Diocese of Allentown during time of ‘sede vacante’

By TAMI QUIGLEY Staff writer

With Bishop John Barres installed as the bishop of Rockville Centre, New York, the Diocese of Allentown is in a time of “sede vacante,” as the seat of the diocese is vacant until a new bishop is appointed and installed.

Allentown is one of six dioceses in the United States without a bishop, the longest unfilled vacancy dating to October 2016.

During this time, Msgr. Alfred Schlert, who had served as diocesan vicar general when Bishop Barres was the diocesan ordinary, is serving as diocesan administrator. He was elected by the diocesan College of Consultors.

“I will serve as the diocesan administrator until our new bishop is installed,” Msgr. Schlert said. “After that, I will receive some other assignment of the bishop’s choosing.”

A number of changes are in effect during this time. For example, offices such as that of the vicar general, vicar for pastoral planning and vicars forane (regional deans) cease.

These offices exercise general or specific authority granted directly by the diocesan bishop, and since there is no longer a diocesan bishop, this authority no longer has a source and the offices cease.

However, some offices remain during the vacant see: chancellor, vice chancellor, judicial vicar and financial officer.

These offices are necessary for the ordinary operation of the diocese and so remain in place and assist the diocesan administrator in his work. While the judicial vicar’s authority is granted by the diocesan bishop, it does not cease during the vacant see so the process of justice within the diocese can continue without interruption.


Father Keith Mathur, director of the diocesan Office of Divine Worship, pointed out four liturgical changes.

He noted the phrase “for N. our Bishop” is completely omitted from the Eucharistic Prayer at all Masses in the diocese until a new bishop is ordained or installed in the Diocese of Allentown.

Special intercessions during the Universal Prayer have been provided in English and Spanish for all parishes to pray during this time of sede vacante.

The diocesan administrator has asked the clergy and lay faithful to offer their prayers that the pastor chosen will be one who can meet the needs of the local church (Ceremonial for Bishops, 1166).

“In meeting this request, in all churches of the diocese the Mass for the Election of a Bishop should be celebrated at least once except on certain holy days,” Father Mathur said.

“Also, every parish, diocesan high school and college campus ministry has received holy cards for the faithful to pray for a new bishop.” 

Bishop Emeritus Edward Cullen celebrated the Rite of Election at the Cathedral of St. Catharine of Siena, Allentown March 5.

Father Mathur said Bishop Cullen is also scheduled to be the main celebrant at the Mass of the Oils/Chrism Mass on the Wednesday of Holy Week. And he is slated to celebrate the Rite of Ordination to the Diaconate in May and the Rite of Ordination to the Priesthood in June, unless a new bishop is installed/ordained before those dates.

Though Bishop Cullen is presiding at some confirmations, pastors are also administering the sacrament of confirmation in those parishes where Bishop Barres was scheduled to be present.

Msgr. Victor Finelli, coordinator of diocesan episcopal masters of ceremonies, said pastors, “being duly delegated to administer the sacrament, as they must be and have been, the Rite of Confirmation is the same as if a bishop was administering the sacrament.”

“Bishop Cullen has been very gracious in substituting on those occasions at which a bishop must be present,” said Msgr. Schlert.

“We are very fortunate as a diocese that Bishop Cullen has been and will be extending himself for the good of the entire diocese and for the spiritual welfare of God’s people.”

Canon law

Msgr. David James, who served as vicar for pastoral planning under Bishop Barres, and continues to serve as diocesan vice chancellor during the vacant see, explained the powers of the diocesan administrator during the sede vacante according to canon law.

The guiding principle behind this part of the law is that during the vacant see the ordinary operations of the diocese are to continue for the good of souls, but no permanent changes may be introduced that would “bind the hands” of the new bishop. This principle is expressed in the Latin dictum “in sede vacante, nihil innovator.”

“A diocesan administrator is bound by the obligations and possesses the power of a diocesan bishop, excluding those matters which are excepted by their nature or by the law itself,” Msgr. James explained, quoting Canon 427, 1.

One of the powers excluded by the law is the power to make diocesan law.

An example of a power that the diocesan administrator may exercise is the calling of candidates for ordination to the diaconate and the presbyterate, but only after the College of Consultors has given its consent.

This is possible because the calling of candidates to holy orders and their subsequent ordination are part of the ordinary operations of a diocese.

