People often ask me how bishops are chosen in the Roman Catholic Church. The simple answer is that the Pope names them. However, that begs the question: how does the Pope know the person he is choosing? The answer to this second question is more complicated.
The Pope has a network of ambassadors across the world, called “nuncios”. Presently, the nuncio in Canada is Archbishop Pedro Lopez Quintana. Nuncios are priests who have received intense training in diplomacy at a specialized academy in Rome. They usually spend all their lives working in the Vatican’s diplomatic and administrative services. And they usually change postings every six to eight years. In countries such as Canada which maintain diplomatic relations with the Vatican, the nuncio acts as the Vatican’s ambassador to that country.
Among their responsibilities, the nuncios across the world must get to know the bishops of their assigned country and the dioceses that they lead and govern. It is the nuncios who will forward to the Vatican the names of possible candidates – always three – to replace a bishop who has retired or been transferred. The preparation of this list of three names, called the “terna”, is among the most important tasks entrusted to nuncios.
Every second year, bishops of a given area will gather to discuss the names of priests they know who could potentially be good bishops. They share their knowledge of these candidates and send a report to the nuncio containing these names and their evaluations. This list will be the starting point for the nuncio as he develops each “terna”. Then nuncio will also consult directly on individual candidates by sending questionnaires to people who might know them personally. All of this is done in absolute confidentiality, so that a candidate will never know that he is being considered for this position.
After having established his “terna”, the nuncio might send his list to leading members of the diocese concerned in order to receive their comments on each of the candidates in view of the particular needs of the diocese. The nuncio will then set an order of preference among the three candidates as he sends the “terna” to the Congregation for Bishops in Rome.
The Congregation for Bishops is presently led by Cardinal Marc Ouellette, former Archbishop of Quebec City. Cardinal Ouellette receives the “ternas” from across the world, studies them, and then submits them for discussion to a select group of consultors that gather regularly in his office. After this final consultation, Cardinal Ouellette meets with the Pope to present the “ternas” as well as the nuncio’s report, his consultors’ thoughts and his own advice. That is when the Pope names the new bishop.
The Pope’s choice is transmitted to the nuncio’s office by Cardinal Ouellette’s staff. The nuncio contacts the priest who has just been appointed, informs him that the Pope has named him bishop of a certain diocese, and asks if he accepts the nomination. If the priest does, he commits himself to secrecy about the nomination until it is announced a few days or weeks later in Rome. And that is how a bishop is (usually) selected in the Roman Catholic Church.