There is a saying that the only mystery deeper than the Trinity is how new bishops are selected.
That maxim is especially relevant when speaking about the important Vatican office of the Congregation for Bishops, which is in charge of the discreet but vital process of choosing most of the world’s bishops and archbishops.
Currently headed by the Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the bishops’ office also oversees the creation of new dioceses, organizes the mandatory five-year (ad limina) visits of bishops to Rome and has the sensitive task of investigating bishops who might be negligent in their duties and recommending their possible removal by the Pope.
To be a member of the congregation is thus to wield considerable influence, especially when it comes to nominating new bishops from one’s own country. It is not without some exaggeration that U.S. members of the congregation have often been colloquially termed “kingmakers.”
That influence is why Pope Francis’ July 7 appointment of Archbishop Blase Cupich — archbishop of Chicago since November 2014 — should not be underestimated. While not without his critics, he remains the most prominent episcopal pick for the Church in the United States made so far by Pope Francis.
Archbishop Cupich joins Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington as one of only two Americans currently with the congregation. The Chicago archbishop essentially is replacing Cardinal William Levada, who recently turned 80 and resigned all cardinalatial duties.
At 67, Archbishop Cupich will presumably be a member for at least the next decade, and will thus have a hand in shaping the demeanor of the Church hierarchy in the United States for many years to come. He will remain in Chicago as archbishop, but his trips to Rome will now be more frequent, and it is generally believed that he will be among the new members of the College of Cardinals when Francis convokes his next consistory.
He takes a seat on a committee of senior prelates from around the globe who look at dossiers of prospective bishops and archbishops. The list of candidates — called a terna — is drafted by nuncios in different countries and then forwarded to the congregation. The members of the committee then review and vote (usually on a Thursday) on a final list of names that is submitted to the Pope. Special consideration is given to the opinions of those members from the country or region relating to the diocese or archdiocese under consideration.
Traditionally, but not always, the Holy Father will accept the choices presented to him. Interestingly, Pope Francis reportedly set aside the terna presented to him for Chicago and chose Archbishop Cupich personally.
Archbishop Cupich was the only new member of the congregation appointed on July 7, but he will be joining a group that Francis extensively restructured in December 2013. The Holy Father at that time appointed 12 new members, including Cardinal Wuerl and Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, England, as well as a number of officials from the Roman Curia. At the same time, he confirmed some members in their posts and effectively removed others by not renewing their terms.
Among the most conspicuous figures not retained were Cardinal Raymond Burke, then prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican’s supreme court, and the Italian Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, then prefect for the Congregation for Clergy. Both were also subsequently reassigned to other Vatican posts.
What can be discerned about the Cupich appointment and the other changes under Pope Francis?
First, the Pope seems to prefer Europeans for the congregation, with a very heavy dependence on Italians. Not including Cardinal Ouellet, there are only three North Americans and four South Americans, with 17 Europeans (including eight Italians and three Poles). The most far-flung member is Cardinal George Pell, the former archbishop of Sydney, but realistically he is now a member of the Roman Curia, as he serves as prefect for the Vatican’s Secretariat of the Economy and is a member of the council of cardinals that advises Pope Francis.
In all, 16 members are currently officials in the Roman Curia, so Francis relies heavily on the Vatican establishment in the selection of bishops, especially the Secretariat of State, under Cardinal Pietro Parolin. Many of the members, such as Cardinals Jean-Louis Tauran, Beniamino Stella and Lorenzo Baldisseri, all worked for the Secretariat of State at some point in their careers. Archbishop Cupich is no exception, having been a secretary at the apostolic nunciature in Washington in the mid-1980s.
As for what Pope Francis wants by way of temperament and theological tendencies, he unsurprisingly has consistently chosen bishops and cardinals for the congregation who emulate his own pastoral orientation. Francis made this clear when he spoke to the congregation in early 2014 after its reorganization.
“The profile of a bishop,” he said, “is not the algebraic sum of his virtues. … It is the Spirit of the Risen One who fashions his witnesses, who integrates and elevates their qualities and value in fashioning a bishop.”
In this context, Archbishop Cupich’s appointment to the congregation is considered a particularly noteworthy development. He may have rejected the notion that he was some kind of a messenger from Francis to the Church in the U.S. when he was named the ninth archbishop of Chicago, but the Pope clearly wanted Archbishop Cupich to be heard by the 2 million Catholics in the Windy City and apparently by U.S. Catholics in general. To drive home this point, Pope Francis named him one of four hand-picked American bishops to take part in the 2015 Synod of Bishops.
As for Archbishop Cupich’s interpretation of Pope Francis’ pastoral priorities, he sparked criticism during the 2015 Synod of Bishops on the Family with his call for pastoral care for the divorced and remarried and homosexual persons. Among other things, he seems to have promoted the primacy of a person’s conscience, however formed, over Church teaching. He said at a press briefing that his “role as a pastor is to help them to discern what the will of God is by looking at the objective moral teaching of the Church and yet, at the same time, helping them through a period of discernment to understand what God is calling them to at that point. It’s for everybody. I think that we have to make sure that we don’t pigeonhole one group as though they are not part of the human family, as though there’s a different set of rules for them. That would be a big mistake.”
Likewise, in the aftermath of the June 12 terrorist attack by a gunman at an Orlando nightclub that killed 49 people and wounded 53 others, he urged tolerance, writing in an open letter: “For you here today and throughout the whole lesbian and gay community, who are particularly touched by the heinous crimes committed in Orlando, motivated by hate, driven perhaps by mental instability and certainly empowered by a culture of violence, know this: The Archdiocese of Chicago stands with you. I stand with you.”
The Pope now wants him to have a major say in choosing America’s shepherds.
As this pontificate goes on, it would be reasonable to look for new bishop appointments to reflect further Pope Francis’ pastoral vision, but it is also ill-advised to assume that they will be monolithic. The bishops under St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, for example, were far from mere clones of the popes who appointed them. The apostolic nuncios will have their say in finding qualified men of talent and prayer. So, too, will the Holy Spirit, who brings forward leaders at exactly the moment they are needed by the Church. And all of us have the obligation of adding our own prayers to the process. In other words, the mystery, thankfully, will continue.
Matthew Bunson is a senior editor with the Register and EWTN News.