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.