Selecting a bishop

Second Reading
Selecting a bishop

Fr Kevin Hegarty

Wherever political junkies gather in Mayo, this winter, conversation turns to next year’s General Election. Mayo, the biggest single area constituency in the country, will provide a fascinating contest for its five seats.
Fine Gael may lag Fianna Fáil in national opinion polls but, in Mayo, they have assembled a ‘dream’ team of candidates: Enda Kenny, the most popular leader of the party since the heyday of Garrett FitzGerald; Michael Ring, the greatest vote-getter in Mayo politics; John O’Mahony, the most successful manager in modern Connacht football; and Michelle Mulherin, the eloquent and thoughtful Ballina lawyer.  In comparison, the Fianna Fáil team looks lack lustre, as if St Patrick’s Athletic were to be matched against Chelsea.  Fianna Fáil supporters comfort themselves with the thought that if a ‘dream’ team is to win it has to gel and co-operate.
Whether there will be a change in our Dáil deputies in 2007 is a matter for the electorate. We do know, however, that one part of the county will be affected by a leadership change next year.  Bishop Thomas Flynn of Achonry, a diocese which comprises parts of Mayo, Sligo and Roscommon, is about to retire. After 50 years of faithful service in Achonry, almost 30 years of it as Bishop, Dr Flynn, on reaching his 75th year, has submitted his resignation to the Pope, in accordance with Canon Law. Consecrated as Bishop in February 1977, he is the last serving member of the hierarchy appointed by Pope Paul VI. 
Who will soon assume the chair of St Nathy and get to live in the Victorian Gothic Palace at Edmondstown, near Ballaghaderreen?  The appointment of a bishop is shrouded in greater mystery than applies even for cardinals and popes. The Pope chooses his cardinals. The College of Cardinals, an elite electorate of 120 middle-aged and old men, meeting in conclave, elect the Pope. The Vatican never releases the ballot results. Historians, however, can usually rely on an Italian Cardinal, after a glass of two of good Chianti, having what the Americans call ‘a senior moment’ during which he reveals to an obliging journalist the machinations of the conclave.
In the choosing of a bishop of a diocese the Papal Nuncio usually consults the priests. He also consults the bishops of the province wherein the diocese is situated. A small number of lay people, considered by diocesan authorities to be especially pious, may also be asked for their views.
The Nuncio requests priests to submit the names of three priests, in order of preference, who they believe are fit for the office of bishop. Should a consensus emerge around one candidate, the Nuncio may submit this name, along with two others, to the Congregation of Bishops in Rome. He is not obliged to do so. On two occasions Dr Enda McDonagh, the distinguished theologian, was the choice of the priests of Tuam for appointment as Archbishop but he was excluded from advancement because of his liberal views. The final step is with the Pope who makes the appointment on the advice of the Congregation of Bishops.
Priests are often surprised by an appointment. Sometimes even bishops are.  In his informative and entertaining book, ‘No Lions in the Hierarchy’, the late Fr Joe Dunn records how on a Sunday afternoon in 1988 the then Nuncio, Dr Gaetano Alibrandi, visited the outgoing Archbishop of Cashel, Dr Morris, to inform him that he had his successor, Dr Clifford, in the car.  Dr Morris was surprised, but not by joy!
Archbishop Lazarrotto, the Papal Nuncio in Ireland, has begun his consultation of the priests of Achonry. To qualify for episcopal office a candidate must be born of lawful wedlock, be at least 30 years of age, ordained a priest for at least five years and have a good record of service in the ministry. This is the theory. In practice, the Nuncio sends every priest whom he consults a profile of the kind of man required. In recent years it is usual to appoint bishops who are theologically conservative.
The Nuncio makes it clear that the candidate chosen has to be faithful to clerical dress, in favour of compulsory clerical celibacy and against contraception and the ordination of women. No hope of change, or even debate there, then!
In the profile there is also an intriguing reference to physical appearance. What it means is not clear. The lugubrious portraits of (mainly) deceased bishops that darken the cloisters of Maynooth indicate that it may have something to do with maintaining a solemn demeanour in public.
In the appointment of a bishop passive docility to papal teaching in all its aspects, is valued way above creative fidelity to the work of ministry in today’s complex world. Any priest not conforming to the narrow job description is unlikely to be appointed bishop no matter how theologically informed, pastorally experienced, spiritually authentic or visionary he may be.
There is a need I believe, for a system of episcopal appointment in the Roman Catholic Church which incorporates the insights of democracy, discernment and dialogue. The Holy Spirit does not work exclusively through conservative priests and bishops. The Church can only benefit from a system of appointment that is open and transparent.
In the meantime, good luck Achonry!