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Pope Benedict XVI presents a pallium to Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican June 29, 2011.

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Who’s the one?
April 3rd, 2012

Soon the pope will name San Francisco’s next archbishop. Here’s a look at how the choice is made.

The naming of a new bishop for a Catholic diocese or archdiocese is a rigorous process designed to ensure the best match for the job. The process is now under way in the selection of the ninth archbishop for the Archdiocese of San Francisco. An announcement is expected within weeks or months for a successor to Archbishop George Niederauer, who turned 75 June 14, 2011, and submitted his resignation letter to Pope Benedict XVI as required under canon law.

The archbishop continues to do his work until further notice and it may be up to a year or more from the day the resignation offer was made before we know his successor, said Msgr. C. Michael Padazinski, the chancellor and judicial vicar for the Metropolitan Tribunal of the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

“It is not a public popularity contest but (a search for) who is best suited to serve the souls of this particular church,” said Msgr. Padazinski.

Canon 378 of the Code of Canon Law reads that to be a suitable candidate for the episcopate, a person must:

“Be outstanding in strong faith, good morals, piety, zeal for souls, wisdom, prudence and human virtues and possess those other gifts which equip him to fulfill the office in question; be held in good esteem; be at least 35 years old; be a priest ordained for at least five years; hold a doctorate or at least a licentiate in sacred Scripture, theology or canon law from an institute of higher studies approved by the Apostolic See, or at least be well versed in these disciplines.”

The code spells out the process for naming and for promoting a bishop.

In the case of the appointment of a priest to the status of bishop, the four-stage process begins with an assessment of suitable candidates by brother bishops in a geographical province of the Catholic Church. Every bishop may submit to the archbishop of his province the names of priests he thinks would make good bishops. Although a newly named archbishop need not be a bishop first, this happens very rarely. The promotion of a bishop to the more prestigious title of archbishop typically begins with the second stage – a thorough assessment of the needs of the archdiocese by the apostolic nuncio, the Vatican state’s U.S. diplomat. It then moves on to consideration by the cardinals of the Congregation for Bishops at the Vatican and finally to appointment by the pope.

Under Canon 418, a transferred bishop or archbishop must be on duty in his new position within two months of being notified.

The following description of the three steps in choosing an archbishop is based on reporting by the staff of Catholic San Francisco, with additional background from Catholic News Service and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Sometime after Archbishop Niederauer’s letter was submitted to the pope, the apostolic nuncio began to make inquiries in Northern California and perhaps beyond, asking bishops, priests and possibly lay Catholics who might be considered for the position and why.

Since October, the nuncio has been Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, a veteran diplomat, who succeeded Archbishop Pietro Sambi, who died in July, the month after the archbishop’s letter arrived. Now, Archbishop Vigano, according to canon law, is developing what will ultimately be a short list of three names, ranked by preference – first, second, third recommendation – for a potential new archbishop of San Francisco.

Archbishop Vigano has a full platter. In addition to developing a list of potential successors to Archbishop Niederauer, 19 other U.S. bishops could retire because of age this year.

One of them is Bishop Tod Brown of Orange in Southern California, who turned 75 on Nov. 15, 2011, and offered his letter of resignation.

According to an explanation of the process on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ website, the nuncio requests a report from the current bishop or the administrator of a diocese on the conditions and needs of the diocese. If the appointment is a replacement for a diocesan bishop or archbishop about to retire, consideration will be given to the incumbent’s recommendations. Broad consultation within the diocese is encouraged with regard to the needs of the diocese, but not the names of candidates. If the vacancy to be filled is an archdiocese, other U.S. archbishops may be consulted. At this point, the nuncio narrows his list and a questionnaire is sent to 20 or 30 people who know each of the candidates for their input. All material is collected and reviewed by the nuncio, and a report of about 20 pages is prepared. Three candidates are listed alphabetically – the terna – with the nuncio’s preference noted. All materials are then forwarded to the Congregation for Bishops in Rome.

After his appointment last October, Archbishop Vigano said that being a nuncio is “a call to know this people, this country and come to love them.” The archbishop said being that nuncio in the United States is an “important, vast and delicate” task.

The Congregation for Bishops is led by its prefect, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, who previously was archbishop of Quebec, and who is a confidant of the pope.

