The Secret Process of Selecting a Bishop
Michael Sis has been the bishop of a diocese spanning 29 west Texas counties since January. Originally from Bryan, the bishop served several years in campus ministry at Texas A&M and as the priest of several parishes in Austin before taking his post in San Angelo at the beginning of the year.
At a Rotary Club meeting on Friday, bishop Sis gave a little background on himself and answered questions from curious attendees as to how he ended up as the man who oversees Catholic faith life in the region.
“You don’t put in for being a bishop,” he said. “You don’t apply, there’s no application, there’s no course of studies that you would take with that intention. Basically, there’s a selection process where the church identifies priests all around the world who might make a good bishop.”
In each country, Sis explained, a papal nuncio serves as the link between the bishops of that country and the Vatican. The nuncio is asked to submit names of priests that might make good bishops, and after a thorough vetting, submits the names to Rome.
Part of vetting potential bishop candidates, Sis said, includes sending out confidential questionnaires on the candidates regarding his virtues, intelligence and pastoral skills. The nuncio then makes a dossier and sends it to the congregation of bishops in Rome, who also do their vetting.
When a bishop position opens up, the congregation of bishops selects three names from those they’ve received and submits them to the pope. The pope will either select one of those names, reject them all and ask the congregation to submit others, or select someone himself, who may or may not be on the list, Sis explained.
“At some point that process happened without my knowing it, and he decided it’s going to be Mike Sis from Austin. So he calls the Nuncio in Washington and he says, ‘Alright, the new bishop in San Angelo is this Mike Sis guy in Austin. So the Nuncio has to call me.’”
Sis recalls the day he received the call vividly, and, not absent humor, put on a thick and elderly Italian accent as he recounted the tale to the Rotarians.
“So he calls me on December 2nd, 2013, 2:45 p.m. I’m in an appointment, and so he gets my secretary. So she taps on the door. ‘Uh, uh monsignor Sis, it’s the papal nuncio on the phone,” Sis says, mimicking the nervousness in the voice of his secretary at that time.
“So I had to tell the guy I was meeting with, ‘You have to, we’ll have to meet again later’. So I pick up the phone."
“Hello, is this monsignor Sis?” the bishop recalls in a fairly accurate and dramatized accent.
“How is your health?”
“It’s good,” he says nervously. “I’ve got good health.”
“Good, good. The holy father has decided you will be the next bishop of San Angelo.”
“And then he says, ‘Do you accept?’”
Laughter breaks out as he continues, “What do you say? It was a shocker. What do you say? Do I accept? And I said, ‘well, can I think about it, can I pray about it?’”
“He says, ‘yes, call me in the morning. Call me between 8 and 9 in the morning’. So I had a little bit of time.”
The decision to accept the post was not easy, Sis said. He knew the job would be tough and he wanted to be sure he could do it right. The territory for his post stretches from Brownwood to Andrews and the New Mexico border, the Mexican border near Big Bend, Sanderson, and over Junction, and on up to Abilene.
Approximately 65 faith communities are included in the expanse—some of them very small—and cities such as Midland/Odessa, San Angelo, Abilene and everything in between are included.
Following the call from the nuncio, Sis phoned his spiritual director to seek guidance on making the decision. Bishop nominations are to remain confidential until a formal announcement is made, so Sis couldn’t even call his family and ask for their input. The only other call he made at that time, he said, was to bishop Joe S. Vasquez, who had lived in San Angelo and could offer him sound advice.
“The next morning, I was doing my prayers, and there’s some prayers that we do called the office of readings,” Sis said. “So we read all these ancient readings from 2,000 years of history…I was reading one by a guy named Frances Xavier…he had grown up in Europe and…he felt at a certain point that maybe he was being called to go be a missionary in India.
“He wrote this little reflection…he says, ‘too many people are comfortable just getting an education and taking care of themselves. Not enough people in this Christian world are willing to use their education to help people in most need. He says, ‘Lord, I’m willing to go wherever you call me to go, even to India.’ And I’m thinking, ‘wow, maybe I should say even to San Angelo.’
“That was a very key moment for me,” Sis said. “And plus, I had to call the guy between 8 and 9.”
On Dec. 12, Pope Francis named Michael Sis the bishop of San Angelo. He was ordained at a ceremony that drew hundreds of Catholics from all over Texas to the Junell Center on Jan. 27.
“…we did this big religious ceremony with all these priests and bishops and incense and candles and we did this in a basketball arena,” Sis recalled excitedly. “It was awesome.”
Michael Sis grew up in Bryan with a father who was a professor of veterinary medicine at A&M and a mother who was a medical transcriptionist. Both still live in Bryan, he said, and after graduating from Notre Dame and spending five years in Rome studying theology, spent a significant portion of his career building a campus ministry at A&M from St. Mary's Catholic Church at Northgate in College Station.
He has served as a priest since 1986, holding various positions at parishes, and now spend approximately 60 percent of his time in San Angelo doing administrative work and 40 percent of his time visiting faith communities in his diocese.