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SACRED COLLEGE
from issue no. 05 - 2008

“Once a bishop is appointed to a particular see, he must generally and in principle stay there for ever”


In this interview Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, Dean of the Sacred College, calls for a return to the ancient practice and rule of stable episcopal appointments


Interview granted to 30Days in April 1999 by Gianni Cardinale


“A fine article that caught my attention for lots of reasons. Cardinal Vincenzo Fagiolo is a man of great wisdom and legal and pastoral experience. And then he was a member of the Congregation I had the honor of leading, in the collegiate spirit, for 14 years. I am very grateful to him since it had to be somebody like him to make the suggestion”. Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, Dean of the Sacred College, had read and appreciated the article by Cardinal Fagiolo published in the L’Osservatore Romano on March 27 [1999] and reproduced by 30Days in the last issue [n. 4 April 1999].
In that article the Italian cardinal declared: “The dignity of the episcopate lies in the munus it carries and it is such that, on its own, precludes any idea of promotion or transfer, which should be rarer if not stopped. A bishop is not an official, a dignitary, a passing bureaucrat making ready for a more prestigious post”.
Gantin is well qualified to speak on the question since from 1984 until last year [1998] he was the Prefect of the Congregation of Bishops, the Vatican department which helps the Pope choose successors to the Apostles in a good part of the world (in mission territories this is the privilege of the Congregation of Propaganda Fide, while in the Eastern Catholic Churches bishops are chosen according to their own procedures).

Paul VI with Cardinal Gantin

Paul VI with Cardinal Gantin

So Cardinal Fagiolo’s article gave you food for thought?
BERNARDIN GANTIN: A diocese is not a civil administration but is part of the reality of the Church’s mystery. It is a grouping of the people of God in a given area. The priest who is appointed bishop and assumes the responsibility for this people of God must be well aware of the commitment entrusted to him by the supreme authority who is the Pope. It is the Pope who names bishops, not the prefect, not the Congregation. On his appointment, the bishop must be a father and a pastor for the people of God. One is always a father. Once a bishop is appointed to a particular see, he must generally and in principle stay there for ever. Let that be clear. The relationship between a bishop and a diocese is also depicted as a marriage and a marriage, according to the spirit of the Gospel, is indissoluble. The new bishop must not make other personal plans. There may well be serious reasons, very serious reasons for a decision by the authorities that the bishop go from one family, so to speak, to another. In making this decision, the authorities take numerous factors into consideration. They do not include an eventual desire by a bishop to change see. I fully endorse Cardinal Fagiolo’s points: a bishop appointed cannot say: “I’ll be here for two or three years and then I’ll be promoted because of my skills, my talents, my gifts ...”. I therefore hope this article is read by many bishops here in the Vatican, in Europe and in recently evangelized countries. They must all reflect on it.
Hopes for transfer center mainly on what are known as the cardinalate sees ...
GANTIN: The notion of the so-called cardinalate dioceses needs to be made very relative. The cardinalate is a service asked of a bishop or a priest taking many circumstances into account. Today in recently evangelized countries, in Asia and Africa for instance, there are no so-called cardinalates, in that the purple is conferred on the person. That should be the case everywhere, even in the West. There would be no deminutio capitis, nor would there be any lack of respect if, for example, the archbishop of the very great archbishopric of Milan, or of other very ancient and highly respected dioceses, were not made cardinal. It wouldn’t be a catastrophe.
For 14 years you were in charge of the Congregation of Bishops. Do you remember any occasions on which the desire to be transferred was expressed by prelates who thought their own diocese “insufficient”?
GANTIN: And how. Requests came my way of the kind: “I’ve been in this diocese two or three years already and I’ve done everything that was asked of me ...”. But what does that mean? I have been very shocked by declarations of the kind. Not least because the people making the request – sometimes joking and sometimes not – thought they were expressing a legitimate desire. On other occasions, at the conclusion of an episcopal consecration, I have heard Churchmen cry “ad altiora!”, “on to higher things!”. I found that deeply disturbing also.
In the early centuries transfer between episcopal sees was expressly forbidden, a prohibition which lapsed with the passage of time. Do you think the moment has come to go back to the old practice?
GANTIN: Undoubtedly. In the past, when the number of dioceses increased, it was understandable that transfers were made. In countries in Europe, where the Catholic hierarchy is by now established, the need no longer exists, whereas a need of the kind may still exist in the mission countries. But in the latter case transfers should be to less developed, more difficult sees rather than to more comfortable and prestigious ones ... More transfers means less order and nullifies the basic principle of stability. And it is also a lack of respect for the people of God who receive the bishop as father and pastor and see this father and pastor depart after only a few years.
Is it to be hoped that this stability might be juridically sanctioned in some way?
GANTIN: Certainly. It wouldn’t be a bad idea if some procedure were devised for introducing the rule into Canon Law. Of course there can be exceptions owing to serious circumstances. But the rule should establish the fixed nature so as to avoid social climbing and careerism ... I hope that Cardinal Fagiolo’s article, and why not, this interview as well, serve as a spur for achieving it, not least because there is the danger otherwise of providing material for scandalistic books written, alas, by Churchmen who don’t have the courage to put their names to them ...
I imagine you’re referring to the little book, Via col vento in Vaticano (Gone with the Wind in the Vatican), which caused such an uproar in the Roman Curia ...
GANTIN: The Church is a divine and human institution. Of course we acknowledge our sins and ask forgiveness of God and the Church for our sins. We are not saints, we are striving for saintliness. But it is unpleasant, it is bad to spread things around. It does no one any good. It shows a lack of common sense and a lack of love for the Church. Let’s try to help one another. To mock and destroy is not Christian.
The world and Europe in particular have been stunned by the war which broke out in the Balkans on March 24 [1999] ...
GANTIN: The Church cannot stand by and watch this cruel war, fought with extremely sophisticated weaponry, without expressing its profound anguish. Where is the human sensibility of the people who decided on this war? The Pope has rightly appealed for reconciliation, has begged people to go back to negotiation. When everything’s destroyed that’s when they go back to the table to talk. Wouldn’t it be better to do that first? We who are not familiar with the underlying reasons of this conflict wonder who and what is pushing these men, who have been democratically elected by their respective peoples to promote peaceand yet they wage war.


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