You could have knocked me over with a feather back on July 8 when the Vatican released the news that my very own pastor and longtime friend Father Stephen Parkes had been chosen bishop of the Savannah, Georgia Diocese. Father Parkes was installed two weeks ago, September 23 to be precise. Among the consecrating bishops was his brother Gregory, bishop of the St. Petersburg-Tampa Diocese. Let me be quick to point out that my surprise was not due to any doubt about the appropriateness of the appointment; the new Bishop Parkes meets the measure of the office in every respect as a spiritual, pastoral, and administrative leader. My surprise is the result of my age and years of observing “bishop making” in the United States. The “how?” is sometimes just as interesting as “the who?” [In this video Bishop-elect Parkes describes how he learned of his appointment.]
For much of my life there was a certain formula for becoming a bishop in the United States. Ultimately the final decision on the appointment of new bishops, then as now, is channeled through the Apostolic Nunciature in Washington, D.C. The Nunciature’s website defines its duties: “The Pope, as the Vicar of Christ on earth, in order to ensure that each country has a tangible sign of his care for the Lord's entire Flock, appoints an Apostolic Nuncio (Ambassador of the Holy See) as his personal and official representative both to the Church in the United States and to its Government.” The present U.S. Nuncio is His Excellency Archbishop Christophe Pierre. The nuncio’s primary responsibilities involve the good order of the Church in the U.S. and the appointment of bishops.
As it is impossible for a nuncio to know every priest in the United States, he must depend upon the advice of local, regional, and national advisors, usually bishops, to identify episcopal candidates; this would include the qualifications of priests for their initial episcopal ordinations, and the promotion of already ordained bishops to larger sees, particularly where some delicacy or diplomatic touch was required. Rocco Palmo, whose Whispers in the Loggia blog is usually the best source for the “how” of every episcopal assignments, had little to say on Father Parkes’ appointment because he [Rocco] was preoccupied with the high visibility appointment and installation of the new Archbishop of St. Louis, Mitchell Rozanski, a pastoral moderate succeeding several St. Louis bishops of the cultural right, during the height of the George Floyd protests this summer. [Rozanski is already dealing with conflict as of this writing.] St Louis [Ferguson] had been the site of the Michael Brown shooting in 2014. I would call the Archdiocese of St. Louis in 2020 a “special circumstances” appointment; Savannah, as best I can tell, does not suffer from this level of tension nor does the diocese have a notoriously high number of abusive priests. According to Bishops Accountability, the Savannah and Orlando Dioceses each have had fourteen abusing clergy in their respective histories. By contrast, my home diocese of Buffalo reports 176.
The selection and appointment of bishops made directly by the Vatican is something of a modern development, beginning shortly after the exile of Napoleon in the 1800’s. In the early Church bishops might be chosen by the citizenry, as in the case of St. Augustine, where the Church of Hippo in North Africa virtually put him under house arrest till he agreed to take the miter around 400 A.D. Similarly, two of the Church’s Bishops of Rome, St. Leo the Great [r. 440-461 A.D.] and St. Gregory the Great [r. 590-604 A.D.] came to their offices to, among other things, fill the civil leadership void when the seat of the Roman Empire was transferred from Rome to Constantinople [modern Istanbul, Turkey.]
By the high middle ages church and state were so tightly drawn that kings, princes, and other secular powers had, at the very least, veto power over episcopal assignments made by local bishops in regional synods. The sin of simony, the outright purchase of a church office such as bishop was a perennial problem throughout the period. It was only in the nineteenth century that the Church asserted its independence in the fashion we have today, notably under the reign of Pius IX [r. 1846-1878]. The limited technology for significant papal oversight of dioceses on matters such as episcopal appointments [and many other matters] hindered communication until the twentieth century.
The era of Pius IX began the centralization of church management and doctrinal unity we are accustomed to today, and as noted above, the apostolic nuncio serves the pope by submitting names of worthy candidates in the country of his assignment. Traditionally the nuncio presents the pope with three names for an episcopal opening. I was pleased to find the American process on the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which incidentally is a fine teaching instrument in adult education. There are several factors or general norms not listed on the site, though. After the defrocking of Cardinal McCarrick of Washington two years ago, more attention is paid to a candidate’s “rabbi,” so to speak, the man or men of power or influence who lobbied and/or promoted the candidate throughout his career. Pope Francis has delayed releasing the McCarrick report for fear of releasing the names of the ex-Cardinal’s promoters over his career.
