More than ‘the nuts and bolts’: World’s newest bishops talk synodality in Rome

2022St. Peter's Basilica St. Peter's Basilica | Simone Savoldi / Unsplash (CC0)

The world’s newest bishops gathered in Rome last month to learn more about what it means to be a Catholic bishop.

While the week’s presentations spanned a range of topics, three U.S. bishops who attended told CNA that synodality emerged as a key theme.

The Vatican’s annual formation course, sometimes known by the nickname “baby bishop school,” was canceled for two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic — making the 2022 edition the largest yet, with approximately 330 participating bishops across two sessions.

“People kind of picture baby bishop school as nuts and bolts, like ‘how to be a bishop.’ It’s not that at all,” Bishop Erik Pohlmeier of the Diocese of St. Augustine, Florida, told CNA at the end of the course.

“It’s kind of whatever the Church is talking about at that time, bringing that to the bishops that are coming on board,” he said. “The synodal process has been ... a hallmark of conversation for the last couple of years, so now as we’re new bishops ... the reflections revolved around that.”

The seminar’s first session was primarily attended by bishops consecrated in 2019 and 2020, while the second session was mostly those who joined the ranks in 2021 and the first part of 2022.

Thirty-nine U.S. bishops and auxiliary bishops attended, divided between the two weeks.

Pohlmeier was the freshest U.S. bishop to join. He was ordained a bishop on July 22 — just two days after his 51st birthday and seven weeks before arriving in Rome for the Sept. 12–19 course. 

Speaking to CNA in Rome on Sept. 19, Pohlmeier said that as a new bishop, there are many things you do not know, but that’s where one’s fellow bishops come in.

“Every bishop knows other bishops,” he explained, like the bishop of the diocese where they served as a priest. “And they’re always, I mean to a person, helpful.”

Bishop Gregory Gordon, the first-ever auxiliary bishop of Las Vegas, Nevada, told CNA on Sept. 19 that the U.S. bishops’ conference also organizes meetings between bishops of the same ordination year, or “class,” as a way to build fraternity and create a network of support.

Bishop Gregory Gordon greets Pope Francis at the end of the course Sept. 19, 2022. Vatican Media
Bishop Gregory Gordon greets Pope Francis at the end of the course Sept. 19, 2022. Vatican Media

While the formal theme of this year’s seminar was how to announce the Gospel in changing times, Pohlmeier, Gordon, and Bishop Louis Tylka of Peoria, Illinois, said the unofficial topic of the week was synodality.

What they talked about

“We’re in the midst of the synod,” Tylka, who attended the seminar Sept. 1–8, told CNA by phone from his diocese. So the course, he added, focused on questions such as: “What does it mean to be a synodal Church? What is the ministry of the bishop in relation to that?”

Care for the planet and one’s neighbor, themes important to Pope Francis’ pontificate, were also a major part of the seminar, Tylka said.

More in Vatican

The week’s presentations also covered child protection and the sexual abuse crisis.

“That’s one of those things that I think we will take home, saying we will be very, very careful not to neglect,” Gordon said. 

Some talks, Pohlmeier noted, were directly about synodality and what it means. At the same time, those of a more practical nature, such as canon law for bishops, “would always include some comment on the synodal approach.”

“You’re going to get different articulations of what that means depending on who you talk to, but in general, my understanding is that it is more of a listening posture,” the St. Augustine bishop said.

A bishop takes a photo of Pope Francis during their encounter on Sept. 19, 2022. Vatican Media
A bishop takes a photo of Pope Francis during their encounter on Sept. 19, 2022. Vatican Media

Bishop Gordon said Pope Francis himself modeled this listening attitude in their meeting with him on the final day of formation.

In the nearly two-hour meeting, he said most of the time was spent with the pope answering the bishops’ questions. “So you finished the course, [the pope] said. You’ve heard a lot already... Now I want to hear from you.”

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This was Gordon’s big takeaway from the week: “It has to go back to the Holy Father’s words to us as he was answering our own questions, you know, asking us to exercise that episcopal closeness.”

The week also included time for communal prayer, Mass, adoration, and confession. 

Bishop Tylka of Peoria said his personal opinion is that “a big part of synodality is the willingness and openness to create space for people to share their stories, to share their own encounters with Christ, to share their own experiences of how life is going.”

“So I think the role of the bishop clearly is to model that openness and that willingness to engage in dialogue,” he said.

What (not) to wear

But there is also a lighter side to being a new bishop, as Pohlmeier evidenced with an amusing scene from the end of the week.

“Here we are, brand new and so ... we got instructions on what we’re supposed to wear to meet the pope,” Pohlmeier said.

He explained that bishops in the Latin Church have two main styles of a full-length garment called a cassock. The new bishops were told to meet the pope. They should wear a black cassock with red trim, a purple fascia, and a purple zucchetto. (There is also a purple cassock with red trim for special liturgical events.)

Pohlmeier said it was funny to watch the bishops get ready for Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica and, afterward, the meeting with Pope Francis. Many of them were helping each other figure out where each piece of the complicated attire went — including the tall headpiece, called a mitre, which bishops wear to denote their office.

“Guys are literally opening up bags that haven’t been opened with miters from right there, from Euroclero,” Pohlmeier said, pointing over his shoulder in the direction of a clerical supply store next to St. Peter’s Square.

“You could see everybody that bought one this morning because they all matched,” he chuckled. “There were several people that were literally opening it up and pulling it out of the package and trying to get it on straight, and get things attached right, and not sure what clips go where and what’s right.”

“Those kinds of things are funny,” Pohlmeier said, “but nobody just tells you, ‘OK, buy this stuff, here’s what you need.’”