The Vacant Diocese

With Bishop Thomas’ transfer to the Diocese of Las Vegas, the Diocese of Helena begins the interregnum, or period between bishops. Once the transfer was announced on February 28, Bishop Thomas, by canon law, became the Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Helena. When Bishop Thomas takes possession of his new diocese at the ceremony of Installation in Las Vegas on May 15, the Diocese of Helena will be what is known as sede vacante, or a vacant see (diocese). Once the diocese is vacant, the College of Consultors (body of priests that advises the bishop on administrative matters) must meet within eight days to select a diocesan administrator.

What does a diocesan administrator do?

The diocesan administrator is bound by the obligations and exercises the authority of the diocesan bishop, with the restriction that when the diocese is vacant, there are to be no innovations. Generally, the role is to undertake the usual administrative tasks without taking new steps that would prejudice the rights of a new bishop. Msgr. Kevin O’Neill, who served as diocesan administrator prior to Bishop Thomas’ installation, likened the work to the steady progress of knitting rather than tinkering.

The diocesan administrator takes office as soon as he accepts election. His office as administrator ceases when the new bishop takes possession of the diocese, usually when he is installed as diocesan bishop.

How is a new bishop selected?

The following is a general description of the complex discernment process for selecting a bishop.

Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, will seek reports on the situation and needs of the Diocese of Helena from Bishop Thomas and other bishops, especially those in the northwest, as well as selected priests, religious and lay persons from the Diocese of Helena.

The Nuncio is seeking in strictest confidence, both information about the Diocese itself and the qualities that will assist a new bishop, with the goal of surfacing the best possible candidates.

Canon law lists qualities for a bishop, including: at least 35 years of age, a priest for at least five years, outstanding in strong faith, good morals, piety, zeal for souls, wisdom, prudence and human virtues; and he should be well versed in sacred Scripture, theology and canon law and, preferably, hold a doctorate in one of these fields.

Following the work of consultation, the Nuncio will submit a terna, a list of three candidates, to the Congregation for Bishops.  The Congregation will review the candidates and make a recommendation to Pope Francis, who makes the final choice and names our new bishop.

How long before The Diocese of Helena has a new bishop?

There is no strict time-frame for the process. The many factors involved in consultation and review can take at least six to eight months, and sometimes longer.