Wichita Catholics are not in an unusual position of waiting for a new bishop to be named; it has happened three times in the past 13 years.
What is unusual is that the newest bishop will be appointed by Pope Francis, himself less than a year into a new, surprising pontificate in which he has said that he wants shepherds who have “the smell of their sheep.”
“So it’s going to be somewhat interesting to see the particular influence Pope Francis has in the naming of a shepherd, not only in our diocese but in the rest of our country and throughout the world,” said the Rev. John Lanzrath, chancellor of the Diocese of Wichita. “He’s been naming bishops who have more pastoral than administrative experience.”
The Catholic Diocese of Wichita, which covers the 25 counties in south-central and southeast Kansas, has been without a bishop for almost a year, since Michael Jackels was appointed archbishop of Dubuque, Iowa, last April. Jackels was installed there on May 30. He had been bishop of Wichita for eight years.
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Monsignor Robert Hemberger has been the diocesan administrator in charge in the interim.
While it was 14 months before Jackels was named bishop of Wichita the last time a vacancy occurred, anticipation is escalating that a decision this time is imminent.
“The reason some are thinking it’s going to be coming soon is that eight diocesan sees were vacant ahead of us, and all of those positions have been filled,” Lanzrath said. “That does not mean they do this chronologically,” but “Wichita has got to be up there soon.
“There’s no actual knowledge that any of us have. The process is very confidential.”
And the process starts very locally. Jackels was asked to recommend priests he thought would be good candidates, as were the three other bishops of Kansas and bishops from neighboring dioceses in other states, such as Oklahoma, Lanzrath said. According to the process described by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Kansas bishops then would have discussed the candidates and voted on which ones to recommend to the apostolic nuncio — the pope’s ambassador — in Washington. (A bishop is not usually chosen from among the priests of the diocese he will serve, Lanzrath said.)
The nuncio then does his own research on the diocese and on the candidates and forwards three recommendations, in order of his preference, to the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops in Rome. The congregation then is briefed on the candidates, and it may follow the recommendation of the nuncio, choose a different candidate as first choice, or ask that another set of three candidates be considered.
Once the congregation decides on its three choices, they are presented to the pope, who makes the decision. The nuncio then notifies the candidate and asks whether he accepts.
If he does, a date is scheduled for the public announcement. It’s usually made at noon Rome time — 5 a.m. in Wichita.
“From my personal perspective, I would much rather have the wait for the right person rather than have the person who is not the right fit,” Lanzrath said, describing the process as the work of the Holy Spirit choosing a successor to the apostles.
“I’ve been working in this office since 1996 — I’ve worked under three bishops — and the responsibilities of that position are so staggering, you want to make sure they have the skill set. And it’s not just the tasks, it’s about shepherding 120,000 Catholics and leading them to the kingdom of God.
“It’s a huge responsibility.”
Lanzrath urged people to continue to pray for “a faithful shepherd imitating Christ.”
“We’re anxiously awaiting as everyone else is,” he said. “It’s just absolutely the case that none of us knows.”