Friday, February 17, 2006

The Lark -- er, Canary -- Ascending

Earlier last evening, a call came in from the Enchanted Forest... and Bird, Bird, Bird -- Bird is the word.

Fr John Canary, since 1995 the Rector/President of St. Mary of the Lake, the US' largest seminary located in Mundelein, Ill., has been named vicar-general of the archdiocese of Chicago.

Given the recent troubles of the archdiocese, born from a public outcry over cases of priests kept in active ministry while archdiocesan officials investigated claims of sex abuse against them, moving Canary -- known for his personal integrity, leadership skills and crisis-control savvy -- to its chief administrative post is an act whose significance cannot be underestimated. The man known widely as "Bird" succeeds newly-ordained auxiliary Bishop George Rassas, an administrative whiz in his own right, who has been assigned by Cardinal Francis George to head the archdiocese's Vicariate I.

Home to 2.5 million Catholics, the massive see of Chicago -- which John Paul II referred to as "maxima" (the greatest, or largest) in his Bull naming Joseph Bernardin its archbishop in 1982 -- has long been subdivided into regions which are almost like dioceses within a diocese. Each headed by their own vicar, who is normally an auxiliary bishop; the archdiocese has six active auxiliaries. Since the December 2004 transfer of Bishop Jerome Listecki to the diocese of LaCrosse, Carmelite Fr Farrell Kane has been filling in at the head of the vicariate -- a suburban enclave which includes the seminary's hometown of Mundelein, Des Plaines and Waukegan, among others. It encompasses 53 parishes.

Particularly given George's heavy travel schedule, which contributed to the inner ear infection that landed the American hierarchy's default leader in a Chicago hospital for two days last month, the Chicago vicar-general is the de facto operator of America's second largest see. Canary's appointment will keep hope alive among his many fans that, indeed, he will one day see the "high hat" of a bishop.

Canary's monumental 11 years at the seminary's helm -- a tenure equivalent to eons (and then some) in the high-pressure world of priestly formation -- have been highly productive, earned him national goodwill and, most importantly, the respect of his current and former seminarians. They haven't, however, been without their difficult moments, especially within the past year.

A September car accident in which a drunken seminarian crashed a vehicle into a tree on the Mundelein campus, killing two students, encited mass outrage and garnered loads of media attention. The driver was held on reckless homicide and DUI charges, the other surviving passenger on impersonating a police officer and unlawful possession of a weapon after deputy badges and a gun were found in the auto's glove compartment. In a December piece on the recent Apostolic Visitation of US seminaries, John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter uncovered difficulties during Mundelein's turn under the microscope. According to the report, Canary was compelled to stand up for his students after some questions asked in the required interviews "risked invading the students' consciences." Canary "confronted" the visitors, "ending the [inappropriate line of] questioning," Allen wrote.

St. Mary of the Lake Vice-President and Provost Fr Thomas Baima has been named interim rector until a permanent successor is chosen and installed. Baima, a former director of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs for the Chicago archdiocese, has an extensive background in pan-religious dialogue.

Another word from two Chicago sources is that Rassas wasn't supposed to be appointed and ordained as auxiliary bishop by himself. Francis George had asked for two auxiliaries, and it's said his wish was granted; a second nominee alongside Rassas was named and approved by the Pope. When informed of his appointment, however, the other bishop-elect is said to have refused the office.

Talk about your rare bird moments.