Thursday, January 10, 2013

And the Oscar Goes To... The Crosses – San Antonio Aux. Headed for Las Cruces

You couldn't make it up – on the very same morning Hollywood's set to announce the nominees for its biggest prize, the Pope's awarding an Oscar of his own... and as a result, after a 30-year reign along the Mexican border, the oldest head of a US diocese will hand off to the youngest.

At Roman Noon this Thursday, the Pope named Bishop Oscar Cantú, the 46 year-old auxiliary of San Antonio, to lead New Mexico's 120,000-member Las Cruces church, whose 44,000 square miles roughly comprise the entire land area of Ohio.

In the post, the sporadic blogger succeeds Bishop Ricardo Ramirez – the US' lone Basilian prelate, who has led the diocese since its founding in 1982. Likewise a former San Antonio auxiliary, Ramirez reached the retirement age of 75 in September 2011 and, until today, had been waiting the longest for his replacement among the current docket.

On his 2008 appointment to assist Archbishop José Gomez, Cantú – then pastor of his boyhood parish in Houston – became, at 41, the youngest US bishop to be named in nearly two decades, and the bench's first member to be born following the close of Vatican II. In the five years since, only one younger prelate has been made on these shores: the Mexican-born Detroit auxiliary Arturo Cepeda, now 43, who was serving as rector of San Antonio's ever-growing Assumption Seminary on his transfer north in 2011.

Trained in four languages and the recipient of a Gregorian doctorate in theology, during his days in the "happy chaos" of the rapidly-growing Houston church, Cantú juggled full-time parish assignments with professorships at the University of St Thomas and St Mary's Seminary. The scene has been relatively more sedate in American Catholicism's "Hispanic seat," where Cantú stoked an outcry from San Antonio's gay community after a 2010 order (given while he was apostolic administrator) to cancel a long-running weekly Mass coordinated by the unsanctioned LGBT lobby Dignity. As the Stateside church marks its annual Migration Week, however, whatever controversy is to come might just be on the opposite end of the political spectrum as the bishop's transfer tosses him headlong into the high-stakes and just as charged issues of immigration and the border, some 200 miles of which forms the southern line of the Las Cruces church.

For the last several years, Ramirez has celebrated an annual Mass at the fence marking the US-Mexico boundary to commemorate those who've died trying to cross illegally. Even as the numbers making the journey have been reported as lessening over the last year, in a 2011 Houston talk on the church's role at the border, the retiring bishop observed that "theologically we can say that God continually crosses borders" while lamenting that "many US citizens, among whom are found Roman Catholics, are resistant to an ethic that promotes hospitality and mercy for those who are in this country outside the parameters of current law."

At the same time, the diocese's books might prove an even more formidable first challenge for the new bishop. Some unusual doings in Las Cruces' finances have come come to light in recent months, including a $1.9 million loan from one diocesan account transferred by a former employee without the requisite consents, and a mysterious $385,000 advance to a dead lawyer who worked for the diocese.

With today's nod, the oldest of the now-nine Stateside Latin ordinaries currently awaiting successors becomes Chicago's Cardinal Francis George, who turns 76 next week amid ongoing treatment for a second bout with cancer. 
As previously noted, only three US diocesans in need of successors reach the retirement age in 2013, the first of whom – Louisiana's Bishop Sam Jacobs of Houma-Thibodeaux – doesn't mark the big birthday until March. And on the flip-side, as Cantú becomes the youngest bishop to lead one of the US' 197 dioceses, he'll share the "Land of Enchantment" with the prelate he's taking the distinction from, 48 year-old Bishop James Wall of Gallup, who's held the title since 2009.

Among the seven spots remaining vacant, meanwhile, is Las Cruces' eastern neighbor among the border dioceses, the 650,000-member El Paso church – open since Bishop Armando Ochoa's late 2011 transfer to Fresno – the longtime New Mexico portion of which now forms the bulk of Cantú's new diocese. 

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In addition to the domestic move, this morning the Pope named Fr Brendan Leahy – a 52 year-old Dublin priest teaching theology at Ireland's National Seminary at St Patrick's in Maynooth – as bishop of Limerick.

In the Mid-West, Leahy replaces Bishop Donal Murray, who resigned in late 2009 amid a state inquiry's finding that, as an auxiliary of Dublin, the prelate had exhibited "inexcusable" conduct in turning away concerns expressed over a priest found to have abused over 20 children.

After a lengthy drought of Irish appointments – and continued expectations that the ecclesial structure of the 26-diocese Isle will yet be drastically consolidated – Leahy becomes the second new bishop to be named there since late November, when the career pastor Fr William Crean was appointed to Cloyne nearly four years after Bishop John Magee was forced from office by Rome after another abuse inquest found that the diocese's child protection procedures remained "inadequate and, in some respects, dangerous" into the 2000s.

Before taking the reins of the Cloyne church in 1987, Magee had served as private secretary to three Popes and John Paul II's liturgical master of ceremonies.