Pope Francis just named an archbishop ‘ad personam.' What the heck is that?

A Pillar Explainer

The Church’s hierarchy is full of its own titles, terms, and traditions. Most Catholics know what some of the most common titles mean, and what they do — bishops lead dioceses, and archbishops are in charge of archdioceses, right? Well, sometimes.

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On Monday, Pope Francis conferred the title of archbishop on Bishop Franklyn Atese Nubuasah, S.V.D. of the Botswanan Diocese of Gaborone. So, his diocese becomes an archdiocese, right? Well, no. 

The pope took the unusual step of conferring the title of archbishop on Bishop Nabuasah ad personam, meaning it was extended to him personally, and not attached to the diocese he leads.

So, if an archbishop doesn’t have an archdiocese, what is an archbishop anyway? The Pillar explains.

They are all bishops, really

The sacrament of Holy Orders is one sacrament which is conferred through ordination in three grades: deacon, priest, and bishop. Each of these is also, by the fact of being ordained, made a member of the clerical state, but the clergy is a legal, not sacramental, category of people. 

Within the clergy, there are all sorts of titles, styles, and ranks, each of which can carry with it different legal rights and privileges: cardinals, everyone knows, can vote in conclaves to elect the pope, prelates of honor get to be addressed as “monsignor” and wear some fancy buttons on their cassocks, and so on. 

But whatever title he goes by, cardinal, archbishop, monsignor, or anything else, sacramentally, a bishop is always a bishop and a priest is always a priest. In fact, a bishop is always a priest, too, but we don’t need to go into that right now.

Bishops in name only?

Bishops generally lead dioceses, but that isn’t the only kind of bishop there is. The Code of Canon Law describes all bishops as the men “who by divine institution succeed to the place of the Apostles through the Holy Spirit who has been given to them, are constituted pastors in the Church, so that they are teachers of doctrine, priests of sacred worship, and ministers of governance.”

There are two kinds of bishops in canon law: diocesan bishops, who lead dioceses, and “titular” bishops, who are assigned the titles of historic dioceses that no longer exist while they work in other roles, either as auxiliary bishops in dioceses, or working in the Roman curia and Vatican diplomatic corps.

These titular bishops are not bishops in name only, by any means. While they carry the title of an historic diocese to honor the link between the function of a bishop and the care of a diocese, they are, in every sacramental way, real bishops, just as much as diocesan bishops.

So, what’s an archbishop?

Archbishops constitute a separate clerical rank within the order of bishops. While they don’t have any extra sacramental power or authority, they do have certain legal prerogatives and rights of precedence, though much of this is ceremonial, like their place in line in liturgical processions, or linked to obscure things like the number of tassels they can display on their coats of arms.

The term “arch” comes from the Greek word αρχι which means “head” or “first.” In the Church, the title of archbishop is usually attached to an archdiocese, which is itself usually the metropolitan see of an episcopal province. 

The metropolitan archbishop has certain rights and responsibilities in canon law, including the power to convoke a provincial council, and some limited ability to exercise vigilance and oversight in the other dioceses of the province when asked to by the Holy Father. Metropolitan archbishops also wear during Mass the pallium, which looks a little like a woolen horse collar, and which is given to each metropolitan by the pope personally as a sign of their special link with the pope.

Papal nuncios and the secretaries of Vatican departments are usually given the rank of archbishop as a mark of their seniority. This is done by making them titular archbishops of historical archdioceses, in the same way that titular bishops are given the titles of historic dioceses. But, since they are not metropolitans, they do not receive the pallium from the pope.

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Is Bishop Nabuasah is a ‘titular’ archbishop, then? 

Nope, why would it be that simple?

Titular archbishops are titular bishops whose titular sees are archdioceses. Bishop Nabuasah is still the Bishop of Gaborone, which is still a diocese. Pope Francis has taken the unusual (but not unheard of) step of conferring the rank of archbishop on him personally — not linked to the diocese which he leads.

It’s a singular honor, often made in recognition of a bishop’s long and influential career. 

In the case of Nabuasah, the newly-minted archbishop has had a long career of missionary service but is best known for publishing an emotional letter addressed to George Floyd, the black man killed by Minneapolis police officers in 2020, whose death touched off a wave of international outrage and protests, as well as weeks of civil unrest in some American cities.

Nabuasah said he had met Floyd at a baseball game in Pittsburgh while he was still a priest and Floyd was a young man in his 20s.

“We got to chatting and [had] become friends,” wrote the bishop in June 2020, after Floyd’s death. “Under the circumstances this will be my last communication with you in this ‘land of the living’ that rejected your right to live. How can I forget you George?”

“My heart is heavy as I sit in my prayer corner to write you this missive knowing well that others will read it but you will not. We humans, through a representative of ours, made sure that your eyes were closed and would not open again,” wrote Nabuasah. 

“That is however not true, your eyes will remain forever seeing the fire you started at death... You lit a fire that is burning for peace and change. So, my friend, when you hear the chant, ‘yes, we can’ know that we are doing it in your name and for you.”

“A huge welcome awaits you in the Father’s house,” said the bishop. “You just have one more task to perform. It is to prepare to welcome the notorious four who killed you into heaven when their time does come and show ‘em round the jolly place we call heaven.”

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So, it’s like Archbishop Fulton Sheen?

Actually, the Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen was not made an archbishop ad personam. When he resigned as Bishop of Rochester, New York, in 1969, Sheen was named titular archbishop of the historic Archdiocese of Newport in Wales, so his rank came with the titular archdiocese to which he was named.

Perhaps the most famous example in the United States of a bishop granted the rank of archbishop ad personam was Archbishop John Mark Gannon, who served as Bishop of Erie for 46 years in the first half of the twentieth century. 

In addition to serving as the diocesan bishop for the better half of Western Pennsylvania, and attending all four sessions of Vatican Council II, Gannon was also a prolific supporter of Catholic education and healthcare institutions, founding and supporting schools, colleges, seminaries, hospitals and care homes. 

Gannon also led the U.S. Church’s committee to respond to the persecution of the Church in Mexico, founding Montezuma Seminary in New Mexico to train priests to minister, often clandestinely, in Mexico. He also went to Spain to conduct an investigation into the persecution of the Church during the civil war there.