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Why ever more priests are declining to become bishops

Pope Francis embraces Bishop Fernando Vergez during his episcopal ordination (CNS)

This Friday, September 27, William Joensen will be ordained the new Bishop of Des Moines, Iowa. Fr Bill and I have taught together for more than 10 years at the annual Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society in Kraków, so I know the good people of Des Moines have been blessed with their new bishop. As for the new bishop himself though, my feelings were mixed.

“Congratulations on the appointment, and I admire your generosity in accepting the nomination,” I emailed him on the day of the announcement, news of which he had kept confidential with admirable discretion, even though we had been teaching together that week. “A great many priests turn it down these days, and with an abundance of good reasons. Being a bishop is a blessed burden, and today often more burden than blessing. May the Lord reward you for your generosity!”

When I was in the seminary 20 years ago you would still hear the joke that while there might be a crisis in priestly vocations, vocations to the episcopate were abundant. The implication was that many more priests desired to be bishops than would actually be consecrated as such.

Perhaps so, but a good number of priests declined the nomination even then. There are no public figures – perhaps no reliable figures are kept at all – about how many priests asked to be bishops turn it down. But off-the-record, those who would know – senior archbishops, curial officials, those who work in nunciatures – speak of a “vocations crisis” for the episcopate. If 20 years ago in such conversations you might hear figures as high as 25 per cent who declined, now those figures are more than a third, or even half.

Again, this cannot be verified. But when appointments are delayed, it is almost always assumed that a priest nominated has declined, meaning that a new process must begin. I was still in the seminary when I first heard a curial cardinal speak to group of priests about the importance of accepting a papal nomination to be a bishop. The problem has only grown in the interim.

Partly that is for a good reason. Priests who have hidden dodgy things in their past – not only related to sexual abuse – are inclined to say no, given that added scrutiny may bring to light matters that will cause pain for the diocese. And in cases where a double life is being lived – and not a few such men have been made bishops in the past – it is very good that the threat of exposure prompts such priests not to take the risk of episcopal consecration. A priest living a double life is a terrible offence against God; a bishop doing the same is far more wretched still.

Some priests turn it down because they don’t think they have what it takes to do what a bishop has to do today. There is a certain firmness with which misconduct cases must be handled, and not every priest is capable of that. Moreover, the view that bishops are sometimes ruthless with their brothers – and are expected by the faithful and general public to be so – is widespread among priests. Many priests, I think, feel, rightly or wrongly, that bishops occasionally treat an individual priest unjustly for the greater good of the diocese – the exact flipside of what happened when scandals were covered up for the “good” of the diocese. One can imagine that priests who feel that way are not eager to join the “other” side.

Other side? Surely priests and bishops are on the same side? Of course they are, and generally exercise their ministry on that basis. But the past years have greatly eroded the trust that priests have in their bishops, and so what should be a paternal and fraternal relationship has in many places become suspect, even adversarial.

A man who loves the priesthood may be reluctant to become a bishop and lose his fraternity with his fellow priests. Then, in many places, there is the reality of the weakness of the Church. A local Church is never entirely dead, as there are always pockets of vitality. But some local Churches are largely dead, and the principal task of the bishop is to arrange for a decent burial. A priest has the option of cultivating pockets of evangelisation and growth, however small they may be. The bishop can actively support those too, but cannot exempt himself from the burden of managing the general decline.

Consider Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, who turns 75 this week after serving as a bishop for more than 30 years. His last eight years were in Philadelphia, where he faced crisis after crisis. He closed 70 parishes, and said recently that only about 100 of the more than 200 remaining are needed. Chaput was able to handle that while still being one of the most creative and engaged bishops anywhere. A lesser man might find the prospect of that wholly overwhelming.

It remains perennially true that it is a “noble task” to be a bishop, as St Paul wrote to Timothy, and that the God who calls will not deny the necessary grace to those who accept. But is understandable if fewer do. In the mean time, Des Moines can be grateful that Bishop Joensen said yes.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca