The Making of a Good Bishop

The Top Ten Must-Have Personality Traits, Post-Crisis

By Bob Sullivan

Image by John LaMaestra

The vast majority of Catholic laity have no idea how bishops are appointed. This gap in their knowledge is to be entirely expected in a process which is anything but transparent.

And to be frank, this must change.


It is precisely the bishops appointed in recent decades who have placed the Church in the proverbial ‘hot mess’ we find ourselves in today.

Who are we talking about? To name just a few, the disastrous Cardinals Kasper, Martini, Daneels, Maradiaga and Marx were all appointed by St. Paul VI or St. John Paul II, while Cardinal Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) was a significant influence in the Vatican.

So even though St. John Paul II is one of my favorite saints, and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is one of my favorite popes, I am not about to praise them while I denigrate Pope Francis. His predecessors elevated these men to their Sees; Francis made them powerful, close advisors. There is more than enough blame to go around.


Reading the tea leaves, it seems that the best indicator that a priest will someday become a bishop is his education in Rome, and/or his appointment as the rector of a seminary. Few priests are appointed as bishops without one or both of these things on their curriculum vitae.

These two resume builders indicate that the priest is either an excellent student, or that he is very ambitious and therefore, worked very hard to overcome intellectual limitations.

And what else?

I’m speaking generally of course. There are certainly bishops who never studied in Rome. And there are bishops who did not graduate at the top of their class. There are also many priests who received their degree in Rome, and who have served as the rector of a seminary, who have not been appointed a bishop.

This means that there are other qualities which play into a priest’s consideration as a bishop. Given some  questionable appointments over the years, I’d say it’s time that Catholic laity help the hierarchy pinpoint the qualities that we expect in a bishop.


  1. Courage: No matter how smart, holy, organized, savvy, or personable a man is, without courage, he will fail the Church. Matthew 25:24-30
  2. Faithfulness: All bishops must be faithful to all the teachings of the Church, or they should be immediately eliminated from the list of candidates for appointment. Matthew 25:20-23
  3. Humility: This may be the most difficult trait to find among men who are otherwise qualified to serve as a bishop. Matthew 20:24-28
  4. Perceptiveness: This is the gift of recognizing reality. Of all the qualities of today’s bishops, this may be the most lacking. With some of our bishops, it appears to be an honest deficiency; with others, it appears as an intentionally crafted condition.
  5. Continence: This should not even need to be listed, but after the scandal of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, we can’t take anything for granted anymore. We should also include within this: heterosexual. Not because people with same-sex attraction are more likely to molest and abuse others, but because priests with same-sex attraction have formed networks and rings within the Church in order to facilitate and protect their sexual activity. We do not see this same type of behavior with heterosexual priests who cannot control their sexual desires.
  6. Honesty: Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. Lk 16:10
  7. Wisdom: Not wise in the ways of the world, but a man who has the gift of holy wisdom. The Church has little need for bishops who accompany governmental inspections of immigration centers, yet who cannot bring themselves to investigate allegations that young men are being molested in our seminaries.
  8. Repentance: We do not expect our bishops to be angels. However, we do expect them to turn back to God when they sin. John 21:15-19
  9. Approachability: Though clericalism is not the root of the problem in the Church today, it is a problem. Therefore, a bishop must not only be someone we can contact, he must be someone who responds in an authentic and meaningful way.
  10. Prayerful: A bishop must be a man of deep spirituality. He must have a deep and enduring relationship with Christ, not solely the knowledge of Christ, theology, and the Church. James 2:19

The list could go on, but I’ll stop here. Let the conversation and the conversion begin.

Bob Sullivan lives in Hastings, Nebraska.  Bob is a lector and a 4th (Patriotic) Degree Knight of Columbus and a member of St. Paul Street Evangelization. When he’s not practicing law, Bob writes and speaks about faith, the teachings of the Catholic Church and the culture. He writes a column for the Southern Nebraska Register and has had several articles appear in Crisis Magazine, and Catholic Answers Magazine. He blogs at and You can follow him on Twitter (@BobSullivan87) and Facebook (bob.sullivan.10004).

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