Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

Advice for a new bishop

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 13, 2011

The first reading at today’s Mass, in which St. Paul offers his advice on the selection of bishops, reminded me of a conversation with friends several years ago. As the Church was still reeling from the effects of scandal, we asked each other: What advice would you give to a newly appointed bishop? Herewith the results of that conversation.

The new bishop is young and energetic, fully orthodox, and filled with apostolic zeal. He is taking control of an average American diocese. What assumptions should he make? What should he expect? What should he do?


  • The majority of priests are “company men.” They want to live and let live.
  • The chancery is filled with toadies who will never tell the bishop what he needs to hear.
  • The chancery departments are so bloated that the work they do is about a quarter of what half the staff should be able to do. And the work that is put out is useless at best, damaging to faith and morals at worst. The Office of Social Justice and Gay and Lesbian Ministries do more harm than good.
  • There may be one or two truly orthodox priests assigned to the chancery rubble. But some of the priests were assigned to the chancery in order to get them out of parish ministry! In some cases, the transfer was made because of personal problems, including sexual misbehavior. In other cases they came to be seen as problematical because of their orthodox Catholicism.
  • About 20-30% of the priests are leftist ideologues, outright heretics, historically encouraged by previous bishops who either feared them or sympathized with them. The most corrupt and liberal priests are the most likely to try to cozy up to the new bishop with flattery. The conservatives are either too busy in their parishes or find such flattery repugnant.
  • There's a minority of activist orthodox priests: maybe less than 10%. Some orthodox priests are truly wild men. Also, the priest who insists that all of the world's problems will go away if he avoids speaking up and does more holy hours may be truly “orthodox” in a sane environment, but isn't much use on the field of battle if he gives in to evil programs in the name of “obedience.” Some ostensibly orthodox priests use the outward appearances of orthodoxy to mask sinful behavior.
  • The diocese probably has a network of gay priests, maybe very small, maybe extensive, and maybe very, very extensive.
  • There is the customary percentage of alcoholics numbered among all the priests, some of whom will soon be knocking at the new bishop's door.
  • The liturgy is in shambles in most parishes, even some of the “orthodox” ones. (Many orthodox priests just don't know what constitutes good liturgy!)
  • Catechesis is in bad shape, suffering from all the usual problems. Religious-education directors have been recruited through the National Catholic Reporter.
  • A “very nice” school superintendent has been promoting sex-ed in the schools. In many ways, he has bought into the corruption as a result of years of scandal. (He may be unwitting as to the true nature and depth of the corruption.) The Catholic schoolteachers—many of them good-willed enough—are in the same boat.
  • Finally, the new bishop realizes that if his orthodoxy makes waves in his diocese and beyond, he cannot necessarily count on support from the Vatican.

What should our new bishop do right away? What should be his first steps when he arrives in the diocese?

  • If there are any solid orthodox communities of female contemplatives in the diocese, visit them within the first few hours of your installation and enlist their prayers for you.
  • Upon arrival, get rid of all paper shredders at the chancery and insist that no work be taken home in briefcases. Make friends with the maintenance man and the wash lady.
  • Immediately obtain a backup copy of the computer network and secure it for any future audit. Change the locks. Secure the bank accounts. Check stock.
  • Ask for resignations from everyone on the chancery staff. (Ideally the apostolic administrator should have done this before the new bishop arrived.) All staff members should understand clearly that you determine whether or not they stay, and the presumption is negative.
  • There are probably a large number of people you really have to dismiss quickly: rebellious pastors, effeminate chancery officials, etc. (The less urgent cases can wait; you can use the budget crisis to justify the blow.) Fire them all at once. Plan it carefully to minimize the uproar. Make the announcements late on a Friday afternoon. On Saturday, release that rip-snorting pastoral letter on family life, which you have been drafting since your appointment was announced. Schedule some event Sunday with a big, loyal Catholic group. Tell reporters you'll answer questions there.
  • Meet with the abuse victims. Take names.

Settling in: new ideas

  • Hire an outside firm to do a thorough financial audit, and be sure to have a closed-door chat with the on-the-ground auditors to find out what they found.
  • Your next pastoral should insist upon the proper celebration of the Mass. It should contain disciplinary teeth. Narcissistic priests hate constraint. It's easier to catch them in an act of liturgical abuse than an act of sexual abuse.
  • Put the religious orders on notice. Maybe throw out one of the smaller ones just as a warning shot.
  • Let every person know, whether he (or she) wishes you well or ill, that you shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to ensure the survival and success of the confessional. In other words, expunge general absolution, ensure confessionals are screened, and see to a climate of orthodox confessional practice. Make it clear that you’ll be watching and act swiftly when someone brings you bad news.

