Inside the top secret process of appointing Catholic bishops

appointing Catholic bishops

When Father John Wester received a call just before 8 a.m. Mass, he had no idea it would be the nuncio, the pope’s ambassador, phoning to tell him he would be the next auxiliary bishop of San Francisco.

“I think my knees were knocking,” now-Archbishop Wester of Santa Fe, N.M., told America’s “Inside the Vatican” podcast.

The Catholic bishop said his parishioners told him, “‘You don’t look very good, Father!’

“Well, I don’t feel very good right now!’ Wester replied.

It was kind of a shockeroo.”

Archbishop Wester’s story is not unusual.

Most bishops are appointed without ever knowing they were being considered for the job and are caught by surprise when chosen.

The selection process for appointing Catholic bishops is perhaps the most secretive hiring process in the world, shielded from both the candidate and the priests and people he will serve.

Those who are consulted about possible candidates are required to return the list of questions they’ve been sent, because even the questions, which reveal no particulars about a candidate, are protected under the Vatican’s top confidentiality classification: the “pontifical secret.”

There is a joke among the hierarchy that “a pontifical secret is a secret you don’t tell the pope,” but the secrecy around this process has been chipped away in recent years.

On this episode of “Inside the Vatican,” working from a copy of the revised survey that he obtained, America’s Vatican correspondent Gerard O’Connell summarizes some of the questions that the Vatican is now asking about possible bishops.

This isn’t the first time details of the secret questionnaire have been revealed: In 1984, Thomas J. Reese, S.J., then the editor of America magazine, obtained the survey that the nuncio sends out to gather information on candidates.  (1984 Article and survey is different to today’s version.)

He published it, in full, in America.

The biggest blow to the secrecy around how Catholic bishops are appointed, though, came from the Vatican itself.

Last fall, it took the unprecedented step of revealing how former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was removed from the college of cardinals and from the priesthood for abusing minors, managed to rise through the ranks despite rumours circling about his sexual misconduct. Continue reading


  • Inside the Vatican – Gerard O’Connell
  • Image: Cardinal Marc Oullet Prefect for the Congregation of Bishops
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