Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Fresno Mourns... and SoCal Shakes

Early Sunday saw the loss of a cherished figure of the church out West as Bishop John Steinbock of Fresno died at 73, less than four months after being diagnosed with advanced lung cancer.

Ordained a bishop in 1984 and head of the nearly 700,000-member diocese comprising California's San Joaquin Valley -- a place dubbed the nation's "food basket" -- since 1991, the earthy, unassuming prelate (who once auctioned off his vestments to raise money for local Catholic Charities) is widely being recalled as a textbook example of a "good and faithful servant."

Leading the tributes, LA's Cardinal Roger Mahony noted Steinbock's long service on "skid row" as rector of his hometown's St Vibiana's Cathedral (now a catering/event facility) -- a "ministry of presence" on which the late bishop subsequently wrote a book of recollections.

The Fresno prelate "was a friend to the homeless and to street people," Mahony said, eagerly undertaking "extensive visits to the small apartments in downtown Los Angeles [and] visiting with joy the poor families living there and working in the area for minimum wage salaries."

"His personal impact" among the poor "was grace-filled," the cardinal said.

Facing the scourge of his final days, in early October the Valley bishop penned a final pastoral letter to his diocese -- a "Christian perspective" on The Affliction of Cancer, which has begun to circulate even more widely since his death.

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Steinbock's body will lie in state in Fresno's St John's Cathedral next Monday, with the Funeral Mass to be held in a larger parish church the following day.

With his death, the number of US Latin-rite churches currently lacking a diocesan bishop returns to three, with another 10 sees led by prelates who remain in office past the retirement age of 75 as they await the appointment of their successors.

That said, it's been nearly seven years since a Stateside diocese last fell vacant due to the death of the sitting bishop -- the last time said scenario occurred came in May 2004 when, just seven months into his tenure as ordinary, Bishop Kevin Britt of Grand Rapids died suddenly at 59 from a cerebral hemorrhage.

Especially in light of the calendar's confluence of events, however, to Steinbock belongs the last word.

Having learned Spanish as a seminarian and, ever since, said to have "truly loved" his ministry to the rising majority of the church on these shores, news of the bishop's death notably came as thousands from the diocese he leaves behind assembled for Fresno's first celebrations of the Mother of the Americas.

Along those lines, here's a snip from what would be Steinbock's final Guadalupe homily:
Yo no soy mexicano, ni por sangre ni por raza, pero por la gracia de Dios, yo soy Guadalupano. Desde los dias en el seminario, Dios me guio a una devocion a la Virgen de Guadalupe, con el deseo de aprender espanol para servir a su pueblo amado. Despues de mi ordenacion como sacerdote, por mas de veinte anos ejerciendo ministerio con los Hispanos, yo vine a apreciar aun mas el poder, amor, intercession y proteccion de la Virgen de Tepeyac....

Por ningun otro pueblo Maria ha dejado su imagen. Tanto ella les quiere. Y dejo su imagen en la tilma de Juan Diego, para que el pueblo de todas las generaciones podian sentir que ella esta cerca con ellos por todo lo que pasa en esta vida. Todos nosotros estamos pasando por tiempos dificiles, especialmente los pobres y los inmigrantes simplemente tratando de vivir una vida buena, buscando trabajo para el bienestar de sus famlias. Todos nosotros somos hermanos en Cristo, y yo doy gracias a Dios por la presencia de todos los inmigrantes aqui, porque traen con Ustedes los valores de su cultura para enriquecer a todos nosotros: fe en Jesucristo, amor por la familia, respeto para la vida, y una gran devocion a Nuestra Madre Celestial. Estos son los valores que este pais de Los Estados Unidos de Norteamerica necesitan mas de todo. Mirando a la Virgin Morena saben que ella esta con Ustedes en las pruebas y sufrimientos de esta vida, y que les ama como a su hijo divino. Nunca desanimen ni pierden esperanza.

La iglesia nos recuerde en este tiempo de Adviento que estamos en peregrinacion por esta vida. Nuestro destino es el cielo, y no necesita papeles para vivir en el reino de Dios ni para entrar el el cielo.... Estamos preparando en este tiempo de Adviento no solamente para celebrar la primera venida de Jesus en su nacimiento, pero tambien estamos preparando para recibirle en su Segunda venida cuando viene a juzgar a los buenos y los malos, o cuando viene a juzgarnos en la hora de nuestra muerte.

Fiel a Maria, y con devocion a nuestra Madre Celestial, no debemos tener miedo cuando viene Jesus, pero debemos estar listos para recibirlo con amor y alegria, porque Nuestra Senora esta con nosotros. No tengan miedo. "No soy yo, su Madre, con Ustedes? Yo soy su Madre piadosa." Gracias Senor Jesus por el don de su Madre como nuestra Madre.
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Meanwhile, as more earthly things go, Steinbock's passing only enhances the imminence of what the SoCal church-crowd has long viewed as its coming "Earthquake."

Archbishop José Gomez might already be six months into his preparation to take over the heavy reins of LA -- where he'll formally accede to lead the largest flock American Catholicism has ever known at February's end. At the same time, though, the bulk of California's junior and, by far, larger province (home to two-thirds of the state's 12 million Catholics) is quickly nearing its Roman close-up as three of Los Angeles' five suffragan churches prepare to receive new heads within the next two years.

Beyond Fresno, Bishop Tod Brown of Orange -- itself a million-plus Catholic hub -- reaches the retirement age of 75 next November... and even though Bishop Robert Brom of San Diego is just 72, credible indications remain that, amid the fallout of the southernmost see's particularly rough bankruptcy, filed in tandem with 2007's mammoth $198 million sex-abuse settlement (the second-largest payout by an American diocese), the million-member church in the nation's eighth-largest city will see the appointment of a coadjutor at some point in the New Year.

Further North, meanwhile, the genteel, but oft-besieged Archbishop George Niederauer of San Francisco is another of the seven Stateside ordinaries who'll turn 75 in 2011. Then again, no one should expect the onetime English professor to depart the stage too quickly.

Despite the well-enforced Roman practice that an ordinary approaching retirement age is never to be given further episcopal assistance (that is, unless it succeeds him), these days' unique "Camarillo indult" at the Vatican was again invoked in early July, as 56 year-old Msgr Robert McElroy -- a Harvard alum, Stanford PhD, Greg-trained theologian, former priest-secretary to Archbishop John Quinn and vicar-general to the now-Cardinal William Levada -- was given the high-hat as the 17th auxiliary of "The City," and ordained in September at a Mass presided over by the CDF prefect.

(On a side-note, the new bishop's well-publicized stances prior to his appointment on, among other things, an enhanced enforcement of Canon 915 sparked something of a heated reaction from the Catholic right; a scholar of John Courtney Murray, McElroy took Dignitatis humanae -- the title of the Vatican II declaration on religious freedom which the Jesuit theologian helped draft -- as his episcopal motto.)

Bottom line: to date, B16 has named the heads of five of the 12 dioceses of the nation's largest state, so the coming moves will put the reigning pontiff well over the top. Still, as the plate-shift emerges, with a rising archbishop likely wont to make some tweaks to his top team -- and, above all, two native Angelenos holding seats at the "Thursday Table" of the Congregation for Bishops -- a certain Million-Dollar Question ultimately begs itself:

Will the LA auxiliaries finally get un-"parked"?

PHOTO: Mark Crosse/The Fresno Bee(1); Bee File(2); Rich Villacorta/Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels(3)