Cardinal Arizmendi: Synod and bishops

Let us ask the Holy Spirit to enlighten his Church on the most appropriate way to proceed

Cardinal Felipe Arizmendi, bishop emeritus of San Cristóbal de Las Casas and responsible for the Doctrine of the Faith in the Mexican Episcopal Conference (CEM), offers the readers of Exaudi his weekly article entitled “Synod and bishops”.



In some regions of the Church, it is demanded as a right that local communities be given more say in electing their bishops, or in removing them. This was done in some cases in ancient history. However, the secular experience of the Church, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, has legislated the way to proceed in the selection of candidates to the episcopate, or in their removal, taking into account the People of God, but not in a democratic way, with rallies and propaganda, with pressures and manipulations of interest, but with very reserved consultations, protected by pontifical secrecy.

How does one proceed to elect a bishop for a diocese or archdiocese? When a diocese becomes vacant, because of the death of its bishop, or because his resignation is accepted due to age or for other reasons, or when an auxiliary bishop is to be elected, the Apostolic Nuncio in each country initiates a broad consultation not only with bishops and cardinals, but also with priests, nuns and lay people. We are asked for 30 names to be consulted, to ask them to freely propose candidates from their own diocese or elsewhere, or to ask them specifically about a candidate who has been proposed; it is insisted that the people consulted are not only like-minded, but that they know him well and report truthfully and freely. Many years ago, I proposed a priest for a certain diocese, because I considered him suitable, but when people in the diocese where he lived were consulted, they informed me that he had a child, which made him unfit for this service. He was no longer appointed bishop. Nobody knows about this, because these consultations are very secretive.

There is no lack of priests who wish to become bishops, because they do not know how complicated this ministry is. That is why Pope John Paul II said in Latin: “Volentibus, nolumus”; that is to say, those who want to become bishops, we reject them. If someone campaigns, that itself disqualifies him. On the other hand, a high percentage of proposed candidates, when they receive the official notification from Rome, do not accept, because they do not consider themselves suitable for this task. When, on 31 January 1991, Monsignor Prigione, Apostolic Delegate at that time, because he was not yet Nuncio, called me to the Nunciature and told me that Pope John Paul II was asking me to go as bishop to Tapachula, I asked him for time to go and pray in the Tabernacle. After a long time, I returned and told him that I found no serious reasons not to accept and that my parents and formators had taught me to be available for the services requested of me; on the following 7 February, I was officially informed of my appointment to that diocese. Not that I considered myself fit, but only available to serve. God has been extremely generous to me, bless Him!

On the other hand, when, on 12 January 2000, the same Pope asked me to leave Tapachula and go to San Cristóbal de Las Casas, as successor to Bishop Samuel Ruiz, I resisted in various ways, because I did not consider myself suitable for that diocese, although I always expressed my willingness to go wherever I was asked to go. On the following 31 March, my transfer was made public.


Jesus consulted no one to choose his twelve apostles, in particular Peter, but only spent a long time in prayer with his Father, always assisted by the Holy Spirit. He chose them freely, and though they failed him in many ways, he educated them for the task he entrusted to them: to continue his own mission.

What was said at the recent first assembly of the Synod of Bishops? I highlight just a few points:

Convergences on which all agreed:

“The figure of the Bishop can be properly understood in the interweaving of relationships with the portion of the People of God entrusted to him. As the visible principle of unity, he has in particular the task of discerning and coordinating the different charisms and ministries raised up by the Spirit for the proclamation of the Gospel and the common good of the community. This ministry is realised in a synodal way when governance is exercised in co-responsibility, preaching by listening to the faithful People of God, sanctification and liturgical celebration by humility and conversion.

The bishop is seen as the father of all; in secularised societies, however, there is a crisis of his authority. It is important not to lose sight of the sacramental character of the episcopate, so as not to assimilate the figure of the bishop to a civil authority.

Expectations on the bishop are often very high, and many bishops complain of an overload of administrative and juridical commitments, which hinders the full realisation of their mission. The bishop also has to come to terms with his own fragility and limitations and does not always find human and spiritual support. The painful experience of loneliness is not uncommon. That is why it is important, on the one hand, to refocus on the essential aspects of the bishop’s mission and, on the other hand, to cultivate a genuine fraternity among bishops and with the presbyterate”.

Issues to be addressed and analysed:

“The meaning of the bond of reciprocity between the Bishop and the local Church needs to be further deepened. The question of the relationship between the sacrament of Holy Orders and jurisdiction needs to be examined in depth.

Some bishops express discomfort when asked to intervene in matters of faith and morals on which there is not full agreement in the episcopate. Further reflection is needed on the relationship between episcopal collegiality and the diversity of theological and pastoral views. Structures dedicated to the prevention of abuse need to be further developed. Reconciling the role of father and judge.”


Structures and processes to regulate the action of the Bishop, in relation to the style of his authority, the economic administration of the diocese’s goods, the functioning of participatory bodies and the handling of cases of any kind of abuse, are to be activated in a juridical form to be defined. A culture of accountability is an integral part of a synodal Church that promotes co-responsibility, as well as a possible safeguard against abuse.

The Assembly calls for a review of the criteria for the selection of candidates for the episcopate. It also calls for a wider consultation of the People of God, listening to a greater number of lay, consecrated and laywomen and men, and seeking to avoid inappropriate pressures.


Let us ask the Holy Spirit to enlighten your Church as to the most appropriate way to proceed, both in the selection of candidates for the episcopate and in their removal from a diocese. And if any of you are consulted in such cases, let him speak freely and truthfully.