As we head into the Fourth of July holiday weekend here in the states, the Vatican approaches what is essentially its summer down time, beginning in August. As a result, various offices and congregations of the Holy See clear their desks in anticipation of being closed until sometime in September.
For the U.S. bishops, one of the signs that Rome is preparing for summer vacation is a late flurry of appointments -- bishops either being named, reassigned or retired -- all over the country. The last several weeks have brought with them new appointments, culminating in this week's retirements of a couple auxiliary bishops, the appointment of a couple new auxiliaries, and the announced transition in Spokane, Washington.
While the deck may not be completely cleared, the current state of vacant dioceses and dioceses with bishops serving past retirment age breaks down as ...
Four vacant dioceses, all of which have come vacant since April: San Antonio (since Archbishop Jose Gomez's April 6 appointment as coadjutor of Los Angeles), Orlando (since the April 20 appointment of Archbishop Thomas Wenski to Miami), the Ruthenian Archeparchy in Pittsburgh (since the June 10 death of Archbishop Basil Schott) and Rapid City, South Dakota (since this week's appointment of Bishop Blase Cupich to Spokane).
Five dioceses with bishops serving past retirement age: Seattle, Oklahoma City, Philadelphia, Savannah and Trenton. It's worth noting that the bishop of Trenton, John M. Smith, has already been assigned a coadjutor, Bishop-elect David O'Connell, to succeed him automatically upon his retirement.
Amid all of these late-breaking U.S. appointments, another bishop's appointment came out this week that, while it didn't involve any U.S. bishops directly, will have a direct impact on future bishops' appointments, both in the U.S. and globally. This was the appointment of Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Quebec as Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops.
The Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops is the head of the Vatican office that oversees the appointments of all bishops in the Catholic Church. This post has been filled by Italian Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re since 2000.
The process of appointing a bishop is a long and complicated one. In short, bishops of various regions meet from time to time and throw out names of priests who might make good bishops. These names are given to the Apostolic Nuncio, the pope's personal representative to a country, who shares them with the Congregation for Bishops. When it's time to appoint a new bishop to a diocese, priests and others in the diocese are quietly consulted, the needs of the diocese are assessed, and the Congregation for Bishops draws up a list, called a terna, of three candidates that goes to the pope with the Congregation's recommendation noted. The pope has final say as to who is appointed. He can accept the Congregation's recommendation. He can also reject the terna in its entirety.
In order to submit and receive these bishops' appointments, the Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops has a standing weekly audience with the pope. He is one of only three Vatican department heads to do so. The other two are the Vatican Secretary of State and the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (Pope Benedict's old job). Taken together, these posts are referred to by some Vatican watchers as the "Big Three," essentially the highest ranking posts in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. To phrase it glibly, they are responsible for 1. who we talk to (State), 2. what we believe (Doctrine of the Faith) and 3. who's in charge (Bishops).
From this perspective, the appointment of Cardinal Ouellet to the Congregation for Bishops takes on several layers of significance. First, Pope Benedict has put his own man in place for the selection and appointment of the world's bishops. This not only solidifies any personal "stamp" Benedict might put on these appointments. It also means he's now appointed all of the "Big Three," the other two being Cardinal William Levada, whom Benedict appointed to replace himself at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2005, and Cardinal Tarciscio Bertone, whom Benedict appointed Vatican Secretary of State in 2006. Both Levada and Bertone served at some point with then-Cardinal Ratzinger in the Doctrine Congregation.
Also significant is Cardinal Ouellet's nationality. While the Congregation for Bishops was served from 1984-1998 and 1998-2000 by an African and a Latin American, respectively, this is the first time the post has gone to a North American.
Cardinal Ouellet's nationality reflects the ongoing trend of the internationalization of the curia (the Vatican bureaucracy), which began after Vatican II and has steadily continued, with posts that have traditionally gone almost exclusively to Italians going to bishops from elsewhere in Europe and even from around the world. The most dramatic example of this shift, of course, came in October of 1978 with the election of the first non-Italian pope in 400 years (and first Polish pope ever), John Paul II.
With Cardinal Ouellet's appointment, as voices in the Catholic blogosphere have already pointed out, this is the first time in the Church's history that two of the Big Three have been occupied by non-Europeans, let alone North Americans. And this shift has occurred in just over five years. To illustrate, in 2005, the top leadership in Rome was:
Pope John Paul II (Polish)
Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano (Italian)
Prefect of the CDF, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (German)
Prefect of Bishops, Cardinal Giovanni Re (Italian)
Now it looks like this:
Pope Benedict XVI (German)
Secretary of State Cardinal Tarciscio Bertone (Italian)
Prefect of the CDF, Cardinal William Levada (American)
Prefect of Bishops, Cardinal Marc Ouellet (Canadian)
The difference five years can make is astounding.