When the Vatican announces the appointment of a new diocesan bishop, it’s typically an occasion for rejoicing among local Catholics.
They may have had to wait months, even years, for a new shepherd, and are likely to feel a sense of relief that the vacancy is finally filled.
Preparations begin immediately for the episcopal ordination (if the appointee is not yet a bishop), or installation Mass (if he is). The date is penciled in on calendars across the diocese. In the diocesan offices, papers begin to pile up in the bishop-elect’s intray.
And then comes unexpected news: the episcopal ordination/installation is canceled. The new bishop won’t be arriving after all.
How often does this happen? What are the reasons? Is it an increasingly common occurrence? And if so, is there anything the Church can do about it?
The Pillar takes a look.
How often does it happen?
In recent years, there seem to have been four instances in which a bishop-elect has resigned before arriving in his new diocese:
Fr. Michel J. Mulloy, a priest of the Diocese of Rapid City, was appointed Bishop of Duluth, Minnesota, on June 19, 2020. He was due to be ordained bishop and installed Oct. 1 that year. Instead, the pope accepted his resignation Sept. 7.
Msgr. Ivan Brient was named an auxiliary bishop of Rennes, France, on Oct. 7, 2022. His episcopal ordination was scheduled for Dec. 4 that year at Rennes Cathedral, but he resigned Nov. 16.
Bishop José María Baliña was named Bishop of Mar del Plata, Argentina, on Nov. 21, 2023. He resigned 22 days later, on Dec. 13, 2023.
Bishop Gustavo Manuel Larrazábal was named Bishop of Mar del Plata on Dec. 13, 2023, after Baliña stepped aside. His installation was scheduled for Jan. 20, 2024, but he resigned three days before, on Jan. 17.
This week, there was a further case of a bishop-elect’s episcopal ordination not going ahead as planned:
Canon Christopher Whitehead, a priest of the Diocese of Clifton, was named Bishop of Plymouth, England, on Dec. 15, 2023. His episcopal ordination was due to take place on Feb. 22, 2024. But the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales announced Feb. 1 that the ceremony would no longer be held on that date.
Why does it happen?
All four of the resignations mentioned above were triggered by different factors:
On Aug. 7, 2020, the Diocese of Rapid City received notification of an allegation of sexual abuse of a minor in the early 1980s against Fr. Michel J. Mulloy. He was removed from public ministry and the pope accepted his resignation as bishop-elect of Duluth. A canonical process ended “with a determination that it was not possible to ascertain with certainty either that the allegation was substantiated or that the allegation lacks foundation.” Rapid City’s Bishop Peter Muhich said in March 2023 that he had “determined that Fr. Mulloy will remain out of public ministry.”
In a Nov. 16, 2022, letter to members of the Rennes archdiocese, Msgr. Ivan Brient said that he had accepted the role of auxiliary bishop “in a spirit of service, happy to be able to contribute in this new mission so that our Church may be ever more faithful to the Gospel of Christ.” But he recalled that he soon began to experience health problems. “After consulting, alarming signs of the onset of burnout were clearly diagnosed,” he wrote, adding: “After having discerned, it seemed wiser to me not to go any further in this mission that was entrusted to me. The burden seemed too heavy to me and I did not want to take the risk of having to give up along the way, nor of not being able to correctly accomplish this mission of auxiliary bishop.”
Bishop José María Baliña explained in a Dec. 5 letter to Catholics in the Mar del Plata diocese that he had struggled following surgery for a retinal detachment and had decided to resign before his installation as their bishop “after further discernment and consultation with the Holy See.”
Bishop Gustavo Manuel Larrazábal wrote in a Jan. 17 letter to members of the Mar del Plata diocese that, “after a process of discernment and prayer carried out very conscientiously, I have concluded that it is not opportune to assume the pastoral governance of the Diocese of Mar del Plata and I have presented my resignation to Pope Francis, who with much understanding accepted it.” He noted that he would remain in his previous position as auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of San Juan. Argentine media reported that Larrazábal had faced allegations of harassment and abuse of power from an unnamed woman from Mar del Plata who works for an organization linked to the Church. Larrazábal did not address the claims in his statement.