Another unspoken criterion factor in bishop selection is the candidate’s public theological stance on the teachings and emphases of the reigning pope. At least since the election of Pope John Paul II in 1978, numerous commentators have identified several sine qua non litmus tests for prospective bishops. Prior to Pope Francis, candidates were expected to publicly affirm [or at least not publicly dissent from] several sexual teachings of the Church which had come under questioning by working theologians and many parish priests. Specifically, candidates for the episcopacy were screened for their teaching and non-dissent on issues of the sinfulness of artificial birth control and conduct issues such as cohabitation, in vitro fertilization, etc. In very recent times Vatican examination of candidates has been expanded to measure support of Church teaching on matters of homosexual lifestyle and marriage, and the ordination of women. According to the USCCB guidelines cited above, the investigative process of candidates usually takes six to eight months from the time that a diocesan see becomes vacant. Of course, the USCCB has “binders full of candidates” to paraphrase Mitt Romney’s unfortunate phrase about women candidates in the 2012 presidential campaign. The nuncio and his collaborating archbishops are not starting from zero.
What kind of a priestly career favors consideration for an empty see? When I was ordained in 1974 the cursus was somewhat clearer than it is today. A seminarian or young priest given permission to study in Rome [at the Pontifical North American College] had a leg up, having studied orthodox theology literally in the shadow of St. Peter’s. Career-minded clerics used their Rome years to make vital connections, working for Vatican dignitaries and learning “the Roman way” which begins with fluency in Italian speech and wines. Graduates of the PNAC were likely to return to their home dioceses to serve as chancery officials, such as Chancellor of the Diocese, Director of the Tribunal, or rector of the diocesan seminary.
In recent years, however, there has been a subtle shift toward the selection of bishops from a broader pool of “field career experience.” Since Vatican II there has been more racial diversity evident in episcopal nominations. Priests who have excelled in specific ministries can be considered if their skills match the needs of the vacant see. Father Parkes’ predecessor in Savannah appears to have made his bones in Catholic secondary education. Orlando’s present bishop, John Noonan, was a teacher/officer of the Florida seminary along with parish experience. The bishop Margaret and I have known the longest was pastor of an oriental parish in New York City, as I recall, when he was called to join Cardinal Egan as his auxiliary at St. Patrick’s Cathedral before assuming his present position as bishop of Camden, New Jersey.
The new Bishop Parkes was the consummate parish priest. He did not study in Rome, did not write a book, did not engage in high visibility attention-getting ventures. He was a parish priest for all his twenty-two years. He undertook numerous time-consuming responsibilities at the requests of the bishops he served under, such as establishing a new parish, energizing campus ministry at UCF, participating in the development of capital gifts and estate planning ministry for the diocese, and serving on the endless boards that keep the chancery in business. I believe that the bishops in Florida recognized him as an able candidate for the episcopacy and put his name forward to the nuncio,
As a parishioner in his parish, over the years I had the sense that he was replicating the parish model he had grown up in years ago in Long Island, an experience of church that brought him considerable happiness and direction in his life. The devotional life of our parish was strong; he did everything possible to cultivate prayers and practices, particularly around the Eucharist. He was strongly prolife and fostered parish involvement in several charitable ventures including Habitat for Humanity. He navigated the parish through the culture wars that flare up intensely in swing states like Florida. He believed in maintaining a healthy, large, and tastefully appointed parish plant [and the only time I really got angry with him was a time that I thought he might be going overboard on the HGTV side of his pastoral priorities.]
Being a pastor to his bones, I sincerely hope that the inevitable change in his work environment will not prove too much of a strain. Pastor Parkes knew the names and circumstances of a great many of the 4,000 families in our parish. He had a reputation for particular care in the celebration of life events such as First Communions, weddings, and funerals. It was not unheard of that he would perform a wedding of an Annunciation alumnus hundreds of miles away on a Saturday and be back in time to offer the conventual Mass on Sunday. With his new responsibilities he will be fortunate to see his 79 parishes only infrequently. I worked in the Savannah Diocese as a seminarian in 1973, in Thomasville, Georgia, and several smaller Franciscan parishes in the southwest corner of the state that bordered the Florida Panhandle and Alabama. Georgia is a large state, with only two dioceses, Savannah and Atlanta.
I pray that his clergy will accept him. Many books could be written on the nature of the relationship between bishops and their priests. I believe it was Pope Pius X who complained that “I can be thwarted by the lowliest curate.” Thomas Jefferson said that it is nearly impossible to get thirteen clocks to chime at the same time. Much will depend, of course, on the policies and bearings of the man he succeeds. [As a former pastor myself, I knew it was time to move on when I started cleaning up my own mistakes and not my predecessors’.] The impact of the Covid-19 virus will be another challenge, as it is all over the country. The good news is that 50 miles across the Cooper River at Savannah is the Trappists’ Mepkin Abbey. This is a site where harried clerics can find some measure of peace and solitude. It is also where I have purchased my final resting place. Pastor Stephen was always fond of saying “let us meet in our prayers.” If I end up in a dark corner of Purgatory, at least I can shoot flares in the direction of the bishop’s residence and ask for help from Bishop Stephen.
On My Mind