How a bishop is named | St. Louis Public Radio

How a bishop is named

May 14, 2008

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Who knows the name of the next New York archbishop? The pope, if he has decided.

Traditionally, bishops forward names to the papal nuncio who, along with his American staff, checks references and conduct interviews. (Dolan used to work in that office.) Since 2002, the candidates' vetting has been more intense. Eventually, a bishops' committee and the nuncio come up with three names. Then, a committee of cardinals makes its recommendations.

That committee met in Rome last Thursday. Cardinal Justin F. Rigali of Philadelphia, formerly of St. Louis, attended last week's meeting. But the group's closely held discussion for New York may have been made months ago

After the pope selects a name, his secretary of state telegraphs the nuncio, Archbishop Pietro Sambi.

The telegraph is in a code that only the nuncio and his secretary can break. In turn, Sambi telephones the nominee and offers him the job. Rigali was an exception to this process. He had been working in Rome, and Pope John Paul II called him to his office to tell him of his appointment. When he returned to his desk, the airline ticket was waiting.

The nominee can say no, but that is unusual. 

The nuncio gives the nominee a week or so to envision himself in the new post, study stats on the new diocese and in some cases find it on the map. The nuncio orders the man to keep silent. Most bishops don't tell their family or secretary until the afternoon before Rome's public announcement.

St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke told his sister on Thanksgiving Day, 2004, five days before the papal announcement. Some bishops tell stories about using a public phone to make plane reservations for fear that their staff might overhear them. Of course, that was before online reservations and mobile phones.

A few days before the announcement, the nuncio will formally phone New York's current archbishop.

If the assigned diocese is not the biggest in the region, the day before an announcement, Sambi's office will fax a heads-up to the archbishop-metropolitan who leads that state or region. Before a Belleville appointment, for example, the Chicago cardinal would be informed. These faxes are "for the bishops' eyes only." Stamped on the letter are the words "pontifical secret" with the prohibition that bishops may tell no one of the decision, under pain of excommunication. 

The name can be changed after the man is told he has the job, and sometimes it has.

Nothing is sure until noon of appointment day when just off St. Peter's Square, behind the white columns of the Salad Stamp  -- the Vatican Press Office -- officials hand out the announcement.