Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The Hurricane King: In Miami, The "Reign of Tom" Begins

And so, as they like saying down in Florida, “Gentlemen, start your engines....”

Today, what’ll quickly become one of the more one of the more action-heavy ministries among the Stateside bench begins in the nation’s southernmost see with an unprecedented moment: the installation of a native son as archbishop.

Usually colorful, sometimes controversial, always hard-charging and outspoken (like the hurricane he was born in), Thomas Wenski’s triumphant return to Miami was already shaping up to be quite the moment. Yet while the degree of the change set to rock to the Southeast’s largest local church will be on full display at this afternoon's rites in St Mary's Cathedral, a quiet foretaste came late Sunday night, when a delegation of Haitians from the prodigal prelate’s first pastorate spontaneously converged on the Archbishop’s Residence, both to say “welcome home”... and ask for tough-to-get tickets to the afternoon Mass. (Which they got.)

To use his predecessor’s line, the significance of the moment isn’t just “very simple,” but especially rich. Now home to 1.3 million Catholics, the appointment of the 59 year-old polyglot comes as yet another matrix-shift reflecting the new reality of the Stateside church, its demographic center drastically shifted south and west over the last three decades, reiterating along the way the new message that, as the nation’s leading ecclesial outposts go, anyone unable to engage the fold's burgeoning Hispanic bloc need not apply.

What’s more, though, in the nation’s seventh-largest metropolitan area -- now a key center of commerce and culture, long a hub for migrants and, given its location, geopolitics -- the homecoming delivers a caliber of public leadership that, if ever experienced there, hasn’t been seen in South Florida since the era of Coleman Carroll, the Pittsburgh-born founder of the Miami church, who died in 1977 (and whose pectoral cross Wenski will wear at today's Mass).

In his prime, Carroll -- sent to Miami as first bishop in 1958, then elevated with his see to metropolitan rank just a decade later -- advised JFK on Cuba and rolled out the welcome mat to the first masses of exiles who fled the island following Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution. Yet while his two successors diligently tended to the needs of the emergent diaspora, they took less of a public role on matters pertaining to the situation on the island. Now, however, a very different story begins: the Miami post belongs to the prelate who, in essence, has long held the US bench’s de facto Cuba portfolio, and a delegation of half-dozen Cuban bishops will be on hand for the installation.

The shift comes at a particularly sensitive time on the island, with the head of the Cuban church -- Havana’s Cardinal Jaime Ortega y Alamino -- immersed in the hierarchy’s most extensive engagement yet with the country’s Communist government.

In an April interview with his diocesan magazine, Palabra Nueva, the usually-diplomatic cardinal said that a "very difficult situation" existed on the island -- "the most difficult we have lived in this 21st century" -- and that the lack of "the necessary changes" to "economic and social difficulties... produces impatience and unease in the people."

After citing the half-century embargo as a lead cause of the "somber" atmosphere, the leader of the Cuban church said he "believe[d] that a Cuban-US dialogue would be the first necessary step toward ending the critical cycle in which we find ourselves."

At a Havana briefing nine months earlier, another prelate remarked that "I believe that the church (both in Cuba and the US) wants to be the protagonist of a better approach... it's important we not lose the opportunity this time."

Some hours from now, the figure behind that statement formally takes the reins of the exile community's preeminent Stateside outpost.

Closer to home, the sound of Wenski’s Harley is just the symbol of an amplified public profile for the archbishopric, one that’s already been heard revving up.

Not content to wait until today, the past month’s already seen the appointee featured twice on the Miami Herald’s op-ed pages: first with a slightly edited version of the 20 April remarks at his appointment press conference, then with a mid-May call urging Florida Gov. Charlie Crist to sign a controversial anti-abortion bill precluding taxpayer funding of abortions in state health plans, and mandating that a woman be given the option to see an ultrasound before undergoing the procedure. (Though passed by the Florida house last month, the bill has yet to be sent to the governor, an independent candidate for the US Senate.)

As contrasts go, shortly after his 1994 arrival, Archbishop John Clement Favalora saw fit to start a weekly radio show on a church outlet, using it as his “media time.”

For Wenski, however, “media time” is all the time, and open to anyone who’ll listen... especially when he’s stuck in traffic.

The personality trait has scored its fruit: in Orlando, the bishop invariably became sought-out copy, with an uncanny ability to get seemingly any message out, whether he was delivering discourses in Creole following January’s Haitian earthquake, holding a unique Mass of Reparation over Notre Dame’s conferral of an honorary degree on President Obama, or -- as he did at his parting press conference in Orlando -- comparing the criminality of illegal immigration to getting a parking ticket.

Elected to oversee the US bishops’ migration efforts as a young auxiliary, on the key issue Wenski’s expected to become the Eastern parallel to the Pacific coast’s new ecclesial superpower, Coadjutor-Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, who’ll step into the USCCB’s migration chair come November. A veteran of migrant ministry who tutored his would-be predecessor on immigration law, the Miami designee’s repeatedly returned to the topic since his appointment, citing throughout his sound-byte summation of Catholic social teaching that -- whether it’s the unborn, the poor, the migrant, the elderly -- “no man is a problem.”

That said, no preview of the tenure at hand would be complete without mention of Haiti -- the heart of the archbishop’s Miami ministry for some 20 years. At the April press conference announcing the appointment, jubilant shouting in Creole could be heard at the back of the chancery courtyard. And though reports remained unclear into the 11th hour, as many as eight Haitian bishops -- the country’s entire episcopate -- are expected for today’s installation to pay tribute.

Four months after the magnitude 7.2 quake devastated the island already considered the poorest country in the West -- and the Floridian memorably beat his own path into Port-au-Prince, returning again after Easter -- Miami’s become the hub for coordinating the ongoing relief efforts. Able to tick off the rebuilding’s progress town by town, such is Wenski’s Haitian cred that, in the quake’s aftermath, some of his critics wishfully latched onto speculation which floated his name as a possible successor to Archbishop Joseph-Serge Miot of Port-au-Prince, who was killed in the disaster.

As not many prelates can lead the rebuilding of a foreign country, even that talk was an unwitting compliment.

Come the weekend, though, the fourth archbishop’s first Sunday Mass will be a raucous homecoming not at his cathedral, but in the heart of Little Haiti, at the mission parish he founded.

Several weeks before his transfer was announced, the story goes that a bouquet of flowers arrived at Wenski’s Orlando office, the card reading “Welcome home, Archbishop.”

At the time -- at least, officially -- the message was less fact than wish.

Today, the reality begins… buckle up.

* * *
A global profile might well await, but Job One facing the native son is no foreign mission, but a sizable rescue operation at home.

Publicly, the archbishop’s taken to saying that “South Florida has its challenges, but what else is new?” Behind the scenes, though, the financial “free fall” experienced by the Miami church amid the economic downturn has been credibly compared to the staggering state of the archdiocese of Detroit at the arrival of Archbishop Allen Vigneron, when the Motor City church was hemorrhaging to the tune of $40,000 a day and ended up having to lay off nearly a third of its central staff.

For his part, Favalora eased the burden by closing 13 parishes -- a tenth of the archdiocese’s outposts -- last August. Still, the “world of hurt” situation augurs the prospect of an administrative overhaul, and a seeming inevitability of tough calls in the short to mid-term future.

At the same time, Wenski returns well-equipped as temporalities go. Aided by his public profile and a keen cultivation of donors, the archbishop's twin major efforts in Orlando -- a $150 million capital campaign and the extensive restoration of St James' Cathedral -- were both proceeding apace as his homecoming was announced.

As the latter goes, while idle chatter over the Orlando succession has already reached fever-pitch levels along the I-4 corridor, it's worth noting that as -- at least, among other things -- the archbishop has indicated among friends his wish to preside over the cathedral's November rededication, smart money wouldn't expect an appointment to Disneyworld until after the mother-church's reopening. (Speaking of the 400,000-member Central Florida church, Wenski's tenure more than doubled its number of men in priestly formation, from 11 in 2003 to 27 at the start of the last academic year.)

While the “perfect storm” of the financial crunch, the parish closings and the clergy sex-abuse crisis have taken a toll on morale in the Miami church, another controversy of Favalora’s twilight reemerged over the weekend as Alberto Cutié -- the South Florida priest whose media ministry made him, arguably, among the best-known clerics in the Western hemisphere before his stunning defection from his ministry and the faith to marry last year -- was ordained a priest in the Episcopal church.

Photographed in vestments alongside his pregnant wife, the reemergence of the figure once known in Hispanic circles as “Father Oprah” on the area’s TV and newspapers, with the Herald noting that Cutié had gone on-record criticizing Anglicanorum coetibus -- Pope Benedict’s historic November outreach to disaffected Anglicans -- but kept a photo of the pontiff in his Bible, and in his prayers.

As one Miami cleric put it, that the Saturday rites got the attention they did served to show “the current standing of the archbishop in this town” -- that is, the lack thereof.

“But don’t worry,” he added. “That’ll change -- quick.”

His work cut out for him, the support from the locals is running high -- as Wenski prepares to receive the pallium from Pope Benedict four weeks from today in Rome (alongside, as of this writing, two other American archbishops), word is that the Miami pilgrimage isn't just sold out, but unused hotel rooms reserved for other US groups were needed to accommodate the nearly 300-member Florida delegation.

* * *
Lastly, the wider picture can’t go unnoted.

Given the explosive growth and vitality of the region -- and, indeed, B16’s desire to highlight these on the map -- it’s more likely than not that, within the next decade, the red hat of a cardinal will make an unprecedented arrival in the Old South. And with no less than six of the US’ 12 voting cardinals reaching the age of 80 -- and, ergo, losing their conclave rights -- over the next two years, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that the Southeast could even see two: one for Miami, and another for the juggernaut church of Atlanta, now home to roughly a million Catholics, a building and vocation boom and outsize crops of adults entering the church each Easter.

Either way, today’s installation completes a unique transformation in the reign of Benedict XVI as -- from the Appalachians to the Gulf, the Atlantic to the Mississippi -- the Southeast becomes the first region of the Stateside church to have all its metropolitans named under the watchful eye of the reigning pontiff.

Amid the historic backdrop of the vast area’s Catholic boom, the sea change at the top is significant in itself. What makes it all the more so, however, is the caliber of the churchmen the pontiff has put into place to guide the six archdioceses: each of them known as voices who're strong, yet not abrasive; administratively seasoned, but pastorally gifted; well-trained leaders in their own right, but “conference men” (that is, key figures among the body of bishops), to boot.

Five years in, that might serve as nutshell depiction of Benedict's picks across the board. Yet given the church's current coming of age in the last segment of the country where the faithful have arrived en masse, the stakes in the Southeast are considerably higher... and, again, the pinnacle of its ascent remains squarely ahead.

For the record, while Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta was appointed in November 2004 -- just three months prior to the death of Pope John Paul II -- he can be “grandfathered” into the Benedict group, given Joseph Ratzinger’s warm esteem for the former bench chief (and, by that point, his unchallenged hand on the Congregation for Bishops).

That said, the Miami installation isn’t the only signal event on this week’s South-church calendar: this Corpus Christi weekend will see another edition of the region's standout ecclesial gathering -- Atlanta's annual Eucharistic Congress at the Georgia World Congress Center, this year's turnout expected to build on last year's record crowd of 30,000-plus.

PHOTOS: Archdiocese of Miami(1); Ana Rodridgez-Soto/The Florida Catholic(2); Loggiarazzi(3)