Building community in the new-look chancery

  • Like Archbishop Pell of Sydney, Australia, get a secretary who's married with several children. Break the daisy-chain.
  • Talk to the pro-lifers, identify the level-headed ones, and get their read on your own clergy: who's solid, who's good but weak, who belongs to the opposition. Ditto for the lay bureaucrats and hospital admin types.
  • Having found a few priests you can trust absolutely, spend some long late evenings going over personnel files with them.
  • Plan for a massive scale-down: school and parish closings, clergy put on waivers, chancery pink slips. You'll probably have a 6-to 12-month grace period in which you can justify almost any cost-cutting by saying, “Sorry. We have to pay the sodomy bill.” Use it to get rid of the worst personnel and the schools that are beyond hope.
  • To the extent possible, fly in support to your home-schoolers. Inter alia, almost all the vocations you get (and want to keep) will come from them.
  • You will find that you have two or three prosperous parishes that are traditional centers of opposition, led by dissident priests. If you had all your priests read that fire-breather pastoral on protecting family life, you'll probably have enough general lay support—even given the hostility of the media—to face down the bad pastors after they refuse to play ball. Replace them with Nigerians to mute the screams from liberals and to force the worst parishioners to go to the Episcopalians or the Paulists.

Collaborating with the laity

  • Have a series of meetings with local law-enforcement supervisors—say, lieutenants and up—explaining that you don't want your men feather-bedded any more. Tell them if a priest is caught in a parked car or a washroom, they should book him. Take the district attorney out to lunch, tell him the same thing, and make sure he knows you mean it.
  • Get to know some state troopers. Buy them a round of beer. Tell them that you want to hear about trouble from them, not from the press. Tell them it is a moral obligation to arrest wrong-doers. Ask them to pass the word.
  • Make friends outside the clerical establishment. (That means: no priests, religious, or church workers.) Spend time with pro-lifers, home-schoolers, doctors who don't prescribe the Pill, community leaders who have taken hits for defending the faith. Wangle invitations to go to their homes. Go by yourself. Don’t talk too much; listen. Ask their teenage boys if they want to be priests. If not, ask why not.

Thinking in new paradigms

  • Hire your own director of religious education, and tell him to select new texts throughout. Institute standardized testing to make sure something is happening in CCD classes. Tell parents (and pastors) that kids can't be confirmed if they do not pass the test. Spot-check when you do confirmations.
  • Get rid of the prissy MC who handles liturgical ceremonies. Tell pastors that when you come to their parishes, they have to supply the MC. Or better, draft a different seminarian to do the honors every week/month.
  • Bring in the people in charge of sex-ed and AIDS ministry. Ask them with whom they've been working in the parishes, and make a list. Give them 30-days’ notice. If you have any “street priests,” pull them off the street ASAP.
  • Think seriously about shutting down the diocesan newspaper; it certainly loses money and it's probably a waste. If you decide to keep it going, hire your own editor, give him lots of leeway, but tell him the paper has to support itself.
  • Institute zero-based budgeting, and make it stick. Don't ever let someone ask for an X % budget increase; make him justify each dollar spent in terms of demonstrated benefit—preferably spiritual—to the diocese.
  • Find a few seasoned professionals—maybe successful lay businessmen who are almost ready to retire—to handle the nuts-and-bolts issues, like real estate and physical plant maintenance.
  • Open your own mail. You can farm out the projects later.

Consultation and dialog

  • Cultivate a reputation for enjoying candor. When people give you a “nice” answer to your questions, press them: “You don't really think that, do you?”
  • Insist on being treated with respect, but whenever people start flattering you, interrupt. Don't let them start. Make it part of your examination of conscience: Have I done anything to encourage flattery today?
  • When you speak to friendly Catholic audiences, don't always tell them what they want to hear. Challenge them. The first time you talk to a large K of C event, ask them when they're going to start acting like real men.
  • Spend a lot of time at the seminary. Arrive unannounced frequently.
  • When you visit parishes, skip the phony paperwork. Speak to the priests, personnel, and parish council: one-on-one, if possible. Ask them what's the biggest problem facing the parish. Look for trends in the sacramental index. Check the liquor cabinet in the rectory. Check the grocery bill.
  • Make a habit of calling priests at random, at odd times. Ask them what they're doing.

Networking and team ministry

  • Pick a few conscience fights early on: the right of Catholic med students to opt out of abortion and sterilization training, the right of Catholic pharmacists not to fill prescriptions for the Pill, the right of girls working at 7-Eleven not to handle porn, etc. And here's the key: ask the Protestants and Jews who belong to your civil amity luncheon groups to join you in the fights—not in support of your view, necessarily, but at least in defense of freedom of religion. If they balk at helping you, you've got some moral capital in your pocket when they try to rope you into cooperation with their own pet causes.
  • Identify Orthodox Jews, who are big on family values, and make it clear you're well disposed to them. Not only is it a huge help politically to have an Orthodox rabbi standing next to you when you hold a press conference deploring some abortion-law outrage, but if you can get on the right side of the rift in the Jewish community you can spare yourself aggravation from the liberal Jews who anoint themselves public spokesmen.
  • And while we're speaking of inter-religious affairs, many (professional class) Muslims are flattered to be asked to join in anti-porn or anti-abortion initiatives. Identify people you can work with and get them on board; if nothing else, the media are blocked from spinning stories in certain directions when all the photos or videos show an obvious imam or rabbi in the same frame as the bishop. NARAL, Planned Parenthood, and their chums hate it when that happens. It's a political rule of thumb to find out what your opponents don't want you to do, and do more of it.
  • When laws that impinge upon the Christian conscience are discussed (e.g., laws that would guarantee access to abortion or sterilization, laws that require hiring of homosexuals) remind everyone who represents the diocese that it is not sufficient to obtain a “religious exclusion” so that Church-run institutions are exempt. If what's being proposed is morally objectionable, everyone should be able to invoke a conscience clause—at the bare minimum. Church lawyers and lobbyists should defend the rights of all Catholics, not only those employed by Church institutions.