In the fifth, ongoing case, the English and Welsh bishops’ conference said that Canon Christopher Whitehead had “stepped back from active ministry” as “a canonical process is currently underway.” It offered no details about the nature of the process, which is understood to be the responsibility of the Clifton diocese.
Is it happening more often?
With such a small number of cases, it’s hard to make meaningful generalizations. But if we consider the length of time between cases, such incidents do indeed appear to be occurring more frequently.
Taking the Mulloy resignation as the baseline, the second resignation occurred 800 days later. The third was 392 days after that. The fourth came 36 days later.
This could be a purely random series of events. But if there is indeed a genuine pattern, what might be the reasons why it is happening more frequently (at least in the narrow time band we’re considering)? And how can the Church respond?
What’s the solution?
Finding suitable candidates is becoming more difficult. While there is a pool of more than 400,000 priests worldwide to draw on, their number is declining. At the same time, the number of priests refusing episcopal appointments is also increasing.
As Cardinal Marc Ouellet, head of the bishops’ dicastery from 2010 to 2023, said last year: “Since the beginning of my mandate, I have seen the number of priests who do not accept the episcopal appointment increase from 1 in 10 to about 3 in 10 in 12 years.”
Explaining why around 30% of priests asked to become bishops refuse, Ouellet noted that leading a diocese today is a complex task and “the demands of communication that make the bishop’s task more delicate.”
“As a result, several candidates do not feel up to the task,” he said.
So there is a perception today among priests that the office of bishop is an exceedingly demanding role requiring a rare array of skills and subject to an intense degree of scrutiny.
In addition to the 30% of candidates who refuse, there must also be a share of priests who have deep misgivings but override them, accepting the nomination. But when they confront the daunting reality of taking up a new leadership role, they conclude that it’s beyond their capacities. As bishops-elect tend to be in their 50s and 60s, they may have had a recent health scare or suffer from a chronic illness that convinces them they are unable to go ahead.
Perhaps the Church needs to reflect on whether there are ways to give priests more confidence that they are capable of taking up the crozier, perhaps by ensuring that support and encouragement are readily available at critical moments.
But what if the problem isn’t the candidates, but rather the way they’re being vetted? The figure primarily responsible for vetting is the local papal nuncio, who is expected to consult people familiar with the candidates before making recommendations. The buck then passes to the Vatican’s Dicastery for Bishops, and ultimately to the pope.
Vetting procedures don’t seem to have changed significantly in recent years, though no doubt there’s room to improve the process.
It’s notable that last October’s synod on synodality called in its report “for a review of the criteria for selecting candidates for the episcopate, balancing the authority of the apostolic nuncio with participation of episcopal conferences.”
“There are also requests to expand consultation with the faithful People of God, and to involve a greater number of lay people and consecrated persons in the consultation process, taking care to avoid being put under any undue pressure in the selection process,” it said.
Another factor, given that we’re living in the 21st century, may be the internet.
Is it the case that 10 or 20 years ago, people wouldn’t necessarily have heard about bishops’ appointments until the candidate was installed? These days, appointments are communicated instantly around the world, thanks to the internet. Is it possible that more people might be coming forward with complaints in the months between the nomination and the episcopal ordination/installation? We can’t be sure.
If there is indeed a bishop-elect problem in the Church, there doesn’t appear to be a single quick solution.
But the Vatican does seem to have adopted a strategy in recent years to minimize the difficulties associated with priests becoming bishops.
A significant proportion of new appointees these days are already bishops. Looking at the Feb. 2, 2024, appointments, for instance, we see that the new Bishop of Down and Connor in Northern Ireland is a bishop who was consecrated back in 2017.
Appointing pre-existing bishops to vacant sees arguably mitigates the bishop-elect problem. But it doesn’t eliminate it, as we saw with the two previously consecrated bishops who withdrew before arriving in Argentina’s Mar del Plata diocese.
For now, there is seemingly little more that those involved in the selection of bishops can do than wait and pray that recent cases turn out to be nothing more than a blip.