Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Go West, Young Man – For Portland, @Pontifex Engineers @ArchbishopSample

It'd be the kind of appointment bound to cause a bit of whiplash for some: a Joseph Bernardin protege passing his chair to an energetic champion of the "reform of the reform." 

And now, we get to see how the dynamic plays out.

At Roman Noon this Tuesday, the Pope named Bishop Alexander Sample of Marquette as the 11th archbishop of Portland in Oregon – the oldest metropolitan seat on the Pacific coast – succeeding Archbishop John Vlazny, who reached the retirement age of 75 in February 2012.

With his move to the "Rose City," the media-savvy @BishopSample, who turned 52 in November, leaves the home-church for which he was ordained a priest in 1990 to become the nation's youngest archbishop, besting San Antonio's Gustavo García-Siller MSpS by a full four years. For purposes of context, the last Stateside metropolitan to be named this young was a certain Timothy Michael Dolan on his appointment to Milwaukee in 2002; before then, the prior preceding instance of a 52 year-old US archbishop came five years earlier, when Charles Chaput OFM Cap. was transferred from Rapid City to Denver.

What's more, however, the trajectory of this appointee's ascent makes for a watershed moment: for the first time, a US priest raised to the episcopacy by Benedict XVI has now been launched into the top rank of the nation's 33 archbishops. 

One of the pontiff's first picks on these shores, Sample – at 45, then the nation's youngest prelate, as well as the first American bishop to be born in the 1960s – was ordained in Marquette on 25 January 2006, the same day B16's first encyclical, Deus Caritas est, was released. (The archbishop-elect is shown above with a portrait of his first Michigan predecessor, the Slovenian missionary Bishop Frederic Baraga, whose cause for beatification Sample led in Marquette even before becoming its bishop. Baraga was declared Venerable on the affirmation of his heroic virtue by Benedict last spring.)

Home to some 425,000 Catholics – and, so it seems, a high degree of ideological polarization over recent years – it bears noting that the Portland church can boast one of the ten largest US seminaries: Mount Angel, the house for diocesan and religious formation joined to the Benedictine abbey of the same name, where Vlazny appeared last week to confer the purple on its rector, now Msgr Joseph Betschart. 

On another prominent front, the archdiocese is likewise the headquarters of Oregon Catholic Press, the provider of the liturgical and music books used in a plurality of the nation's 19,000 parishes, all of which bear the imprimatur of Portland's archbishop.

By no means, however, are the key realities ahead limited to matters spiritual: in the wake of the national sex-abuse eruption in 2002, in July 2004 the Portland church became the first American diocese to declare Chapter 11 bankruptcy under a deluge of civil litigation. 

The process ended nearly three years later with a $75 million settlement of nearly 180 lawsuits. At the time, the internal costs of the archdiocese's reorganization alone were estimated to have run in excess of $15 million.

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Beyond the intra-ecclesial contrast cited above, perhaps another angle frames this appointment's pointed nature even more: the placement of a prelate lionized by his supporters as a staunch beacon of Catholic identity – and a very distinctive kind of Catholic identity, at that – into the heart of the longtime bastion of "unchurched" America: a state where the religiously unaffiliated (the so-called "nones") are said to outnumber Catholics by a 5-to-3 ratio.

Born in Kalispell, Montana – which, aptly enough, is part of the Portland province – Sample moved with his family to Michigan's Upper Peninsula, studying metallurgical engineering at both undergrad and graduate level before entering priestly formation for Marquette.

After ordination, the future archbishop was sent to Rome to earn a JCL from the Angelicum, returning home as Chancellor of the diocese at 36, and remaining in the post until his appointment as Bishop James Garland's successor.

Even if the UP's "baby bishop" wasn't known on the broader scene at the time, the turnout for his ordination – Burke, Dolan, George and Szoka, among others – provided enough evidence for some to detect that "this one's going places." Seven years to the week, though, what's equally conspicuous to the journey's speed is the destination's recent history – two of the last three Portland prelates were subsequently moved to other posts, each of which brought them the cardinal's red hat.

At the helm of the 50,000-member church in extreme northern Michigan, Sample quickly elevated Marquette's profile on the wider radar, podcasting his newspaper columns, tweeting (and YouTubing) his way across the Peninsula to open the Year of Faith, and becoming a star to the Catholic internet's considerable traditionalist bloc with his celebrations of the pre-Conciliar liturgy, among them last year's ordination of transitional deacons at the Fraternity of St Peter outpost in Lincoln, which he's slated to perform again in March. (Under the weight of traffic sparked by today's move, the Marquette diocesan webpage has been crashed for several hours.)

Even on this appointment day, the archbishop-elect's been able to make news away from his new charge; in a report published today, the abortion-focused LifeSiteNews outlet quoted Sample's pledge, given at last week's March for Life in Washington, that he was "willing to go to jail in defense of religious liberty" should resistance to the Obama administration's contraceptive mandate require the step. 

While a score of lawsuits challenging the policy's definition of a "religious employer" continue to garner different results in Federal district courts nationwide – and rumors persist of a possible widening of the conscience exemption to the church's comfort – the mandate is currently slated to take effect for faith-based entities in August.

With his affinity for traditional worship and zest for the public square, Sample's move to Portland can be viewed as a continuance across state lines of the mould-breaking appointments over recent years in Northern California, a trend which was thought to climax with last July's "bombshell" appointment of Salvatore Cordileone, the US bishops' point-man on the defense of traditional marriage, as archbishop of San Francisco.

Sample's installation has been set for Easter Tuesday, April 2nd. And come June's end, he'll join Cordileone, Archbishop Joseph Tobin CSSR of Indianapolis and possibly more in Rome to receive the pallium from Benedict.

With Vlazny's replacement and Marquette newly-open, eight Stateside Latin dioceses now stand vacant, with another seven led by bishops serving past the retirement age of 75. 

A month older than the now-retired Oregon prelate, American Catholicism's senior active hierarch by age remains the ninth archbishop of Portland, who was whisked out of the post less than a year later to become archbishop of Chicago.