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The Old and the New

News has come from Rome that Pope emeritus Benedict XVI is very ill. I have no special insight into the gravity of his illness, but the fact that Pope Francis publicly asked everyone to pray for him suggests the situation is serious. Benedict is 95 years old; we would do well to take Francis’ exhortation to heart.

The office of the bishop of Rome, and the office of bishop in general, has developed significantly over the last half-century. The Second Vatican Council’s theological treatments of the episcopal office – most notably in Lumen Gentium and Christus Dominus – are obvious examples.

Then there have been the stylistic changes made by recent popes: Paul VI was the last to use the papal tiara; John Paul I was the last to be carried around on the sedia gestatoria, and then only reluctantly; John Paul II’s unprecedented travels transformed the Bishop of Rome into a sort of de facto “evangelist-in-chief;” Benedict XVI abdicated, taking the title “pope emeritus”; Francis moved out of the apostolic palace and into the Casa Santa Marta; and so on.

Some of these changes were more significant than others. But each, in its own way, set an example and expectation for other bishops around the world. Perhaps the most noteworthy change to the office of bishops, and the most underappreciated, has simply been the fact that bishops (including Bishops of Rome) are living longer. For this reason, Pope Benedict’s decision to resign in 2013 stands out, both with respect to the papacy, but also because it draws attention to the large and growing number of bishops emeritus.

The office of “bishop emeritus” as we know it today didn’t really exist before 1970 when Paul VI put in place a mandatory retirement age for bishops. (Paul VI also put in place the 80-year-old age limit for Cardinals voting in papal conclaves.) Prior to 1970, bishops (not just popes) typically served for life. Not so today.

Today there are (if I counted correctly) 169 bishops emeritus in the United States alone. The vast majority retired on account of age–the mandatory retirement age being 75. Some retired early for health reasons. Still others are retired for reasons for which there will likely never be an official explanation.

The United States has 194 archdioceses and dioceses (including Eastern Catholic Eparchies and Archeparchies), plus the Archdiocese for the Military Services, and the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter. For these dioceses, we have almost 440 bishops. Nearly 40 percent of living American bishops are retired.

As the number of bishops emeritus increases, it is worth considering how the perception, if not the theology, of the episcopate might change with it. Episcopal consecration is indelible. Bishops are “fathers in Christ,” as Lumen Gentiumhas it. A bishop is “chosen for the fullness of the priesthood.”


What does it mean for a father to “retire”? More to the point, how might it subtly change a man’s understanding of his calling when he can “look forward” to laying down the burdens of his office in retirement? How does his exercise of his office change when his is a vocation “until retirement” rather than for life?

How might it alter – for better or worse – a bishop’s pastoral priorities and initiatives when he knows more or less when he’ll be leaving office? How might it shape his decisions about which challenges he’ll try to address and which he’ll leave for his successor?

These are not just questions for cynics. They matter to bishops now. Most bishops can expect to retire and live a decade or more beyond the end of their active ministry. This is a relatively new reality of ecclesial life, and it deserves careful reflection.

Regular and reasonably predictable turnover in the episcopate is now the norm. Here in the United States, for example, the next several years will bring significant changes.

There are currently ten American bishops, archbishops, and cardinals who remain in office despite having passed the mandatory retirement age. Most notable are Cardinal O’Malley in Boston, who is 78, and Cardinal Gregory in Washington, who just recently turned 75.

Another six bishops, including Archbishops Schnurr (Cincinnati) and Vigneron (Detroit), will turn 75 this coming year. By the end of 2024, another 15 American bishops – including Cardinals Cupich (Chicago) and DiNardo (Galveston-Houston), and Archbishops Listecki (Milwaukee), Naumann (Kansas City, KS), Rodi (Mobile), Lucas (Omaha), Aymond (New Orleans), and Blair (Hartford) – will  have passed the age of mandatory retirement.

In two cases, the Diocese of Providence and the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings, coadjutors have already been named to replace the incumbents. Three other sees are currently vacant. That’s a total of 12 archdioceses, 21 dioceses, and one eparchy which can expect new shepherds in the next several years. By the end of 2024, the upper echelons of the episcopate will look very different.

And not only in the United States.

Pope Francis just turned 86 himself. Francis is older now than Benedict was when he abdicated, which makes Francis one of the oldest popes in history. Pope Francis’ birth (1936) was closer to the dissolution of the Papal States (1870) and the American Civil War (1861-1865) than to today. We are one or (more likely) two conclaves away from having a pope who wasn’t even born when Vatican II opened in 1962. There are already, as of right now, nine members of the College of Cardinal who were born during or after the Council. The youngest was born in 1974.

There has long been speculation about whether Francis will follow Benedict’s precedent and resign. He insists he has no such plans, but hasn’t ruled it out, either. But one way or another, not too long from now, there will be a new bishop in Rome, too. So pray for the bishop of Rome: the current one, the aged emeritus, and even the man who will be next – whenever, and whoever, that may be. They will all need it.


*Image: John Newman [1] by Emmeline Deane, 1899 [National Portrait Gallery, London]. Miss Deane (1858 – 1944) painted St. John Henry Newman the year before he died at 89. (Emmeline Dean was the aunt of P.G. Wodehouse.)

You may also enjoy:

Fr. Bevil Bramwell’s Aging Like Real Catholic [2]s

Randall Smith’s Aging and Office [3]

Stephen P. White is executive director of The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America and a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.