If the administrator is also a bishop, as may happen in dioceses and archdioceses where there are auxiliary bishops, he may also ordain men to the diaconate and presbyterate, but only after the College of Consultors has given its consent.

Msgr. James said the administrator may appoint pastors but only if the see has been vacant for a year. The office of pastor is understood to be a stable office. Since the administrator is not to make any innovations, the conferral of a stable office should not happen except in the situation noted here.

“If a pastorate becomes vacant before that year time frame has occurred, the diocesan administrator may appoint a priest as the parochial administrator since this is not a stable office. Similarly, he may appoint priests as parochial vicars (assistant pastors) because that is not a stable office, either,” Msgr. James said.

How bishops are appointed according to the USCCB


The ultimate decision in appointing bishops rests with the pope, and he is free to select anyone he chooses. But how does he know whom to select?

The process for selecting candidates for the episcopacy normally begins at the diocesan level and works its way through a series of consultations until it reaches Rome.

It is a process bound by strict confidentiality and involves a number of important players – the most influential being the apostolic nuncio, the Congregation for Bishops and the pope. It can be a time-consuming process, often taking eight months or more to complete.

While there are distinctions between the first appointment of a priest as a bishop and a bishop’s later transfer to another diocese or his promotion to archbishop, the basic outlines of the process remain the same.

Stage 1: Bishops’ recommendations

Every bishop may submit to the archbishop of his province the names of priests he thinks would make good bishops. Prior to the regular province meeting (usually annually), the archbishop distributes to all the bishops of the province the names and curricula vitae of priests which have been submitted to him.

Following a discussion among the bishops at the province meeting, a vote is taken on which names to recommend. The number of names on this provincial list may vary.

The vote tally, together with the minutes of the meeting, is then forwarded by the archbishop to the apostolic nuncio in Washington. The list is also submitted to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

Stage 2: The apostolic nuncio

By overseeing the final list of names forwarded to Rome, the apostolic nuncio plays a decisive role in the selection process. He not only gathers facts and information about potential candidates, but also interprets that information for the congregation.

Great weight is given to the nuncio’s recommendations, but it is important to remember that his “gatekeeper” role, however, does not mean that his recommendations are always followed.

For diocesan bishops

After receiving the list of candidates forwarded by a province, the apostolic nuncio conducts his own investigation into the suitability of the candidates.

A report is requested from the current bishop or the administrator of a diocese on the conditions and needs of the diocese. If the appointment is a replacement for a diocesan bishop or archbishop about to retire, consideration will be given to the incumbent's recommendations.

Broad consultation within the diocese is encouraged with regard to the needs of the diocese, but not the names of candidates.

The report is to include the names of individuals in the diocese with whom the nuncio might consult and how to contact them.

Previous bishops of the diocese are consulted. Bishops of the province are consulted. The president and vice president of the USCCB are consulted.

If the vacancy to be filled is an archdiocese, other archbishops in the United States may be consulted.

At this point, the nuncio narrows his list and a questionnaire is sent to 20 or 30 people who know each of the candidates for their input.

All material is collected and reviewed by the nuncio, and a report (approximately 20 pages) is prepared. Three candidates are listed alphabetically – “the terna” – with the nuncio’s preference noted. All materials are then forwarded to the Congregation for Bishops in Rome.

Stage 3: Congregation for Bishops

Once all the documentation from the nuncio is complete and in order, and the prefect approves, the process moves forward. If the appointment involves a bishop who is being promoted or transferred, the matter may be handled by the prefect and the staff.

If, however, the appointment is of a priest to the episcopacy, the full congregation is ordinarily involved.

A cardinal relator is chosen to summarize the documentation and make a report to the full congregation, which generally meets twice a month on Thursdays.

After hearing the cardinal relator’s report, the congregation discusses the appointment and then votes. The congregation may follow the recommendation of the nuncio, choose another of the candidates on the terna or even ask that another terna be prepared.

Stage 4: The pope decides

At a private audience with the pope, usually on a Saturday, the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops presents the recommendations of the congregation to the Holy Father. A few days later, the pope informs the congregation of his decision.

The congregation then notifies the nuncio, who in turn contacts the candidate and asks if he will accept. If the answer is “yes,” the Vatican is notified and a date is set for the announcement.

It often takes six to eight months – and sometimes longer – from the time a diocese becomes vacant until a new bishop is appointed.