Tuesday, June 12, 2007


The number you see above is the ratio of the Catholic population of the diocese of Knoxville to its priestly ordinations in 2007. After Archbishop-elect Joseph Kurtz's ordination of three transitional deacons last month, the figure is primed to hold next year -- and such is the state of the docket that, odds are, he'll be back to do the honors.

Especially considering that the archdiocese of Louisville, to which the 60 year-old prelate now heads, didn't see an ordination this year and won't again until 2009, it's an impressive stat, even though it may not seem like it at first glance. And it isn't just notable in relation to the prelate's new charge, either.

For example, the archdiocese of St Louis -- at 555,000, eleven times the size of eastern Tennessee's upstart local church -- ordained four last month; the fabled "Rome of the West" would've needed 33 new priests to meet Kurtz's ratio. And, with 4.1 million Catholics, the archdiocese of Los Angeles -- at 82 times the membership of Knoxville, the US' largest local church -- ordained five, 241 less than it would've needed to keep pace.

Bottom line: the priesthood boom more dioceses than don't covet as a Holy Grail is elusive across ideological, regional and demographic lines. Yet the handful of prelates who've bucked the trend are out there -- and if there's an underscore to be had on this morning's appointment, it's that, keeping a close eye on the numbers, Rome is keen to see the magic spread... a magic for which, to be sure, priesthood is but a means to an end.

Earlier this month, the Knoxville diocese ordained its first class of permanent deacons, 29 in all. In a separate liturgy, Kurtz simultaneously ordained a father and son to the diaconate: permanent for the elder candidate, transitional for the younger. For the wider flock, which has grown by almost a quarter since 2000, a four-year Renew program begins later this year for adult formation. (The initiative poses the question "Why Catholic?" -- a sign that simply having the character to ask implies no small level of confidence in the answer.) And in the surefire sign of ecclesial dynamism the old guard prizes most, the Knoxville chancery's getting a two-story addition built onto it.

(And only on that last bit did gasps of awe resound in this part of the land.)

Ordained for his native Allentown in 1972, Kurtz is the first archbishop to hail from Pennsylvania's youngest diocese, carved in 1961 from the five "upstate" counties of Philadelphia as the fief of fiefs underwent the last of the divisions that marked its halcyon age. But he's just one of an emergent diaspora from the Lehigh Valley active in national and international church circles, a group predominated by clerics in high demand for their skills in priestly formation.

Its members include the upstate's former judicial vicar, now Bishop Ronald Gainer of Lexington; Msgr Andrew Baker, the senior American on the staff of the Congregation for Bishops; Msgr Aloysius Callaghan, Baker's forerunner in mitre-making and currently rector of the Twin Cities' St Paul Seminary; the canonist Msgr Nevin Klinger, the #2 official at Columbus' Pontifical College Josephinum, and Fr J. Michael Beers, recently recruited by the nation's vocation king, Bishop Robert Carlson of Saginaw, to lead a new house of formation in the Michigan diocese (where, barely two years into his tenure, Carlson ordained five transitional deacons last weekend).

All that said, contrary to the mindset still prevalent in many of the US church's once-dominant mid-Atlantic flagships, a priesthood boom does not a booming church make, and Knoxville's success on several fronts lies in its practice of the ecclesiology of complementarity: the seamless, balanced spirit of teamwork between the lay and ordained, a high-morale environment found to energize the whole of Catholic life where it exists... even bearing with it the fruit of the coveted priesthood boom as a consistent, almost effortless, yield.

The purer, richer concept of vocation evidenced in this approach has gotten the nod of no less than Pope Benedict, who recently told a Roman parish council that "every person carries within himself a project of God, a personal vocation, a personal idea of God on what he is required to do in history to build his Church, a living Temple of his presence."

While "the priest's role is above all to reawaken this awareness, to help the individual discover his personal vocation," the Pope said that the lay mandates "with regard to professional life in the formation of today's society... and also with regard to the call to contribute to the Church's growth and life" are likewise indispensable.

"Both these things," B16 emphasized, "are equally important."

Almost 180 years after an Irish-born, Rome-trained cleric was called east from the Kentucky frontier to quash a dominance-mad laity and, in response, establish an ecclesial structure oriented to the opposite extreme -- one which, with time, would come to manifest destructive excesses all its own -- it's one of history's ironies that a product of the very seminary founded to assert the "new order" of the 1830s returns to the same frontier as the embodiment of an even newer, more fruitful order: a "via media" accomplished by the few, one unthinkable amid the caste warfare of old.

"You are the leaders," Kurtz told Knoxville's new adult faith formators in commissioning them last month, noting that the purpose of the new outreach, and their role in it, wasn't simply to serve as "good organizers," but for all sides to work together "for us to go back and reclaim our faith."

It's not a given everywhere, but a new archbishop's record reflects the awareness that the work of reclaiming faith isn't a question of shirking the new for the sake of the old, or vice versa, but embracing the best of both. That the way forward doesn't lie in clericalizing the laity nor laicizing the clergy, but integrating and affirming the two. That a sound future becomes impossible when its fidelity to the past is distorted into false dichotomies. That it's not an issue of Purple Rain vs. pastoral councils, learning Spanish vs. luring seminarians, liturgical norms vs. listening, charity vs. the catechism, reclaiming vs. relevance -- that for all of these, and every other thread that falls between the twin imperatives of revelation and renewal, tradition and its future, the answer isn't one of "either/or," but "both/and."

In its report tapping the diocese as the nation's healthiest, Crisis magazine observed that, working from the base of a "joyful" witness, not only do successful bishops "evince an enthusiasm for the faith and the church," they "assume personal responsibility for the outcomes that are their priorities," and -- so say their priests -- they inspire candor and confidence with "the willingness... to be open to reassessing the success or failure" of the direction they set.

As the dawn of American Catholicism's post-institutional era pushes its opportunities and challenges into the spotlight, the findings aren't just the modern template for a healthy fold: these days -- or, at least, on this day -- they're how metropolitans are made.

Mary C. Weaver/The East Tennessee Catholic