On the Ministry of America’s Bishops

Note: Be sure to tune in tomorrow, Thursday, May 16th at 8 PM Eastern to EWTN for a new episode of ‘The World Over.’  TCT Editor-in-Chief Robert Royal and contributor Fr. Gerald E. Murray will join host Raymond Arroyo to discuss the latest developments in the Church in Rome and in the U.S. Check your local listings for the channel in your area. Shows are usually available shortly after first airing on the EWTN YouTube channel.

Eleven years into his pontificate, Francis remains popular among Americans who identify as Catholic. Some 75 percent of self-described Catholics in this country have a positive view of the Holy Father. This shouldn’t be a surprise. His care for the poor and marginalized, his concern for the environment, and his witness to peace have widespread appeal.

But as with all modern leaders, Francis is not without critics. His past comments about backward-looking” and reactionary” attitudes in American Catholic life have caused resentment among some faithful Catholics.  And his view of Church leadership in the United States – often perceived as negative – has perplexed American bishops who, as a body, have a long record of loyalty and generosity to the Holy See.

A possible pastoral visit to the United States in the Fall, recently reported in a French Catholic newspaper, would be welcomed and could be an opportunity for the Holy Father to see the Catholic Church here in a different light.

On the matter of bishops, I have some experience. A Catholic convert in my college years, I went on to be ordained a priest and served for a decade in Rome as an official in the Vatican’s Congregation (now Dicastery) for Bishops, the office tasked with evaluating and recommending men for the episcopate.  The work was largely bureaucratic.  It consisted of research, reports, meetings, correspondence, and related staff duties.  But it was a thorough education in the strengths and potential problems in the selection process for ministry as a bishop.

Based on what I saw and staffed, the process was and remains sound; not perfect, but nonetheless objective in essence, with plenty of checks and balances along the way.  It’s strictly confidential, which precludes public lobbying, campaigning, and political maneuvering – at least in the manner so common in the secular world.  It’s also highly consultative, involving 25-40 clergy, and consultations with lay men and women familiar with a candidate under consideration.  All of this is governed by canon law and directed by the Apostolic Nuncio, the papal ambassador, in each country.

I’ve been away from Rome now for nearly two decades.  I’ve experienced the selection process from its other end.  I’ve served as a bishop in the United States for the past 16 years, both as an auxiliary and now as an Ordinary, the bishop in charge of a diocese.

No matter what a man knows in advance, the ministry of a local bishop is a surprise and a challenge.  Whatever social prestige Catholic bishops once enjoyed is long gone. The clergy abuse crisis buried it.  Today the reality can be quite the opposite.  But this is not finally a loss, because true Christian leadership is a “privilege” only insofar as involves service to others in a spirit of humility.

American Bishops at the Fall 2023 Plenary Assembly in Baltimore [USCCB photo]

In my case, life as a bishop has been a blessing, because my brother U.S. bishops have been overwhelmingly good, committed men. They have very different skills and personalities.  All have strengths and weaknesses.  None of them is close to perfect.  But they’re faithful to the Church and devoted to their people.  They’re also unquestionably loyal to Pope Francis, which makes his ambiguities and seeming criticisms difficult to understand.

So what’s the point of these thoughts?

Simply this. Before the Holy Father makes his next visit to the United States, I’d ask him to spend a little time familiarizing himself with the real terrain of American Catholic life, because so much of it is hopeful and good despite the many challenges we face.  As one of my brother bishops notes in the recent book True Confessions: Voices of Faith from a Life in the Church (Ignatius, 2024):

Theres a great hunger for beauty [among our nation’s Catholics].  The sacramental imagination is still alive.  And if you feed that imagination – peoples need for something sacred and true, something beautiful and greater than themselves – and combine it with active outreach and social ministry, the results are impressive.  It gives me a lot of hope.  When you watch [our] young parents and children get all excited as they discover Jesus Christ in his Church, you realize that the same message was preached 20 centuries ago, and it still has enormous impact, despite all of the worlds distractions and changes in culture and technology.  The Lord continues to do his work, and the work still bears fruit.  We just need to be nimbler in addressing the challenges that are coming our way.  And we need to be more willing to speak the truth. . .even when its not welcome; even when it has a cost.

The men in our country who accept an appointment as bishop today, are, by and large, men who know full well that they will suffer. They’re men who are ready to carry the cross of Christian leadership and have prepared themselves through deep prayer, faithful theological formation, and pastoral experience in the trenches.  Their eyes are wide open to the social and cultural toxicity of our times.

While the future will not be easy, they were made for these times.  And those who are chosen and who accept the call to serve as a bishop, are, in my estimation, zealous for the task.  They need – and they deserve – encouragement, clarity, and support from the man who holds the Office of Peter.  Pope Francis can provide all three.  We should hope and pray that he will do exactly that.

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You may also enjoy:

Fr. Thomas G. Weinandy The American Catholic Church: A Defense

Michael Pakaluk The Office of the Bishop is to Admonish Sinners

Most Rev. James D. Conley is the bishop of Lincoln, NE.

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