, he must be at least truly an expert in one of these fields.

At this point, we ask ourselves, “Is it possible to find a person possessing all the qualities mentioned in the said canon, or a person appointed to this post meet all the requisites expected of him?” In 1 Tim 3:1, it says, “This saying is trustworthy: whoever aspires to the office of bishop desires a noble task.”

It sounds strange when the Bible teaches about humility and occupying places of low importance, that aspiring for the office of Bishop, is a noble task. The “saying is trustworthy” here refers to the wish for high and arduous work in the Church of Christ and declares such a wish to be a noble one, for the office in question was a beautiful one, and honorable, and in those days it meant a stem and ceaseless work, grave and constant danger.

The office of a presbyter of the Church in the days of St. Paul was a difficult and dangerous post. It involved much labour; it was full of risk; it meant a hard and severe life; yet, from the Christian’s standpoint, it was a work, if faithfully performed, of all toils the most beautiful, the most honorable, the noblest. The context of the early Church and the present time is different.

There could be a decent number of priests, aspiring for the post of episcopacy. There are obvious honor, dignity, authority, respect, and privileges attached to the office of the Bishop. But if the office would mean that it is directly linked with martyrdom, then there would be fewer aspirers to the office of the Bishop.

In the Catholic Church, there could be three possible Ordinations in the life of a clergy: Diaconate, Priesthood, and Episcopate. Not many clergy would be privileged to have occupied these offices open before the Church.

The higher a person rises in social stature, the lonelier he becomes. The demand of the office entails that a bishop would have to make numerous sacrifices in speech and decorum, in associations and public dealings, and even on normal days, he has to be on his toes, throughout the day. He has to make stem decisions tempered with a humane touch. The expectations of the priests and the people of God are higher than ever.

Though the Code of Canon law is clear about the appointment of a Bishop, nevertheless human fallacies could creep in with the execution in letter and word. No doubt, the Bishop is appointed from among the clergy of the diocese, the religious, and even from beyond the jurisdiction of a particular diocese.

The process of scouting a new bishop is tedious and laborious, often done with conscientious diligence and eclesial secrecy. Yet, even after due fulfillment of all the required norms, the candidate could be far from perfect. The consolation, though, is that God does not want nor demand a near-perfect candidate. He equips those whom he chooses as often is the well-repeated phrase.

The fragility of the earthem pot remains the same even after the Episcopal Ordination. The rite of consecration during the Episcopal Ordination could be performed in few minutes, all the same, the power bestowed during this hallowed moment is beyond measure. Canon 377 §L of the Catholic Church simply states, “The Supreme Pontiff freely appoints bishops or confirms those legitimately elected.”

This is how a Bishop is appointed. It also demands a great deal of diligence and prayerful reflection from those in authority. The Rite of Espicopal Ordination might be short, yet the responsibilities entrusted on him during the Ordination remains forever. The moral responsibility of the Bishopelect is daunting yet not impossible to carry out by the grace from above.

* Fr Benjamin Kodai Kaje wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was webcasted on 07 December 2023.

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