To choose a bishop: a man for the Church, not a "ladder-climber"

Vatican News brings you another chapter in its series dedicated to an inside look at the history, objectives and “mission budgets” of the various Vatican offices that assist the Pope in his pastoral ministry. Here we feature the Congregation for Bishops with an interview with the Prefect, Cardinal Marc Ouellet.

By Benedetta Capelli – Vatican City

The criteria is not to seek perfection, “saints” to put on a pedestal, but men who certainly possess human and spiritual virtues. The first of these is prudence which does not mean “reticence or timidity” but “balance between action and reflection while exercising a responsibility that requires great dedication and courage”. Cardinal Marc Ouellet succinctly outlines the typical profile of a candidate for the ministry of bishop. The Vatican Congregation he has guided for years has this responsibility which is carried out according to well-defined norms and practices. The objective is to help the Pope choose pastors to whom the ecclesial communities throughout the world will be entrusted. It is a task, he explains, that is conducted collegially “with a spirit of faith, and not with a calculating spirit”.

Cardinal Marc Ouellet
Cardinal Marc Ouellet

Pope Francis has used a strong expression to describe the great responsibility that belongs to the Dicastery called to choose Successors of the Apostles: “This Congregation exists to ensure that the name of the one who is chosen has first been spoken by the Lord”. What do you do to remain faithful to such an exalted and demanding task?

R. – The task the Church entrusts to this Dicastery is that of helping the Holy Father decide. Our task is that of making a prior discernment. Concerning this “first stage”, I can synthesize this enormous task in three verbs: prayer, consultation, verification. Prayer: prayer is the first and last thing done. It is an act of an initial and final entrusting of our intentions to the Heavenly Father. It is not by chance that the Chapel with the Blessed Sacrament is at the center of the offices of the Congregation. Every time anyone walks the halls, we find ourselves in front of this mysterious Presence to whom every action must refer. Consultation: this preparatory stage we carry out reaches its peak after an intense undertaking using a synodal method in consultation with the People of God, Nuncios, Members of the Plenary Assembly. What has been distilled from all this is what arrives on the Pope’s desk. Verification: this means we try to achieve the greatest certainty possible that the person who has been indicated possesses the necessary qualities.

Behind each episcopal appointment is a discernment made on the part of the Congregation. But it also consults and involves the Apostolic Nunciatures and the local Churches. Can you explain the method used to carry this out and what financial resources this entails regarding your mission budget?

R. – Identifying and evaluating a candidate is the fruit of a collaboration between several players. Every three years, a list of promovendis is compiled by the Metropolitan Bishops. This is a list of priests who may be suitable for the office of bishop, according to the indications of the Bishops of the Metropolitan dioceses. The Nunciature evaluates each candidate using a consultative process with the people of God. This process is carried out with utmost confidentiality. Those who are consulted in this process are asked to keep strict confidentiality to guarantee the truthfulness of the information and, above all, to protect the reputation of the person being evaluated. Once the best candidates who fit the needs of the moment have been identified, the information is transmitted to the Holy See. It then, through the Congregation for Bishops, considers the candidates in the light of general criteria and, with the help of an Assembly of its members designated for this purpose by the Holy Father – which currently consists of 23 members between Cardinals and Bishops from all over the world. This Assembly carries out the final evaluation that will be offered to the Pope for his final decision.

2021 Budget of the Apostolic Mission of the Holy See
2021 Budget of the Apostolic Mission of the Holy See

Isn’t there a risk that the selection process of bishops might be affected by certain commonalities or conditions? How can this be avoided?

R. – As in all human matters, those involved might be moved by ambition, envy, personal interests. To avoid this, it is necessary to cultivate the spirit of detachment in the people of God and in the formation of priests. The Church has no need of people who want to “climb the social ladder”, of people who seek the first places, but of men who sincerely want to serve their brothers and sisters and show them the path of faith and conversion.

What counts most in the pastoral profile of a bishop: natural gifts, spiritual virtues, or the capability to govern a diocese?

R. – The Congregation for Bishops, unlike the Congregation for Saints, deals with the pastoral profiles of candidates who are not yet perfect, but of men on the way of perfection. What certainly counts in a priest proposed for the episcopate are the theological and cardinal virtues, the so-called principal human virtues. Above all, what is most important for this office is prudence. This should not be understood as reticence or timidity, but as balance between action and reflection while exercising a responsibility that requires great dedication and courage.

Cardinal Ouellet at his desk
Cardinal Ouellet at his desk

What influence has the personality and sensibilities of various Pontiffs had on the criteria used to select bishops?

R. – The sensibilities of a pontificate certainly have a notable influence on the choices. Each Pope has received a particular “vision” from the Holy Spirit regarding the Church’s problems and priorities it should have. Anyone who collaborates with him is called to enter into the perspective of the Chief Shepherd with the spirit of faith, and not a calculating spirit.

The ad limina visits the bishops from around the world do every five years are an important moment for exchange between the local Churches, the Pope and the Roman Curia. What can be done so these visits become an opportunity for awareness and enrichment for the lay faithful and parish communities?

R. – The ad limina visits are a concrete synodal moment that the bishops throughout the world experience with the Pope and the Dicasteries that assist him in his ministry. The “presentations” the Episcopal Conferences bring from their territories create a fascinating mosaic through which one can glimpse how God is working in every corner of the globe. Prior to the visit, each individual bishop should have listened to his people. Once he has returned to his diocese after this series of meetings that culminates with the celebration of the Eucharist with the Holy Father on the Tomb of Peter, he should recount this experience so everyone is informed about what was received.

Congregation for Bishops - The dicastery's chapel
Congregation for Bishops - The dicastery's chapel

You are also President of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, established by Pius XII in 1958. Why was this Commission placed under the Congregation for Bishops and what role does it play within the context of the pontificate of the first Latin American Pope in history?

R. – Historically speaking, the Pontifical Commission for Latin America (C.A.L.) was established as a body meant to facilitate the sending of missionaries from Europe to South America. Throughout the years, its physiognomy has changed as the face of the Church has changed. Currently, the flow of missionaries is going in the opposite direction. So, priests from the Latin American continent are treading in reverse the paths taken by the first missionaries to bring the Good News to many European countries. Today, the C.A.L. is a dynamic entity that fosters awareness of the Continent to the Curia and vice versa. Above all it offers its availability regarding the needs of those lands, follows them directly and promotes small direct interventions. In the past few years, the Commission has focused primarily on dialogue and promotes reflection on the priorities regarding the future of this Catholic Continent under the direction of Pope Francis.

An Assembly of 20 members collaborates with the C.A.L. They participate in the Plenaries that reflect on and provide orientations for the future of this territory. I would like to recall the Plenary Assembly of 2018 in a particular way. Its theme was: Woman: a pillar in constructing the Church and society in Latin America. It was a truly beautiful moment, a moment accompanied by the Holy Spirit.

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26 April 2021, 15:00