Monday, June 02, 2008

In San Antone, it's Oscar Night

Not since 1988 -- the last time a Stateside appointment broke the "40 Barrier" -- has an American prelate been called to the high-hat as young as San Antonio's new auxiliary, 41 year-old Bishop-elect Oscar Cantu, who'll be ordained at a Mass tonight that, by popular demand, has been moved from San Fernando Cathedral to one of Alamoland's larger parish churches.

But even so, admission's still ticket-only.

A quatrilingual dogmatic theologian still working to complete his Roman doctorate, the native Houstonian -- whose 14 years of priesthood have found him in a mix of pastoral, administrative, formation and education work -- has been an intensely-sought episcopal prospect around the country, reportedly topping multiple shortlists for open auxiliary berths before getting snapped up by the nation's senior Hispanic prelate, San Antone Archbishop Jose Gomez.

Home to 675,000 Catholics, Cantu's new scene in Texas' senior archdiocese is a bit more settled than the Boomtown-style expansion in the 1.5 million-member H-Town church, but the new auxiliary won't lack for familiar faces, first of all a family friend from before he was born, now retired Archbishop Patrick Flores. Tonight's ordination caps a weekend that began with the ordination of 23 permanent deacons for the archdiocese; having ordained three new priests last month, the city's Assumption Seminary's said to be looking at an entering class of close to 30 for the fall.

The former co-host of a cross-faith radio show (alongside a rabbi and Protestant minister), the newest "baby bishop" has been immersed a media blitz since his elevation was announced at Appointmentpalooza, including an interview with the archdiocesan TV station shortly after the opening-day press conference, a farewell meet-up with the Houston corps, and an introductory profile in the weekend's pages of San Antonio's Express-News:
He built a reputation as an approachable church leader who was always late but delivered sermons his parishioners could relate to.

“I don't think he realizes how much he has done to inspire others,” said his childhood friend Lisa Gonzalez. “I don't think he understands the dynamics.”

There was pride in the congregation that the self-described “snot-nosed kid” from the neighborhood did not forget where he came from.

He helped campaign against a city-sponsored development that did not include affordable housing. Cantú's effort paid off.

As part of that project, the city pledged $2 million for lower income housing.

His energy was infectious. More volunteers showed up for church functions and to help with the school.

To help raise money he donned a sumo-wrestling suit and wrestled another priest in the church parking lot for a fundraiser dubbed, “Throwdown at the Playground.”

“He is just a normal guy,” Gomez said. “That's what I like about him.”

At his last sermon in late May, Cantú told parishioners he learned how to be a priest sitting at his family's table.

Cantú's studies have focused on the sacred traditions of the church and he believes that there is more to eating together than simply sharing food and company.

“Jesus said, ‘Do this when you think of me,'” he said of sharing meals. “Not when jogging.”

When he becomes a bishop, Cantú will have his own coat of arms, a tradition for those becoming bishops.

At its center Cantú chose to have a table. For him it represented the church altar and the family dining table.

He described to his congregation how his parents presided over the table with eight kids and their friends. Somehow, there was enough food, and guests were always welcome.

“From my mother I learned to roll with the punches,” he said. “To have the confidence that God would provide.”

From his father he learned the importance of honesty.

“When we try to fool others, we simply fool ourselves,” Cantú said. “That has been the base of my priesthood.”...

As Cantú walked down the aisle of Holy Name Church for the last time as its priest, he passed his family, friends and neighbors. With some holding back tears, they stood and the church filled with applause. He had finished his sermon asking for their prayers as he moved on to the challenges that were ahead.

In San Antonio, sitting in his office across the hall from the office Cantú would soon occupy, Gomez smiled.

“Poor guy, he is going to be a bishop for 30 years.”
Cantu's age is historic in another regard: he's about to become the first US bishop born following the close of the Second Vatican Council.

As noted above, no Stateside appointee younger than 40 has been seen since 38 year-old Roberto Gonzalez OFM was named an auxiliary bishop of Boston in 1988; Gonzalez serves today as archbishop of San Juan on Puerto Rico. Since that time, while the handful of US bishops named in their fifth decade have been aged 43 or over at the time of their appointments, the age of the bench's youngest member has fallen a full seven years (from 48 to, now, 41) since B16's election. 

Given that trajectory, could another surge through the "40 Barrier" be far behind?

(On another stat-note, while the canons mandate that a bishop be no younger than 35 and at least five years a priest, the number-crunchers report the average age of the active American bench as almost 71 and a half.)

From Spurs Country, the Festival Express has two more stops in its 17-day, eight-city circuit: Thursday's ordination of Bishop-elect Tony Taylor in Little Rock, and Friday's installation of Archbishop-elect Thomas Rodi in Mobile. With several more moves expected to drop before the Vatican's traditional summer recess, the next major slate of Stateside appointments are currently looking on-target for movement in the days following the USCCB's Spring Plenary late next week in Orlando.

For all of it, as always, stay tuned.

PHOTO: Archdiocese of San Antonio