What’s With the Franciscan Bishops?

Even one of the greatest theologians, Ministers General, and saints of the middle ages — St. Bonaventure of Bagnoregio — was, toward the end of his life, made a bishop and then a Cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church. While Bonaventure is likely the most famous Franciscan bishop, he is certainly not the last. I currently live with a retired Franciscan bishop, Bishop Capistrano Heim, OFM, the now-retired bishop of Itaituba, Brazil. The current Archbishop of San Juan, Puerto Rico, Archbishop Robert Gonzalez, OFM, is also a friar from my province. The newly appointed Archbishop of the Military Ordinariate in Korea is also an OFM friar and a fellow St. Bonaventure University alum.  So, to see Franciscan friars appointed as bishops is not something entirely strange.

Yet, historically speaking, Franciscan bishops (as with most bishops appointed from within religious communities, e.g., Franciscans, Jesuits, Dominicans, etc.) were appointed by the pope most frequently in mission territories where there may not have been enough (or any) local priests to select a bishop from among their ranks.

But the big ecclesiastical news in the United States this week has focused on two newly appointed bishops, both of whom are Franciscans of the Conventual and Capuchin varieties. I’m not sure what to make of these appointments, and several people have been asking me about my thoughts on the bishop-elects of Philadelphia and Savannah.

There are a couple of thoughts that come immediately to mind. The first is that I have a difficult time making sense of any ordained religious being appointed a diocesan bishop outside of some very unique circumstances (such as in mission territory), just as I have a difficult time making sense of bishops from other states or countries being appointed or moved around to other locales. In both instances we are talking about a man who, while he is presumably a good person who likely demonstrates some leadership skills, is nevertheless largely unfamiliar with the “flock” he has been appointed to guide. In the case of Chaput to Philly, he himself admitted that he knows very little about the city, its residents, its priests and therefore knows little about the challenges, needs and gifts of the diocese.

It would seem to me that it makes much more sense to appoint local priests who demonstrate leadership, pastoral sensitivity and the other requisite episcopal skills from within a diocese, so that this bishop might be the person who knows the diocese the best. In the case of a religious priest being appointed a diocesan bishop, you necessarily and always are talking about someone outside of the diocese, not just a particular diocese, but an outsider to all dioceses. Religious, while working with the local bishop in various ministries, are neither technically nor practically part of a diocese.

Another thought I have about these recent appointments brings me back to the Church’s tradition of appointing religious to be bishops in mission territory. Is it not possible that, either in an implicit or perhaps more-direct way, the Pope and others in Rome see the United States as increasingly more a “mission territory” as they have in recent years described Western Europe? Could it be that it is not such an accident that Franciscans are being tapped for ecclesiastical leadership in the United States today? If this is the case, what are the broader implications of such a shift?

It is very possible that Franciscans are being asked to serve in these positions of leadership because of the classically affectionate way in which the Franciscan friars have been received over the centuries. St. Francis of Assisi is by far one of the most popular saints of all time and those who follow in his footprints are likely to engender — to greater or lesser degrees — some of the same characteristics that have made the poverello so beloved. This in itself is not such a bad thing, but even going back to Bonaventure and other early examples of Franciscan bishop-appointments one finds a conflict with our professed way of life.

St. Francis, in his Rule, makes it clear that the brothers are to reject positions of leadership. They are always to be loyal to the Pope and other Church leaders (which makes saying “no” to the Pope when he asks you to be a bishop another difficulty), but they are not to be in charge. This has to do with the centrality of the Franciscan friars’ vocation to minority, of being (literally) lesser brothers.

All this said, I am very interested to see how things play out. Two of the most prominent (and typically “Cardinalate”) Sees in the United States are led by Capuchin Franciscans and with the appointment of another Franciscan bishop on the East Coast, it will be interesting to see if and how these episcopal leaders shape the Church in the US. I will certainly be keep an eye out.

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10 Responses to “What’s With the Franciscan Bishops?”

  1. realcatholicmom Says:

    I think one of your ponderings hits the nail on the head – the United States of America is absoLUTEly missionary territory. Prayers are desperately needed for our Church leadership, clergy, and laity regardless of order or status. Thank you so much for your thought-provoking post!

  2. I agree that the episcopacy only puts a sharper point on the general question of how the Franciscan charism is to be reconciled with the power of the clerical state in general. On the other hand, we can also ask what the Church sees in us as helpful in the challenges of our particular historical moment. Thank for the post!

  3. Br. Dan, I think you would be a good bishop someday.

  4. angelus gambatese Says:

    Right on, Dan!

  5. [...] See the original post here: What's With the Franciscan Bishops? « Datin… [...]

  6. Thanks for the post, Dan! As you know, you are entering one of the controverted aspects of Franciscan history. What “Francis would think of it” is an imporant question, but as you know, the Order has been divided over that issue even in his lifetime!. What detetmines our charism as “Lesser Brothers” ? ts it solely the experience of Francis and the first brothers? If it were, you wouldn’t be going on for doctoral studies, either!

    But it is still a good question – should the Pope ask Lesser Brothers to hold power in the church? You pose it well.

    I,m not sure though about your point that religious order bishops are being named is because the US is more and more missionary territory. After all, Europe is far more “mission territory” than the US in terms of being a secularized society, but there are very few religious order bishops there. Anyway, as you said, the reason Franciscans were named in those countries was the lack of available diocesan clergy — a situation that clearly does not apply in the US. Or is it simply that the Pope likes these men who have come to his attention?

    Anyway, a good post!!

    • Interesting comments re Franciscan Bishops and leadership within the Church. – Surely the Franciscans should look within its own walls and see the in-equality between ordained and non-ordained – Vatican 11 tells all orders to go back to its roots. How far did the Friars go? Obviously not far enough to discover that the Franciscans were never a clerical order – Perhaps this is also an other example of the in-equality and power gathering within the Church in general.

  7. The appointment of religious as bishops is also prevalent here in Honduras. None of the twelve bishops are diocesan priests and only four are native Hondurans. In one sense we are a mission country, and as far as I know most of the bishops have lived in Honduras before being named bishop. But it is troubling that there are no diocesan priests who have become bishops. Some of this may be due to the lack of advanced education of some priests, but one wonders.

  8. Pat sieber ofm Says:

    Dan
    Good reflection. The Friar Bishops are being named to put out the fires in Dioceses where the abuse scandal has created chaos.Bishop O’malley is the Anti- Cardinal Law in Boston.Chaput is being called to Philly to clean up the mess.These men are seen as different than diocesan clergy and will give the church a different image.The friar from denver is seen as a hard nosed reformer and just what Philly needs,or just what Rome needs.!
    God help us all

  9. Dn. James P. Vaughn, OFS Says:

    I have to agree with my brother friar. In 1978, Pope Paul VI was delivering the new rule to the Seculars, I was in the last year of my formation studies with the lesser brothers of OFM of the Santa Barbara Province decerning whether to profess as a brother or go to law school and join the civil rights movement as a professed secular Franciscan lawyer taking the good into the court room shoulder to shoulder to lawyer Jesuit Priests. Years later and still trying to keep my independence from having to be incarnated with a diocese bishop, I obtained a masters from the Franciscan University in Steubenville. Only after further studies in Rome, I was ordained into the deaconate of an Eparcj

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