When the Chicago-born Bishop Robert Prevost was appointed in January head of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Bishops, he inherited a big task: finding new bishops for his native country, as a growing glut of U.S. diocesan bishops reach or exceed retirement age.
By the end of 2023, 13 currently serving U.S. diocesan bishops will be at least 75 years old — the age at which according to Paul VI’s 1966 apostolic letter Ecclesiae Sanctae, bishops are expected to submit their resignation to the pope.
There have not been simultaneously 13 bishops aged 75 or older leading U.S. dioceses since 1967.
But there’s more to the challenging state of America’s aging episcopate.
An additional 52 diocesan bishops will turn 75 over the next five years; in total 38% of current U.S. diocesan bishops will be up for replacement by 2028 — that is the largest percentage of bishops age 70 or above the US has ever had.
Even in 1965, on the eve of Ecclesiae sanctae, when three US dioceses were led by bishops more than 85 years old, there were fewer bishops aged 70 or older than today.
So what led to this wave of retiring bishops and what does it tell us about the future of the Church?
In fact, it’s the creation of a mandatory retirement age itself, which has created a kind of cresting cycle for episcopal retirements — amplified in recent years by the Vatican’s propensity to appoint older men as diocesan bishops.
But those aren’t the factors to consider. For a fuller view, The Pillar looks at the numbers.
The most common birth year among currently serving diocesan bishops is 1949 — meaning that 15 bishops will be turning 75 in 2024.
The youngest U.S. diocesan bishop, Earl Fernandes of Columbus, OH, was born in 1972. He was 49 years old when he was appointed to the Columbus see in April of 2022.
Bishops were not always so advanced in age.
In 1900, 71% of U.S. diocesan bishops were less than 60 years old. The youngest diocesan bishop in the U.S. that year was Bishop Henry Granjon, who had been appointed bishop of Tucson, AZ that April, when he was 36 years old.
Bishop Granjon died in office at the age of 59 in 1922. And his relatively early death, by today’s standards, points to one of the reasons for the advancing age of U.S. bishops today: With advances in medicine, bishops (like other Americans) now live longer than in the past.
From 1900 to 1965 the life expectancy of U.S. men increased from 46.3 to 66.8. During that same time, the average age of U.S. diocesan bishops increased from 56.2 to 64.7.
With the requirement that all bishops offer their resignation at age 75, the average age of U.S. diocesan bishops declined, reaching a post-Vatican II low of 59.8 in 1983.
But the average age of U.S. diocesan bishops has since increased. In 2023 the average diocesan bishop is 66.3 years old, almost two years older than when mandatory retirement was instituted.
One factor in the increasing average age of US diocesan bishops is the growing number of bishops who continue to serve after submitting their resignations at age 75. Another factor is that Rome has increasingly chosen older men to fill diocesan sees.
In 1965, the average age of men appointed to a diocesan see for the first time was 55.6. On May 23, 2023, the average new diocesan bishop was 61.5.
The increase in life expectancy over the last half century is also a factor.
In 1965, a man appointed bishop at the age of 55 could expect, on average, to live another 19 years, to the age of 74, according to data on life expectancy by age group in the US compiled by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Today, an American man appointed bishop at age 60 could expect to live another 21 years, to age 81.
It’s now quite unusual for a bishop to die in office. Of the 230 diocesan bishops who have left office since 2000 only 21 (less than 10%) did so due to death. By comparison, in the decade after 1965, 33 diocesan bishops died in office and only 63 retired.
But while those factors explain why the American episcopate is older than ever before, why is there such a large number of bishops due to be replaced in the next five years?
It turns out that the waves from the institution of mandatory retirement are still being felt.
The period from 1965 until 1970, for example, saw a historically high number of new diocesan bishops appointed — 66 in those five years, in fact. Those bishops were, on average, 56 years old when appointed. During the 1980s, they retired.
The early 1980s was the period after Vatican II when the age of new diocesan bishops hit its lowest point, averaging 50 from 1978 to 1982 —20 to 25 years later, when those men turned 76 in the early 2000s, their generation of bishops retired.
By the early 2000s the average age of new diocesan bishops had increased. From 2000 to 2005 the average age of a newly appointed diocesan bishop was 56. As a result the bishops appointed from 2000 to 2010 will reach retirement age over the next five years — and there will be plenty of them.
The Church is now experiencing the forth demographic wave of episcopal retirement, resulting from the imposition of the mandatory retirement age in 1966. That wave’s effects have been amplified by the size of the baby boom generation, combined with the strength of post World War II Catholicism in the U.S.
Twenty-eight of the 175 current U.S. diocesan bishops were born in either 1949 or 1950, which means their retirement will come due in 2024 or 2025.
And barring some unusual change of circumstances, the 1966 retirement cap will continue to reverberate through Church history.
In fact, there is already evidence of where the next demographic wave will crest. Fourteen current diocesan U.S. bishops were born in 1960 — and with those born in that year still only 63 years old, it seems likely that a number of men born that year might still be appointed to the episcopacy.
1960 saw one of the highest numbers of births in US history, and men born in that year reached adulthood at the beginning of John Paul II’s papacy, which inspired a “JP2 Generation” wave of vocations.
Combined, those factors mean that while 2024 and 2025 will be big years for episcopal retirements and appointments, 2035 will also be a pretty big year for changes to the U.S. episcopate.