Monday, January 15, 2007

What kind of bishop is a Benedict XVI bishop?

Last Tuesday in a post entitled One is Some-Counting with the S.L. Trib I was very critical of an article that ran in the Tribune trying to demonstrate that the appointment of Bishop Wester was a cause of dismay for some Latino Catholics here in the Beehive State, when even the logic of the article itself led one to a different conclusion. In the same post I lauded the front page article by Peggy Fletcher Stack, which was quite good given the short period of time she had to put it together.

Peggy wrote another fine article for yesterday's Sunday Trib using the Holy Father's appointment of Bishop Wester as a kind of case study in seeking to determine what a Benedict XVI bishop looks like, entitled Is the pope signaling a new age of openness? I have to say she chose several outstanding sources: Monsignor M. Francis Mannion, the priest who took a big chance on hiring me some eleven and a half years ago to fill the very big shoes of Deacon Owen Cummings, Rocco Palmo, the Philadelphia-based Vaticanisti, who, in addition to being the U.S. correspondent for the U.K. Catholic weekly newspaper, The Tablet, writes the blog Whispers in the Loggia. Similarly, Rocco was big inspiration for me deciding to start this little local blog and, later, in collaboration with Gregory Glenn The People of St. Mary Magdalene. She also spoke with David Gibson, author of The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle With the Modern World. Here a minor correction is in order. In her article, she incorrectly has the subtitle of Gibson's book, "Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle with the Modern Mind." She also received input for the article from Fr. Tom Reese, former editor of the Jesuit weekly magazine America, another astute observer of the U.S. and International Church.

Anyway, enough attributions and accolades. I would encourage you to read Peggy's article because she does a good job of discussing the shifting trends in the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, without pushing her conclusions too far. One trend, especially with Cardinal Levada's elevation to Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the job held by the Pope himself prior to ascending to the Chair of St. Peter, is that the Church in the Western in U.S. is in the ascendancy. This no mere political power game, it is just the reality that the Church in the West is growing rapidly, mirroring the shifting demographics of the nation. Likewise, many East Coast dioceses are contracting and having to consolidate. She also gives a quick-look at what the coming year holds in terms of the U.S. hierarchy.

One aspect that the article could have dealt with a bit more is the role of the Papal Nunico in the selection process for bishops in any country, but the U.S. in particular. Rocco would have been a great source for this crucial part of the overall story. Presently, the Pope's representative to the U.S. is Archbishop Pietro Sambi. I cannot tell you how fortunate we are to have such a conscientious nuncio. He takes his job of vetting bishops seriously, just as the Holy Father, as is pointed out the article, puts a great deal of time into reviewing candidates for vacant sees. Given his two previous postings, as nuncio to Indonesia, the most populous Islamic country in the world, where he was held in very high regard, and Israel/Palestine, his U.S. posting must seem comparatively easy.

One can only speculate that the reason there are several dioceses vacant after a great deal of time (i.e., Lake Charles, Louisiana, Youngstown, Ohio, Birmingham, Alabama) is Sambi's dutiful job in carefully vetting would be candidates before submitting a terna, or a list with three names- three finalists- to the Congregatio pro Episcopis, in Rome, where they are further studied before being forwarded to the Holy Father for a final decision. Suffice it to say, with Archbishop Sambi on the job, we can be confident that something like the strange case of Archbishop Wielgus, especially in light of what has happened in our country over the past five years, is unlikely to occur.

As can always be expected, Msgr. Mannion gives a level-headed dose of reality when the temptation of trend spotting gets too carried away: "'There doesn't strike me as a Benedict-type bishop. The church is too large for any such thing to exist.' Besides, he says, choosing men for their ideological leanings doesn't work in the long run. Men often change when they get into a particular diocese with its unique challenges. 'Liberals become conservatives, while conservatives become liberals,' Mannion says. 'Those with one agenda take on another agenda born of the circumstances.' In a fast-moving world and church, the task of being bishop is tough enough. 'Just keeping their heads above water," he says, "is the first thing they've got to do'".

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