Retirement of a Bishop

A recent photo of Bishop Baker, after celebrating priestly ordination.

My bishop, the Most Rev. Robert J. Baker, S.T.D., turns 75 today. Happy Birthday!

Many people of course realize that bishops ordinarily retire when they reach 75, and so are wondering “what happens next” — some are also anxious about getting a new bishop. Change and the uncertainty that precedes it aren’t easy! God is in control and we entrust Bishop Baker, his successor, and ourselves to Him.

It’s interesting to note that the Church does not require a diocesan bishop to submit his resignation upon completing 75 years of age; rather, she requests it. From the Code of Canon Law, canon 401 §1: “A diocesan Bishop who has completed his seventy-fifth year of age is requested to offer his resignation from office to the Supreme Pontiff, who, taking all the circumstances into account, will make provision accordingly.”

If a Bishop does not freely offer his resignation upon turning 75, at some point thereafter the Holy See will usually make a concerned inquiry and reiterate the “request”… but I think most, if not all, bishops nowadays send in their resignation pretty much right away. So we may presume Bishop Baker will do likewise, although I do not know any specifics about when he is sending his in.

What happens next is that the Holy Father, with the help of the Congregation for Bishops, may do basically one of four things:

  1. Accept the bishop’s resignation and appoint a successor right away;
  2. Delay accepting the bishop’s resignation until a replacement bishop has been selected/named. This happens in many cases, especially when there is no urgent reason (such as ill health or local scandal) for accepting the outgoing bishop’s resignation;
  3. Accept the bishop’s resignation and then allow the College of Consultors of the diocese (a group of priests established by the bishop to help in the governance of the diocese) to elect a diocesan administrator from among the priests of the diocese — or even electing the retired bishop as diocesan administrator. The diocesan administrator would then run the diocese until a new bishop is named;
  4. Accept the bishop’s resignation and appoint an apostolic administrator (often, the metropolitan archbishop, so in this case it would be Archbishop Rodi of Mobile – though sometimes it might happen that some other bishop or priest is named to this position by the Holy Father); the apostolic administrator would then run the diocese until a new bishop is named.

When Bishop Foley submitted his resignation upon turning 75 in 2005, it was accepted by the Holy Father rather quickly — but then the College of Consultors elected him as diocesan administrator! A diocesan administrator has more or less the same powers as a bishop, except where the law limits it or “the nature of things” limits it. For example, a priest who is a diocesan administrator obviously cannot celebrate the sacrament of Holy Orders, because only bishops may do that. Diocesan administrators also may not “innovate” (start new major initiatives or change existing structures and plans) or otherwise run things in a way that could prejudice the rights of the new bishop. Basically, he’s to keep things going as smoothly as possible until the Holy Father sends a new bishop, who will then establish and execute his vision for the diocese.

So the question is, which of the above four options might the Holy Father take upon receiving Bishop Baker’s letter of resignation? Well, we don’t yet know, and it’s difficult to guess. Any of those scenarios is possible. We will just have to wait and see.

It is worth noting that, as I write this, there are already eight dioceses that are “vacant” — that have either a diocesan administrator or an apostolic administrator and are awaiting a new bishop. In other words, the previous bishop was either moved to another diocese, died while in office, or his resignation was accepted for one reason or another before a new bishop was named. One of those eight dioceses — Helena, Montana – has been vacant for over a year now. So it seems there is a bit of a backlog. The web site I linked to is a good one to check to keep up with these things and with other stats and facts about bishops and dioceses.

So might we have a bit of a wait? It is possible. But we just don’t know.

Where can we find out when Bishop Baker’s retirement is accepted and a new bishop is named? The Daily Bulletin of the Holy See Press Office is where the news of episcopal nominations is announced. The traditional time for publishing this bulletin is “Roman noon” — about 5:00am U.S. Central Time — though on some days it comes out earlier or later. I suppose the Holy See will see an uptick in daily traffic from Alabama for a while as we await this news!

Of course, we live in the age of “leaks” and there are some reporters who somehow get a scoop and announce things early. We just need to have a holy skepticism about such reports, as they are not always proven correct. The nomination of bishops is something that happens under the Pontifical Secret, and there are serious consequences for those who are bound to keep that secret and fail to do so. It’s always best to look for confirmation from official sources, which in this case would be the Holy See Press Office bulletin. Of course, almost immediately after it is announced by the Holy See, a local press conference is held to announce the news.

There are also questions about how new bishops are selected. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has an informational page about this HERE. It’s an interesting and somewhat complex process. Has the process begun yet for our new bishop? We are not privy to that information. It is good, however, to pray for our Apostolic Nuncio, for those who work at the Congregation for Bishops, and for the Holy Father, as well as all others who are involved in this task.

Being a bishop today is not an easy or enviable task. And besides the particular challenges of the times in which we live, there is also the fact that the bishop in any age has a high calling and will therefore be held to a higher standard by our Lord. Bishops always need our prayers. Bishop Baker is still our bishop and so we should continue to pray for him as he finishes out his time of service to us. It is good now also to start praying for the process of finding his successor, which will surely begin soon, if it has not started already. And, since God already knows who that successor will be, we can pray for him also and ask the Lord to prepare his heart so that he will be a wise and prudent steward and a faithful father of us here in the Diocese of Birmingham in Alabama from the first moment he becomes our bishop.

I mentioned in the beginning that this time of inevitable transition perhaps gives rise to anxiety. I am not personally anxious because I really do trust in the Lord to take care of us and to give us the graces we need to do his work. Let us try to resist any temptations to anxiety, and instead foster a childlike confidence in God. I always think of what a wise old priest — may he rest in peace — once told me: “Put in a good day’s work and let God take care of the rest”. We should strive each day to be faithful to our respective callings and then let God take care of the rest. And he will.

Happy birthday, Bishop Baker! Thank you for your service to us and to the Church!

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