Pope Francis Ends Deadlock Over New Bishop for Swiss Diocese

Local media reported last November that Chur’s cathedral chapter had rejected all three candidates to succeed Huonder proposed by Pope Francis.

Chur Cathedral in Switzerland.
Chur Cathedral in Switzerland. (photo: Adrian Michael / CC BY-SA 3.0)

VATICAN CITY— Pope Francis on Monday ended the deadlock over the appointment of a new bishop in a historic Swiss diocese that traditionally holds episcopal elections. 

The Holy See press office said on Feb. 15 that the pope had named Msgr. Joseph Marie Bonnemain as bishop of Chur in eastern Switzerland.

Msgr. Bonnemain, a 72-year-old member of Opus Dei, previously served as judicial vicar and canon of the cathedral chapter of Chur diocese. He succeeds Bishop Vitus Huonder, who retired on May 20, 2019, at the age of 77. 

CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German-language news partner, reported that the diocese has seen fierce internal battles and the new bishop’s priority will be to heal divisions in the diocese. 

Pope Pius XII established the current rules for the selection of bishops in the diocese in the 1948 decree “Etsi salva,” giving the cathedral chapter the privilege of electing a bishop from among three priests proposed by the Holy See. 

Local media reported last November that Chur’s cathedral chapter had rejected all three candidates to succeed Huonder proposed by Pope Francis.

The 22 members of the cathedral chapter were due to elect a successor on Nov. 23. The list of candidates was supposed to remain secret, but local media reported that the three people proposed for the vacant see were Bonnemain, Abbot Vigeli Monn von Disentis, and Abbot Mauro-Giuseppe Lepori.

Observers noted that Msgr. Bonnemain was the only candidate with a direct connection to the diocese, which dates back to 451 and today covers seven of the 26 cantons of Switzerland, including the canton of Zürich. 

CNA Deutsch reported at the time that the cathedral chapter saw the list of three candidates as an “attempt at interference” by neighboring dioceses. It quoted an insider as saying that the three names indicated that “the voice of the diocese of Chur, which has previously deviated from the social mainstream, is being silenced” — a reference to the diocese’s reputation as a bastion of conservative Catholicism. 

At 72, Msgr. Bonnemain is just three years away from the age at which bishops must tender their resignations to the pope. Local media reported that he is likely to be consecrated at Easter. 

Bishop Felix Gmür of Basel welcomed the appointment.

“After years of waiting for a new bishop for the diocese of Chur, the election of Joseph Maria Bonnemain is a great sign of peace and hope for the diocese of Chur and the entire Church in Switzerland,” Bishop Gmür said in a Feb. 15 statement

“Bishop Joseph is a bridge-builder — a person of clarity and a conciliatory clergyman who knows how to integrate opinions.” 

The bishop-elect was born in Barcelona, Spain, on July 26, 1948, to a Swiss father and Catalan mother. He studied medicine in Zürich, graduating in 1975. After completing his philosophical and theological studies in Rome, he was ordained a priest of Opus Dei on Aug. 15, 1978.

He then studied canon law in Navarre, Spain, graduating in 1980. He served from 1981 at the bishop’s curia in Chur as diocesan judge and from 1982 as deputy judge. 

He was a member of the Holy See Delegation to the World Health Organization in Geneva from 1983 to 1991. From 1985, he also served as chaplain at the Limmattal Hospital in Zürich. He was appointed judicial vicar of Chur diocese in 1989. 

He has been secretary of the Swiss bishops’ commission on sexual abuse since 2002. He was named a canon of the cathedral chapter of Chur in 2003. In 2011, he was appointed episcopal vicar for the corporations of civil ecclesiastical law and the cantons of the diocese.

On Monday, Pope Francis also accepted the resignation of Bishop Marian Eleganti, a 65-year-old auxiliary bishop of Chur and member of the Benedictine order.