Chicago-area Catholics have an unprecedented opportunity to express their concerns and recommendations about our next leader of the Archdiocese of Chicago. Last January, as standard procedure on his 75th birthday, Cardinal Francis George submitted his resignation to Pope Benedict. The search for his successor was progressing even before the cardinal's recent cancer recurrence.
The unprecedented opportunity is that Catholics in Cook and Lake counties can use technology -- a website, votf.org/bishop -- to speak up about the needs facing the archdiocese and the qualifications and pastoral style we desire of Cardinal George's successor.
A role for the laity in selecting bishops, however, is not unprecedented in the history of our church. From the apostles, who drew lots to select Matthias, early Church practice maintained a bishop should be chosen by all. In the 5th century, Pope Celestine I and Pope Leo I insisted on the right of the faithful -- both priests and the laity -- to elect their own bishops and condemned any attempt to impose a bishop without their consent. Indeed, as we celebrate the 225th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution, we recall that our first American bishop, John Carroll of Baltimore, was locally chosen.
While interference from kings and noblemen led Rome to wrest more control of the process over time, it wasn't until 1917 that Canon Law reserved the right of appointment of bishops exclusively to the pope. Currently, the Apostolic Nuncio, the church's ambassador to the United States, collects opinions and makes recommendations to Rome on candidates for bishop. Although consideration may be given to the opinions of a few select laypersons, the nomination process is highly centralized and lacks the universal lay participation that was a hallmark of the earlier church.
Encouraging broader lay consultation in the local recommendation process would be a visible sign that local needs and concerns matter. Local members of Voice of the Faithful, a leading Catholic laity organization, developed this website for the first time to facilitate lay input. The site enables Catholics in the Chicago Archdiocese to express their views on the qualities needed in our next archbishop and on the archdiocese's needs and, optionally, to recommend potential candidates. All input is subsequently forwarded word-for-word to the Apostolic Nuncio.
This effort has been launched with the blessing of Canon Law 212, which provides that lay faithful are free to make known "their needs and wishes to the Pastors of the Church" and to share their views with other members of the laity and the clergy. In addition, the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigaṇ, earlier this year wrote that he "would willingly receive any expression of a lay Catholic in regard to his/her own concerns in regard to a new bishop or recommendation(s) that he or she might propose. Members of Voice of the Faithful are, therefore, free to encourage such communications ..."
By regaining their role in bishop selection, the laity -- the "People of God" -- would help renew the Church's sense of community. It is time Chicago-area Catholics speak up once again -- at votf.org/bishop.
• Paul Culhane, is secretary of Chicagoland Voice of the Faithful, a member of VOTF's Chicago Archbishop Selection Project and an emeritus professor at Northern Illinois University.