Catholic priests are refusing to serve as bishops, says senior cleric

German bishops fold their hands in prayer.Reuters

Catholic priests tipped for the office of bishop are declining the appointment, according to the National Catholic Reporter (NCR).

Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops – the department of the Roman Curia that oversees the selection of bishops – told NCR it was no longer "exceptional" for priests to decline to serve.

Asked about rumours more priests were declining the role, he said: "Yes, that's true. Nowadays you have people who do not accept the appointment."

He said the number was "not huge" and that priests decline for different reasons. Ouellet gave the example of a priest who was chosen, but said he had cancer. "It was a sign of responsibility not to accept the appointment," he said.

Others, he said, decline because of something in their past or because they think they cannot handle the responsibility. He said that in the latter case the Congregation of Bishops would normally insist that they accept the appointment because people are often not the best judges of their own abilities. However, said Ouellet, when a priest made "a decision in conscience", the Vatican respected it.

As well as appointing new bishops – in a process that requires papal approval – the Congregation also arranges five-yearly visits of bishops to Rome, where they meet with Pope Francis.

Ouellet told NCR the pope "has insisted on the pastoral quality of the bishops. That's very clear. It does not mean that they do not have to be masters of the faith because a bishops is, first and foremost, the first teacher of the faith in his diocese." However, "the capacity to relate to people, to establish dialogue, to start from the point where people are – this is a quality that is also requested", he said.

New bishops are required to attend an eight- or nine-day course in Rome involving both practical and spiritual input.

"The goal of these meetings is to learn their new identity – that they belong to the college of the successors of the apostles," Ouellet said. "It's an extraordinary moment of conversion for them."

The Roman Catholic Church has more than 5,000 bishops around the world and around 414,000 priests.