In mid-July, Bishop Matthew H. Clark will take time out from vacation and the celebration of his 75th birthday to mail a letter to Pope Benedict XVI.
In that letter, he will submit his resignation as eighth bishop of the Diocese of Rochester. Canon law requires bishops to submit their resignations when they turn 75; Bishop Clark’s 75th birthday is July 15.
In a June interview with the Catholic Courier, Bishop Clark reflected on this landmark event in his life and that of the diocese.
"I am very peaceful about the whole situation," he said. "It’s not to say I don’t have a certain time of sadness; I will miss things. But I’m sure it will be balanced by a certain sense of excitement of what will be fresh or new in the years ahead. Part of the gift of memory is that you remember good times and bad, but the Lord has seen us through it all — and I have no reason to believe this won’t continue. It’s kind of exciting, what this new phase will hold in store."
In addition to initiating the final phase of Bishop Clark’s 33 years as Rochester’s bishop, the resignation kicks off a multistep process to identify his successor.
His resignation letter will be received by the pope via Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the papal nuncio — or Vatican ambassador — to the United States. In response, Bishop Clark will receive a letter accepting his resignation nunc pro tunc — Latin for "now for then" — according to Father Joseph Hart, moderator of the diocesan Pastoral Center and one of two diocesan vicars general. Such an acceptance letter indicates that a retiring bishop will remain in office until the pope names his successor, Father Hart said.
The process of identifying the next bishop starts with reviewing several lists of potential candidates. These lists are periodically compiled by the bishops of the New York Province and other U.S. provinces, and sent to Archbishop Viganò. The nuncio follows up by gathering further facts and information about the potential bishop candidates on the lists.
According to canon law, a bishop must be at least 35 years old, have been ordained a priest for at least five years, and have a doctorate or licentiate in sacred Scripture, theology or canon law, or have expertise in these disciplines.
Additionally, a new bishop must have a good reputation and be "outstanding for his solid faith, good morals, piety, zeal for souls, wisdom, prudence and human virtues, and endowed with the other talents which make him fit to fulfill the office in question," canon law states.
In addition to considering lists of potential bishop candidates, the nuncio also will compile information on the conditions and pastoral needs of the diocese. This information will be obtained from the current bishop, other bishops in the province, and the president and vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Father Hart said. If Bishop Clark suggests candidates, his recommendations also will be given consideration.
"The nuncio sorts through that pile and begins to narrow down who might be considered," Father Hart said.
After winnowing the list, the nuncio sends confidential questionnaires on each of the candidates to people who know them well. Questions can range from inquiries about a candidate’s prayer life and preaching to his opinions on the church, Father Hart said.
The nuncio’s work will result in an ordered list of three names that will be sent to the Vatican Congregation of Bishops. This congregation may conduct additional research on the candidates and potentially reorder the names on the list.
Finally, the names are sent to the pope.
"He’s free to substitute his own candidate or say, ‘I’m not interested in any of the three. Start the process over again,’" Father Hart said, noting that canon law does not specify a period of time in which the process must be completed.
Once the pope chooses a potential bishop, the nuncio telephones the candidate, who is asked if he will accept. If the candidate says yes, a date is set to announce the new bishop.
If the bishop-designate is not yet a bishop, he must be ordained within three months of being formally notified of his appointment and must take canonical possession of the diocese within four months of his appointment, canon law states.
If the bishop-designate is already a bishop — an auxiliary bishop or the bishop of another diocese, for example — canon law requires him to take canonical possession of this diocese within two months of being notified of his appointment.
In recent years, the selection process for a new bishop has taken about 10 months to a year to complete, Father Hart said, with the shortest selection happening in six to seven months and the longest being a vacancy still outstanding at 22 months.
There currently are nine dioceses without bishops: Bridgeport, Conn.; Denver; El Paso, Texas; Indianapolis; Passaic, N.J. (Ruthenian rite); Steubenville, Ohio; Tyler, Texas; the diocese for Lithuanian Catholics living outside Lithuania; and the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of St. Josaphat of Parma, Ohio.
The United States currently has 272 active bishops, including 156 diocesan bishops, and 175 retired bishops, of whom 98 were diocesan bishops.
Once the ninth Bishop of Rochester is named, Bishop Clark will be known as bishop emeritus and would continue to serve the diocese at the pleasure of the new bishop. Although he is required to vacate his living quarters at Sacred Heart Cathedral to make way for the new bishop, Bishop Clark plans to remain in the Diocese of Rochester and is searching for a new residence.
"It’s amazing to me, in this time of transition in my life, how everything triggers a memory these days," he told the Courier. "It seems incredible that time has passed so quickly; it just does. It’s often said that the older you get, the faster time goes by — and I’m here to say that’s been true for me."
Contains reporting by Mike Latona.