Cardinal Ouellet and the full congregation, said Msgr. Padazinski, can do anything they want with the nuncio’s recommendations: Members could accept the list, ask for other names, make their own inquiries, even change the order of preference if they wish. Ultimately, Cardinal Ouellet will go to Pope Benedict with a final list of three names suggested “as the most qualified and who would best fit this particular archdiocese,” said Msgr. Padazinski.

One of the key players in selecting Archbishop Niederauer’s successor, Cardinal Ouellet, is known to be a traditionalist who has shown a preference for theologians and defenders of the faith.

He has also said, in a reference to career ambitions, that if a priest or bishop aspires and maneuvers to be promoted to a prominent diocese, “it is better for him to stay where he is.”

Although the congregation’s work is strictly confidential, sources explained the process to former Catholic News Service Vatican correspondent John Thavis in 2009, when the pope named now-U.S. Cardinal Raymond L. Burke to the congregation.

Unlike several other Roman Curia agencies, which may draw their full membership together only once a year, the Congregation for Bishops meets regularly every two weeks. The meetings last all morning, and typically bishops’ appointments for four dioceses are reviewed at each session.

Even before the meeting, congregation members are sent abundant documentation on the candidates for each diocese, and they are expected to be familiar with the material. This is information collected by the apostolic nuncio in the country where the diocese is located; a large part of the packet is comprised of the written evaluations requested of some 30 to 40 people who know the candidate.

At the congregation’s meeting, one member acts as the “ponente,” or presenter, reviewing the information and making his own recommendation on the “terna,” or list, of three candidates. Each member, in order of seniority, is then asked to give his views – in effect, offering a judgment on whether the candidates are worthy and suitable, and in what order they should be recommended.

The process was described by one source as a “thorough vetting,” with ample discussion and exchanges. The congregation’s overall recommendations – along with any doubts, questions or minority opinions – then go to the pope. He usually approves the congregation’s decision, but may choose to send it back for further discussion and evaluation.

Members know they are dealing with decisions that will affect the future of the church and the salvation of souls. “It’s a very serious procedure, because a bishop has a heavy responsibility in the church. It’s an exercise in prudential judgment, and the weight of it is felt by everyone involved,” said one Vatican official.

There are five U.S. cardinals among the congregation’s 28 cardinal members, including, in addition to Cardinal Burke, Cardinal William J. Levada, archbishop Niederauer’s predecessor as San Francisco archbishop.

At a private audience with the pope, usually on a Saturday, the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops presents the recommendations of the congregation. A few days later, the pope informs the congregation of his decision. The congregation then notifies the nuncio, who in turn contacts the candidate and asks if he will accept. If the answer is “yes,” the Vatican is notified and a date is set for the announcement.

A key date in the succession of any new archbishop is the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, the patron saints of Rome.

Every year on the feast day – it falls on Friday, June 29, this year – the pope celebrates Mass with newly appointed archbishops from around the world and bestows on them the woolen pallium as a sign of their communion with the pope and their pastoral responsibility as shepherds.

Recent episcopal appointments in California
Jose H. Gomez

New assignment: Coadjutor archbishop of Los Angeles (later installed as archbishop)

Announced: April 2010

Previous assignment: Archbishop of San Antonio, Texas

Years in previous assignment: 5

Years a priest: 33

Age at time of appointment: 58

Born in Monterrey, Mexico, he attended the National University of Mexico, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting. In college he joined Opus Dei, an institution founded by St. Josemaria Escriva to help people turn their work and daily activities into occasions for growing closer to God, serving others and improving society. Opus Dei became a personal prelature in 1982.

Cirilo B. Flores

New assignment: Coadjutor bishop of the Diocese of San Diego

Announced: January 2012

Previous assignment: Auxiliary bishop of Orange

Years in previous assignment: 3

Years a priest: 30

Age at time of appointment: 63

A native Californian, he practiced law for 10 years, specializing in business litigation, before entering St. John Seminary in Camarillo. At the time of his appointment he was one of 28 Hispanic bishops serving actively in the United States.

Armando X. Ochoa

New assignment: Bishop of Fresno

Announced: December 2011

Previous assignment: Bishop of El Paso, Texas

Years in previous assignment: 15

Years a priest: 41

Age at time of appointment: 68

A native Californian and former Los Angeles Auxiliary bishop, Bishop Ochoa at the time of his appointment was one of 26 active Hispanic Catholic bishops in the United States. In El Paso, he was a regular participant in cross-border Masses as well as joining in delegations of bishops and other officials visiting the U.S.-Mexico border.


From April 6, 2012 issue of Catholic San Francisco.



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