Ongoing processes

  • Having informed him of your wishes on the matter, dock the diocesan paper editor a day’s pay every time your photo appears. The diocese is not about YOU.
  • Publish every semester a roster of the theologians and philosophers teaching in your diocese along with their mandatum status. Give a brief but candid explanation for any case in which the mandatum has been denied, e.g., “defects regarding Catholic doctrine on contraception.”
  • If a complaint comes in on liturgical abuse, phone the pastor and get his side of the story. Make it a policy to write him a letter summarizing the conversation (including his assurances of conformity) and if that complaint was warranted, insist that he post your letter in the vestibule of the church for a month. If the complainant reports no change, send someone to check it out on site.
  • Find out when Eucharistic adoration is being held at schools and colleges and make it a point of sliding in unexpectedly and joining the students in adoration—not taking center stage, perhaps not even saying a word, but just being shoulder to shoulder at prayer with them.
  • Find an opportunity to visit all three military service academies once a year and give the cadets the most ferocious rip-roaring homily you can muster (as a clandestine vocation appeal). You’ll bag 6 to 10 a year—not all scholars, but good men from good families. There's a huge pool of idealism there that's coming to grips with the disillusionment toward military life. They love folks who promise to make it hard on them.
  • Institute a “Good Touch/Bad Touch” program in the diocese: Announce to the priests that if they would like you to visit them in prison, touch.
  • Skip a meeting of the USCCB and delay paying the annual assessment, just for the hell of it.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - May. 06, 2017 12:08 AM ET USA

    The Pope can't even control himself, and that is the start of a lot of the problems. If he stuck to his prepared remarks then everything could be veted and translated first.

  • Posted by: caroleuhlarik4443 - Sep. 20, 2011 9:57 PM ET USA

    Great advice, and hopefully the new broom will sweep clean! Two more things I would add: 1. Find the missing tabernacles and return them to their proper spot, front and center. 2. Review the "approved" religion textbooks the schools use for clues on dissenting agendas. Too much emphasis on recycling and self-esteem is a dead give-away. Mr. Lawler's sense of humor reminds me of the time they asked the bishop how many people worked in his chancery, and he answered, "About half of them."

  • Posted by: - Sep. 18, 2011 7:59 PM ET USA

    Superb advice. It shows your own keen insight. Do you suppose any bishops will act on it?

  • Posted by: annemarie - Sep. 16, 2011 7:50 PM ET USA

    WONDERFUL! However, I would add the following to the list, just below: Meet with the abuse victims. Take names. Meet with priests accused of sexual abuse, even if the priests’ canon lawyers must be present. You could learn much about a priest’s character at a face-to-face meeting. I’ve worked with accused priests for several years. Several of them are falsely accused and have endured years of administrative leave simply because many bishops don’t have moral rectitude.

  • Posted by: edjdot6552 - Sep. 16, 2011 7:28 PM ET USA

    How many Bishops do you consider shepards and teachers? How many do you think would suffer martydom for the Faith? I ask tne same questions about Priests? Liberal Bishops will have liberal Priests all of which have a shallow Faith.

  • Posted by: kathimcnamee11450 - Sep. 16, 2011 4:57 PM ET USA

    Once again Mr. Lawler has "hit the nail on the head"!! I've not enjoyed an article this much in a very long time. Now, to get this into the hands of EVERY bishop, not just NEW ones.And why not every priest, also??

  • Posted by: - Sep. 16, 2011 1:31 PM ET USA

    This is great! Full of solid ideas and insights which can apply to quite a few dioceses.

  • Posted by: Defender - Sep. 14, 2011 3:23 AM ET USA

    What of the dioceses that only hire principals (usurping the pastor's perogative) that went to a certain Jesuit school? Their loyalty is clear and a new bishop might not ever get to know what's been going on. Of course you might have a (Jesuit-trained) principal state that we "worship" Mary too much and that the school won't come together for Stations of the Cross anymore, too. Our Catholic schools need Catholics to teach, not the sometime or oddly-trained Catholic-Protestants.

  • Posted by: - Sep. 14, 2011 3:06 AM ET USA

    Nay, remove yourself from the USCCB!

  • Posted by: michaelwilmes - Sep. 13, 2011 7:28 PM ET USA

    Hallelujah! Diogenes is back!

  • Posted by: adamah - Sep. 13, 2011 7:28 PM ET USA

    Excellent! I'd send a copy to my own bishop but I've already been chastised for not being "open-minded."