Just over 35 years ago, Rev. Howard J. Hubbard returned home to the diocesan Chancery one night to find a telegram from the Vatican's apostolic nuncio to the United States: "The Holy Father has a mind to name you the Bishop of Albany. You have 24 hours to consider this matter, and you can only speak to your spiritual director."
He did. Then he couldn't tell even his closest advisers until the day before the announcement that he was to become bishop.
Times have changed. Today, said Bishop Hubbard, the apostolic nuncio to the U.S. will phone the candidate who's been selected by Pope Francis, asking about his willingness to serve as bishop, and the candidate will simply be able to call back with his decision.
Before that happens, however, the canonical process for choosing a bishop must be completed. That process began many years in advance, with consultations every three or four years in which the bishops and a group of priests, deacons, laity and religious from the local Province (New York State) surface three or four names from each diocese as potential candidates for the office of bishop.
The bishops of the Province vote on each candidate, and those names, along with the voting tally, are submitted to the apostolic nuncio in Washington, D.C. He forwards the results to the Vatican's Congregation for Bishops in Rome, so they always have a list of suggestions at hand.
When the episcopacy of a diocese becomes open because of the impending retirement, death or resignation of a bishop, it's time for the second step in the process: The nuncio asks some local clergy, religious and laity with knowledge of the day-to-day life of the whole diocese to assess the state of the diocese and submit names of those they believe would serve well as the diocesan bishop.
Once the nuncio has completed the consultation, he submits a list of names to the Congregation for Bishops. The nuncio and the Congregation are not limited to the candidates solicited at the diocesan and provincial levels, but can consider present bishops or candidates surfaced through the consultation process in other Provinces.
The Congregation for Bishops, in turn, submits three names - ranked in the order in which they're recommended - to the Holy Father. Pope Francis can accept the list and choose any of the top three or send the whole list back to the Congregation and ask for new nominees.
If the pope does choose one of the three, he alerts the apostolic nuncio, who contacts the candidate for bishop.
Even before the article in the June 27 issue of The Evangelist on Pope Francis' request to all the nuncios to help him find new bishops who are "meek, patient and merciful," some Catholics in the Albany Diocese had already expressed their desire to make their own wishes known about the kind of person (or even the specific candidate) they believe would make a good bishop for the Diocese.
Bishop Hubbard told The Evangelist that, while individuals can write to Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, "there can be no local campaigning for the selection of a bishop. The only consultation is that solicited by the Holy See through its canonical procedures."
The Bishop has already told the Diocesan Pastoral Council and Presbyteral (Priests') Council the same thing: The apostolic nuncio is willing to receive letters with the thoughts of any Catholic - clergy, religious or lay - in regard to the choice of a new bishop, but there can't be an organized group campaign to that end.
As Bishop Hubbard's mandatory date for submitting his resignation draws nearer - he must send a letter to the Vatican on Oct. 31, his 75th birthday - he remarked that he's pleased to see Pope Francis encouraging that any new candidate for bishop should be "wed to his diocese" and not ambitious about seeking the office of bishop.
"In the long run, that might mean there will be more bishops appointed from the diocese where the see is vacant," Bishop Hubbard noted.
As for how long it might take to get a new bishop for the Albany Diocese, only time will tell. For instance, Bishop Hubbard pointed out that Bishop Matthew Clark of Rochester, a native of Waterford, submitted his letter of retirement in July 2012 and, in September, an apostolic administrator was appointed for the Rochester Diocese, but a new bishop has still not been named.
Similarly, Auxiliary Bishop John Dunne of Rockville Centre (Long Island) turned 75 last October, but his resignation just became effective June 22.
Still at work
As Bishop Hubbard looks toward his own 75th birthday in October, he's continuing to work on diocesan initiatives, and he said he's encouraged by recent results.
"We have seven new candidates [for the priesthood] entering the seminary this year, and I think that's the fruit of the 'Called by Name' [vocations promotion] process conducted last November," he said.
In addition, for the first time in many years, the annual "October count" of the number of Catholics attending Mass in the parishes of the Diocese went up instead of down. "People are more settled in after the parish closures from 'Called to be Church,' and I also think it's a result of the 'Amazing God' [evangelization] initiative," Bishop Hubbard said.
"Also, I sense from what I hear from our pastors that many people are very pleased with our new Holy Father." In fact, at a recent meeting of priests, pastors told the Bishop that they're seeing fallen-away Catholics return to the Church because of the influence of Pope Francis.
That influence could extend to the pope's choice of a new bishop of Albany. Bishop Hubbard cited Pope Francis' instructions to nuncios that candidates must be "the spouse of one church, who is not constantly seeking another," and must be real shepherds, "in front of their flocks to indicate the path, in the midst of the flock to keep them united, behind the flock to make sure none is left behind."
"The vision of what he's looking for was very inspiring and hopeful," Bishop Hubbard stated.