Question Box: Who will run the diocese now?


By Father Thom Hennen
Question Box

What happens now that we don’t have a bishop?

First of all, we still have a bishop. Archbishop-elect  Thomas  Zinkula is still our bishop until he takes possession of the Archdiocese of Dubuque on Oct. 18, so we are not sede vacante (a vacant see) just yet. That being said, I imagine he may need to be back and forth some as he prepares to take on his new responsibilities.

By the way, if the announcement that Archbishop-elect Zinkula will be going back to his home diocese as archbishop surprised you, it is not totally without precedence. One of his predecessors, Archbishop Henry Rohlman, was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Dubuque in 1901. He was made Bishop of Davenport (our fourth bishop) in 1927 and then returned to Dubuque as coadjutor archbishop in 1944, to automatically succeed Archbishop Francis Beckman in 1946.

So what happens after October? Canon law addresses this. Pope Francis may appoint an apostolic administrator, as he did when  he accepted Archbishop Michael Jackel’s resignation in April for health reasons and Bishop Richard Pates (retired Bishop of Des Moines) stepped in to fill the gap. The fact that an apostolic administrator was not immediately named with the announcement that Archbishop-elect Zinkula would be going to Dubuque may be telling.


In a recent conversation with a brother priest who is currently studying Canon Law, he noted that an apostolic administrator is usually for extraordinary situations, so that he can step in right away. However, the more typical situation envisioned by Canon Law is for a diocesan administrator to be elected by the college of consultors. This is a group of six to 12 priests (we have nine) appointed by the bishop and who are called upon for certain functions such as this. The diocesan administrator must be a priest who is at least 35 years old and who is “outstanding in doctrine and prudence” (Can. 425). If the college of consultors fails to elect a diocesan administrator, then it would fall to the metropolitan (soon-to-be Archbishop Zinkula) to designate one.

The role of the diocesan administrator is to temporarily govern the diocese until a new bishop takes possession. In the meantime, Canon Law is explicit that the diocesan administrator is not to change anything (nihil innovetur). This does not mean that everything stops. The day-to-day operations of the diocese should carry on as usual. Initiatives begun under the previous bishop should continue as planned, but new major initiatives should not be undertaken and there are some things which Canon Law specifically prohibits, such as the appointment of pastors.

The reason the announcement is made months before the transition is intentional. It is so that both the diocese a bishop is leaving and the one he is going to will have time to prepare. As we know from when Bishop Zinkula was ordained and installed as our bishop in 2017, there is a lot that goes into the planning for this event. Also, we will need some time to make sure things are in place for “smooth sailing” while we are without a “captain.” As to when we might expect a new bishop to be named, who knows. I think the fact that we will be a truly vacant see (with no bishop) might put us closer to the top of the list, but even so, this process can take time. In the meantime, we are grateful for Archbishop-elect Zinkula’s outstanding service to our diocese these past six years. Let us pray for him and ask God to send us the new shepherd we need in the time we need.

(Father Thom Hennen serves as the pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport and vicar general for the Diocese of Davenport. Send questions to

Support The Catholic Messenger’s mission to inform, educate and inspire the faithful of the Diocese of Davenport – and beyond! Subscribe to the print and/or e-edition, or make a one-time donation, today!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Posted on

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *