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What the Vatican looks for in a bishop

By Greg Burke

As secretary of the Vatican Congregation for Bishops, Archbishop Jorge Maria Mejia advises Pope John Paul II on the naming of bishops and the creation of new dioceses.

A 73-year-old Argentine, he previously worked as vice president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

Before coming to Rome to work in the Vatican, Archbishop Mejia edited the journal Criterio in Buenos Aires and taught Old Testament, Hebrew and Greek at the Theological Faculty of the Catholic University of Argentina. He also worked for several years in the department of ecumenism at the Latin American bishops' council (CELAM).

Archbishop Mejia recently spoke with Our Sunday Visitor about troublemaking bishops, the call for Church "reform" by liberal Catholics and the first "virtual diocese" on the World Wide Web.

VISITOR: Your congregation is quite powerful, in that it plays a major role in who gets appointed bishop. But it also has to deal with problems bishops create for you, and there have been more than a few lately.

Let's start with French Bishop Jacques Gaillot, who was removed from his post by the Holy Father. What was the heart of the problem in that case, from Rome's point of view?

ARCHBISHOP MEJIA: "Powerful" is not perhaps the proper term. We are responsible for many things, no doubt, but we are called to consider our ministry on behalf of the Holy Father, as a service, as he considers his own.

In the same sense, the problems you mention are not "ours" but for the Pope, the Holy See and indeed, the Church -- local or universal.

You will easily understand that I cannot and should not enter into any particular cases. However, generally speaking, "problems" with bishops can fall into two categories, doctrinal and pastoral. There are never a lot, anyway.

VISITOR: Some people would argue that there are serious doctrinal problems in just about every country in the world in which there is a significant Catholic population. Do you disagree?

ARCHBISHOP MEJIA: I don't think we are here to make statistics or opinion polls. If there are "doctrinal problems" in many places, I daresay that the bishops are there to witness to the faith of the Church and proclaim it -- as the Pope does in Rome, and everywhere.

VISITOR: Bishop Gaillot said the Pope told him he needs a role in union with the rest of the French episcopate. Has any progress been made on that count?

ARCHBISHOP MEJIA: I believe it is public knowledge that the French Episcopal Conference offered Bishop Gaillot three pastoral alternatives with people in need of help. I am not aware of his final decision regarding such alternatives.

VISITOR: What was your reaction to Bishop Gaillot celebrating the first anniversary of his ouster by setting up the first "virtual diocese" on the Internet?

ARCHBISHOP MEJIA: I am afraid "virtual dioceses" are only "virtual" -- namely, they simply do not exist, nor is the Internet apt to give them any existence.

VISITOR: Let's move from France to Germany. Hundreds of thousands of Germans -- and German speakers from other countries -- have signed petitions asking for the Church to "loosen up" its teachings regarding priestly celibacy and the ordination of women. A similar drive has begun in the United States.

How are these kinds of protests dealt with in Rome? Who has the responsibility to deal with them?

ARCHBISHOP MEJIA: Such "petitions" as you mention, but then you qualify them better as "protests," never got to Rome, at least to my knowledge. The bishops concerned in Germany and Austria have dealt appropriately with them by rejecting what is incompatible with the universal Church's faith and discipline, while trying to maintain contact with the people behind them.

We all know that Rome has sufficiently expressed its mind about the points raised.

VISITOR: What do you consider the most difficult countries for naming bishops? Some of those nominated in Switzerland and Austria have practically been rejected by large parts of the Catholic flock. What can you do in these cases?

ARCHBISHOP MEJIA: I do not think there are "difficult" countries for the appointment of bishops. Such appointments are "difficult" in themselves, because the good of the Church and the glory of the Lord are involved.

If a flock or a part of it rejects a bishop, the first reaction is to try to understand the reasons -- if any -- and then put remedy to them. The role of Rome has always been to find ways of peace, not to resort to traumatic solutions, often worse than the problems they are intended to solve.

VISITOR: The Pope has often been criticized for making only like-minded men bishops, sort of "John Paul II-clones." What is your reaction to that charge?

ARCHBISHOP MEJIA: I could answer with another question: Would that be a charge? That the bishops resemble the Pope in faith, discipline and pastoral engagement might only mean that they reproduce the image of the Supreme Pastor of our souls, as the First Epistle of Peter says.

But there is still enough plurality in the Church for the Pope to be able to speak quite often of the "exchange of gifts." This can be seen, among other things, in the assemblies of the Synod of Bishops.

VISITOR: What do you do in cases such as that of Bishop Brendan Comiskey in Ireland, who said publicly that the Church should remain open to the possibility of women priests? Or to put it positively, how should a bishop behave when he's not in agreement with Rome?

ARCHBISHOP MEJIA: In such cases, as I already said, Rome is bound to intervene, ascertaining the facts, consulting other bishops, speaking with the bishop in question, etc.

It is perhaps in order to recall here that bishops solemnly promise, in their episcopal ordination, to defend and promote the faith of the Church and to be loyal and faithful to the Holy Father.

This is why they are made bishops in the first place. If such an engagement is violated, without any hope of redress, the bishop should resign or face the consequences.

VISITOR: Who plays the biggest role in naming bishops: the nuncio, your congregation or the Pope?

ARCHBISHOP MEJIA: We hope the biggest role in the appointment of bishops is played by the Holy Spirit, to whom we all turn in the exercise of this difficult ministry. If by the "biggest role" you mean the decision to appoint somebody, this is the Pope's exclusive right. The congregation, the nuncio and others involved help prepare that decision in different ways and at various levels.

VISITOR: Do the people in a given diocese have any role in who will govern their church? Should they?

ARCHBISHOP MEJIA: Consultations made by the nuncio are large and protracted, albeit confidential. On the other hand, canon law invites singular bishops and/or ecclesiastical provinces . . . to draw lists of possible candidates for the episcopacy and have them sent to Rome through the nuncio. Individual Christians and groups can, if they wish, propose candidates to the nuncio or to the Holy See.

I believe the "people" are more involved in this matter than many would suspect. It should, however, be kept in mind that the Church is not a democracy in the usual sense of the word and shall never become one.

VISITOR: There has been much discussion about what precise teaching authority bishops' conferences have. What is your opinion on this matter?

ARCHBISHOP MEJIA: In fact, the teaching authority of episcopal conferences is still discussed among theologians. It is premature, I believe, to express an opinion on the subject, much less in the context of an interview like this, the matter being known for its complexity and its many difficult and far-reaching implications, [both] theological and canonical.

VISITOR: An individual bishop is the teacher of the faith in his diocese, and bishops are of divine origin, whereas bishops conferences are human constructs. That seems to be quite a difference.

ARCHBISHOP MEJIA: Yes, and that's part of the problem. However, episcopal conferences have the backing of Vatican Council II, the Code of Canon Law and, at least in some cases, a time-honored tradition, which means that they belong to ecclesiastical law, just as many other institutions in the Church.

But not all the aspects of their nature and operation have yet been cleared. That is why the matter has still to be studied and discussed, while life goes on -- which is also helpful. Providence, you know, guides also the human institutions, especially in the Church.

Burke writes from Rome



Copyright 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved