Thursday, September 23, 2010

For the Forces, B16 Taps a "Hound"

When Fr Rick Spencer was named auxiliary bishop of the 1.5 million-member archdiocese for the Military Services back in May, at least one friend of the longtime Army chaplain was, to put it mildly, floored.

Describing the 59 year-old Lieutenant Colonel as “low key, kind, guileless and holy,” the op went on to say that “how he ever got an episcopal nod I will never know, but holy cow, what a wonderful priest.”

Well, with the fullvid of Spencer’s early-month ordination at DC’s Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception -- the AMS’ de facto cathedral -- now posted (and in exceptional quality, to boot), we’ve finally got a better idea of the “how”... and, suffice it to say, it’s remarkable, indeed.

For only the fourth time on these shores in this pontificate, the papal bull elevating the Alabama-born Baltimore priest relayed that Spencer was tapped by B16, “having given due consideration to the advice of the Congregation for Bishops” -- the exceptional veiled formula indicating that the pontiff set aside the Hatcave’s consensus pick to make his own choice. (Normally, the text would simply report that Benedict had “accepted” the Congregation’s mind... and while we're at it, a Silver Star to whoever can name the other three so chosen.)

Lest anyone forgot what’s been well-noted here over the years -- namely, that only Papa Ratzi’s cherished writing outweighs the time and attention he dedicates to scouring and deciding the appointment dossiers (and, clearly, no file is too "low-profile" for the pontiff’s Teutonic eye) -- be reminded of it again.

Still, as the story goes, the manner of Spencer’s appointment is just one of many keen facets; as the Premier See’s Catholic Review captured in a standout profile last month, the chaplain’s path has seen some exceptional turns -- after a seven-year Army enlistment as a civilian in the 1970s, he entered the (Brown) Franciscans in New York, along the way literally working “side-by-side” with Dorothy Day and the heart of the Catholic Worker movement, then serving as a prison counselor before incardinating to Baltimore, where he was ordained in 1988. Now, entrusted with the worldwide archdiocese's operations in Europe and Asia, but still listed as active-duty, he becomes the lone AMS prelate with war-zone clearance; the bishop already notched a tour in Iraq early in the seven-year campaign.

Lastly, the new appointment keeps with B16's well-honed (and, strangely enough, widely-unsung) penchant for picking high-hats who stand in marked contrast to the entrenched polarization of today's church. While Spencer's superior, AMS Archbishop Timothy Broglio, made headlines earlier this week for repudiating the standing of a lay Catholic lobby seeking to overturn the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy on gays and lesbians in uniform, his auxiliary's chosen motto, Auscultabo ut Serviam ("I will listen, that I may serve") echoes that of the new prelate's "spiritual mentor": Charm City's recently-passed 13th archbishop, the beloved "Ironman" William Borders -- himself an Army chaplain in World War II... and over his 15 years in John Carroll's chair, nobody's conservative.

All that said, at the close of his ordination, Spencer took the Shrine's famous pulpit to deliver the customary rookie's remarks... which, despite their evangelical energy, shook out as the second-shortest such talk in memory:

For the record, the briefest "baby bishop" speech of all just so happened to be given on the very same spot... and next week, the figure behind that elegant two minutes returns to the capital, this time to take up a far bigger preaching assignment.

Lastly, though, having celebrated its silver anniversary as a stand-alone diocese this year, it can't go unmentioned that AMS could use a few more good men... or a few hundred -- according to its last published numbers, in 2008 the Forces' Catholic chaplain corps comprised less than 300 priests worldwide.

PHOTO: John Whitman Photography/Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA