You've probably seen NCR's article about lay groups in Albany, N.Y., and Greensburg, Pa., that hope to have input on the search for their bishop. U.S. Catholic is hosting a "Sounding Board" survey asking the question: Should laypeople have a role in choosing their bishop?
Maybe a better way to ask that question is "What role should laypeople have in electing their bishops," because, as both articles point out, Catholics haven't always chosen bishops the way we do right now. Most notably St. Ambrose was elected as bishop by the people and clergy of Milan, and John Carroll, the first bishop of the United States, was acclaimed by priests of Maryland and confirmed by the pope. Bishop selection was finally settled, according to U.S. Catholic, in the 1917 Code of Canon Law, which clearly gives the power to choose a bishop away from the hands of the people and to the papal office.
I agree with U.S. Catholic that a sound argument could be made for returning that power back to the people. Instead of apostolic letters sent usually to only wealthy donors of the church asking for limited input on three different bishop candidates, letters could be sent to regular parishioners, the kind that fill the pews at every Mass but never get a say in official church business. The letters could ask "Francis" questions, as U.S. Catholic suggests: "Does this man have a concern for the poor? Does he dress in the best clothes, drive a fancy car, and enjoy fine food and drink? Does he spend more time with rich people than with poor people?"
Those parishioners know the answers to these questions. They know the pastors in their churches. They know what kind of men are on the pulpit. They know if made a bishop, which priest could make a difference. The people should name the right candidates for their dioceses. The people should have a say in which three should be sent onward for review to the Congregation of Bishops in Rome. Or better yet, the people should be able to put it to a vote.
These two groups are not the only ones calling for a change. There is a current vacancy in the Diocese of Burlington, Vt., and the Concerned Catholics of Vermont are sending a letter of criteria for their next bishop to Cardinal Sean O'Malley and Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano.
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"Our primary concern is for a bishop who will, simply stated, communicate with the laity, meaning listen to us as well as talk to us. In this regard we are advocating for an event we call a Vermont Catholic Community Forum," said Gary S. Chicoine, a member of the group.
After all, as U.S. Catholic states: "Pope Francis says that he wants a special kind of bishop for our church — he wants 'shepherds who smell of their sheep.' Let us take our Holy Father at his word: Who knows how the sheep smell better than the sheep themselves? No one. So then why not let the sheep make a modest proposal and ask that we laypeople have a significant say in the choice of our bishops."
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