“How many divisions does the Pope have?” This provocative question is attributed to Stalin, who looked at the Holy See only from a geopolitical point of view. This was, of course, a short-sighted political view. In fact, it was the Soviet Union that had wanted to involve the Holy See in the conference on peace and security that led to the Declaration of Helsinki in 1975. The Holy See, because it was considered a third party, was able to insert a paragraph on freedom of religion, which was a kind of thorn on the side of all the Soviet republics. State atheism was thus prodded from within through the declaration of a conference commissioned by the Soviet Union and proposed by a guest whom the Soviet Union had favored.
This says a lot about the weight that the Church can have beyond any number of divisions. And yet, if we have to think of the pope’s divisions, we cannot fail to think of the bishops. In communion with the pope, it is the bishops who supervise the dioceses, ordain priests and work on vocations. Moreover, the bishops organize and make possible what is the center of the life of the Church, namely the Eucharist. Without priests, there can be no Eucharist. But without bishops, priests cannot be ordained.
This is why, everywhere, the primary objective of the Holy See has been to guarantee the presence of legitimate bishops capable of moving around the territory even under challenging situations, and capable of generating vocations. Even the diplomacy of the Holy See has looked in this direction. The agreement for the appointment of bishops with China, with all its controversies, is part of a policy that the Holy See had already pursued under different circumstances. A similar agreement, for example, was made with Hungary in 1965.
And before that, there was the alliance between throne and altar, which was not ideal, and which placed the missions of the Church under protectorates, but which also arose with the idea of protecting the bishops. Then, of course, improvements are made, and mistakes from the past are avoided, but in the end, the main objective is to have bishops who can ordain priests who can bring the Eucharist to everyone.
If, on the one hand, Pope Francis knows that this is necessary, on the other, the idea seems to have gained ground that the status of bishops must be rightsized in some way. Bishops are part of the people of God. Their mission comes from ordination, but anyone can have a canonical mission. Therefore, there is no longer the strength of that munus guberandi which was considered part of episcopal dignity. The bishops must accompany the processes, but they don’t necessarily have to be in charge of the operations because there is a risk of being too clerical.
In practice, an inverse path to what had been done over time was started. The idea of entrusting the leadership of the Vatican dicasteries to the bishops arose from the fact that the bishop is in collegiality with the pope, he too is a bishop, and therefore there is a collegiality given by ordination itself. The idea that the Synod was “of the bishops” arose from the fact that Paul VI understood the bishops as the main intermediaries between Rome and the people of God, and between the people of God and Rome (in fact, diocesan synods have always included bishops, presbyters and the people). The fact that John XXIII had established that cardinals were to be at least archbishops (and if they weren’t archbishops at the time of the announcement of their creation, they had to be ordained before receiving the red hat) was part of this process that wanted to establish collegiality and co-responsibility given by ordination.
However, the guidance of the Vatican dicasteries is given to all under the canonical mission, which the Pope entrusts. The Synod is only a Synod, and although it continues to be officially referred to in communications as the “Synod of Bishops,” it includes members of God’s people who are not elected but chosen but who, in reality, profoundly change the approach of the assembly. And, although the Pope has never waived the norm that cardinals must be archbishops, he commented that he had made “a cardinal pastor” when he handed the red biretta to Monsignor Enrico Feroci, director of Caritas in Rome for years and now at Divine Love – yet it is worth noting that Paul VI had also created cardinal a parish priest.
On the one hand, there is the idea of breaking down clericalism and the idea that the episcopate is an institution of power. On the other hand, Pope Francis loves to shuffle the cards. He makes as many bishops as he deems useful, as if they were the generals of a lay army that should or can help him in times of trouble. And he creates cardinals worldwide as if to have him represented in every part of the world.
Pope Francis seems to understand the bishop as his generals on the front lines, committed to carrying forward that change of hearts that he intends to bring to a conclusion through his pontificate. However, when one has to think of the bishop as a general of the Eucharist, the question changes.
The Italian example stands out. Pope Francis merged two dioceses on June 1, that of Cuneo and that of Fossano. It was not breaking news in a true sense, because, since the 1990s, the two dioceses have been under a single bishop while remaining distinct. However, it is the first merger of dioceses since 1988.
Pope Francis had asked the Italian bishops to reduce the number of the more than two hundred dioceses in Italy, and the bishops had presented a plan considered timid by the Pope. The Pope then waited and began to place under a single bishop more than one diocese, according to a criterion that was not too rigid, of linking dioceses with an administration of fewer than 25,000 inhabitants.
But the Italian exception stemmed from needing a bishop in every territory. There were many bishops because each territory needed a nearby bishop. If several dioceses are incorporated, there would be substantial differences regarding managing territories. It becomes natural for the bishop to neglect a territory or adapt only to one of several mentalities.
The point was not that Italy had few bishops but that the large mission countries had very few. Often, the shepherds of the lands of evangelization govern portions of the territory which they never manage to reach. The idea of viri probati was born in the Pan-Amazon region precisely because of the need to guarantee a Sunday liturgy, even in those places where the priest practically never reaches.
But the viri probati are not a solution. They represent a stopgap – a bit poorly applied, considering the consequences it could have at a doctrinal level in a crisis. There is a shortage of priests and a lack of bishops capable of ordaining priests.
In a situation of vocational crisis, it is natural to think that the Pope would instead be called to increase his generals, create new ecclesiastical provinces, and ensure that each territory has a bishop. In a general crisis of religion, the presence of a bishop as a guide for priests can help overcome obstacles.
The bishops would therefore be the actual generals of the Pope. However, Pope Francis seems to use the episcopal title to recognize performance on organizational issues. So they are generals called to do bureaucracy, not evangelize. And this is another of the paradoxes of this pontificate.