How bishops are appointed and facts about Diocese of Harrisburg

Written by witf | May 3, 2013 10:33 AM

Photo by Roman Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg

Bishop Joseph P. McFadden

Diocese of Harrisburg Bishop Joseph McFadden died at the age of 65 on Tuesday.  He was attending a meeting of the Catholic Bishops of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia when he fell ill and was taken to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

In light of the unexpected death, many have been asking about the selection process of a new Bishop for the Diocese.

The ultimate decision in appointing bishops rests with the pope, and he is free to select anyone he chooses. However,he process for selecting candidates for the episcopacy normally begins at the diocesan level and works its way through a series of consultations until it reaches Rome. It is a process bound by strict confidentiality and involves a number of important players – the most influential being the apostolic nuncio, the Congregation for Bishops, and the pope. It can be a time consuming process, often taking eight months or more to complete. While there are distinctions between the first appointment of a priest as a bishop and a bishop's later transfer to another diocese or his promotion to archbishop, the basic outlines of the process remain the same.

Below are the four stages of the selection process.

Stage 1: Bishops' Recommendations

Every bishop may submit to the archbishop of his province the names of priests he thinks would make good bishops. Prior to the regular province meeting (usually annually), the archbishop distributes to all the bishops of the province the names and curricula vitae of priests which have been submitted to him. Following a discussion among the bishops at the province meeting, a vote is taken on which names to recommend. The number of names on this provincial list may vary. The vote tally, together with the minutes of the meeting, is then forwarded by the archbishop to the apostolic nuncio in Washington. The list is also submitted to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

Stage 2: The Apostolic Nuncio

By overseeing the final list of names forwarded to Rome, the apostolic nuncio plays a decisive role in the selection process. He not only gathers facts and information about potential candidates, but also interprets that information for the Congregation. Great weight is given to the nuncio's recommendations, but it is important to remember that his "gatekeeper" role, however, does not mean that his recommendations are always followed.

For Diocesan Bishops

  • After receiving the list of candidates forwarded by a province, the apostolic nuncio conducts his own investigation into the suitability of the candidates.
  • A report is requested from the current bishop or the administrator of a diocese on the conditions and needs of the diocese. If the appointment is a replacement for a diocesan bishop or archbishop about to retire, consideration will be given to the incumbent's recommendations. Broad consultation within the diocese is encouraged with regard to the needs of the diocese, but not the names of candidates.
    • The report is to include the names of individuals in the diocese with whom the Nuncio might consult and how to contact them.
    • Previous bishops of the diocese are consulted.
    • Bishops of the province are consulted
    • The president and vice president of the USCCB are consulted.
    • If the vacancy to be filled is an archdiocese, other archbishops in the United States may be consulted.
  • At this point, the nuncio narrows his list and a questionnaire is sent to 20 or 30 people who know each of the candidates for their input.
  • All material is collected and reviewed by the nuncio, and a report (approximately 20 pages) is prepared. Three candidates are listed alphabetically – the terna – with the nuncio's preference noted. All materials are the n forwarded to the Congregation for Bishops in Rome.

Stage 3: Congregation for Bishops

Once all the documentation from the nuncio is complete and in order, and the prefect approves, the process moves forward. If the appointment involves a bishop who is being promoted or transferred, the matter may be handled by the prefect and the staff. If, however, the appointment is of a priest to the episcopacy, the full congregation is ordinarily involved.

A cardinal relator is chosen to summarize the documentation and make a report to the full congregation, which generally meets twice a month on Thursdays. After hearing the cardinal relator's report, the congregation discusses the appointment and then votes. The Congregation may follow the recommendation of the nuncio, chose another of the candidates on the terna, or even ask that another terna be prepared.

Stage 4: The Pope Decides

At a private audience with the pope, usually on a Saturday, the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops presents the recommendations of the Congregation to the Holy Father. A few days later, the pope informs the Congregation of his decision. The Congregation then notifies the nuncio, who in turn contacts the candidate and asks if he will accept. If the answer is "yes," the Vatican is notified and a date is set for the announcement.

It often takes six to eight months—and sometimes longer—from the time a diocese becomes vacant until a new bishop is appointed.

Former Bishops of Diocese of Harrisburg:

Most Rev. Kevin C. Rhoades, Ninth Bishop, 2004-2010

Most Rev. Nicholas C. Dattilo, Eighth Bishop, 1990-2004

Most Rev. William H. Keeler, Seventh Bishop, 1983-1989

Most Rev. Joseph T. Daley, Sixth Bishop, 1971-1983

Most Rev. George L. Leech, Fifth Bishop, 1935-1971

Most Rev. Philip R. McDevitt, Fourth Bishop, 1916-1935

Right Rev. John W. Shanahan, Third Bishop, 1899-1916

Right Rev. Thomas McGovern, Second Bishop, 1888-1898

Right Rev. Jeremiah F. Shanahan

Stats about the Diocese of Harrisburg:

Established: 1868

Number of counties in diocese: 15 (Adams, Columbia, Cumberland, Dauphin, Franklin, Juniata, Lancaster, Lebanon, Mifflin, Montour, Northumberland, Perry, Snyder, Union and York)

Parishes: 89

Missions: 8

Total priests in diocese: 183

Total sisters in Diocese: 335

Catholic hospitals: 1

Diocesan and parish high schools: 7

Diocesan and parish elementary schools: 39

View our related coverage of Bishop Joseph P. McFadden

Tagged under , ,

back to top

Give Now

Estate Planning

Support for WITF is provided by:

Become a WITF sponsor today »

Smart Talk

National Edward R. Murrow Awards

DuPont Columbia Awards

Support Local Journalism

Latest News from NPR

Support for WITF is provided by:

Become a WITF sponsor today »