Monday, May 06, 2013

Border Crossed – After 17 Month Wait, Pope Taps Dallas' Seitz for El Paso

Resolving the US' longest-standing vacancy after 17 long months, at Roman Noon this Monday Pope Francis named Bishop Mark Seitz, 59, an auxiliary of Dallas since 2010, as bishop of El Paso – in terms of diocesan population, the new pontiff's most significant Stateside choice to date.

At the helm of the 700,000-member fold along West Texas' border with Mexico, Seitz, who moved from his native Wisconsin to study as a seminarian in Texas, succeeds Bishop Armando Ochoa, who was returned to his native California as bishop of Fresno – now home to a million Catholics – in December 2011. In an unusual tackling of long-distance double-duty, Ochoa, who turned 70 last month, has been serving as apostolic administrator of his former charge, and is slated to present his successor at a 10am Mountain press conference in the Pastoral Center hall dedicated to the Martyrs of America. (The presser will be livestreamed.)

Whether for reasons of the migration spike of recent years or more accurate counting, the Catholic population of the nine-county diocese has boomed over recent years, growing some 60 percent since 1990. Like the other two Lone Star churches with which it shares the bulk of the borderland – the US' newest Latin-church see at Laredo, and the emerging star of Brownsville, now with over a million members – the El Paso diocese is overwhelmingly in-house, with the faithful comprising over 80 percent of its area's total population. Among the 14 dioceses in Texas, El Paso – which marks its centenary next year – now sits tied for fourth-largest, behind Galveston-Houston, Dallas and the aforementioned Valley church.

Accordingly, as several other seats which came open after the border post were filled more quickly – Portland, Fargo, Grand Rapids and Oakland among them – what made for the El Paso delay became a frequent question both in Texas and some wider church circles.

In a nutshell, the long wait can seemingly be chalked up to two principal elements: First, the added time and effort needed to locate a nominee with the skill-set and experience to optimally handle the particular challenges of El Paso, above all the reality of the border and the diocese's intense engagement with the human and pastoral issues that spring from it. Second, the long process highlights a personnel reality that only ever becomes more pressing: namely, that as the 70 million member Stateside church evolves into an increasingly Hispanic reality – a development that, in the context of Texas, made for the engine which recently transformed Catholics into the Lone Star State's largest religious group – the supply of bishops or episcopabili to serve the booming population is at an immense premium. As a result, the assignment of Latino prelates tends to be a matter of even greater deliberation than usual, sometimes stoking disputes among key players given the demand. Given that scene, an available, suitable Hispanic match clearly couldn't be found in this instance, an especially stark outcome given the nature of the diocese, its home-county now estimated to be 82 percent Latino. (The early front-runner for today's nod, Bishop Oscar Cantú, 46, was instead named to New Mexico's neighboring Las Cruces church in January.)

On that crucial front, Seitz is both linguistically and culturally fluent in Hispanic church and has routinely served the community over his years in Dallas, whose 1.2 million Catholics – a figure grown sixfold since 1990 – are roughly an even split between Latinos and Anglos. A pastor for almost his entire 33-year priesthood who remained at a parish's helm until this morning's appointment, the bishop made news even before his 2010 elevation as an auxiliary for donating one of his kidneys to a parishioner in need of a transplant. 

That said, Francis' choice is El Paso's first Anglo prelate since 1978, when Patrick Flores became the first Hispanic bishop to lead a diocese in Texas. Barely a year later, the Houston-born Flores returned to San Antonio, where he had served as an auxiliary, this time as archbishop, after a letter-writing campaign called for the appointment. Today, Latino bishops head four of the state's local churches.

Amid the already heady mix Seitz inherits, a third element on the El Paso scene likely raised some eyebrows during the process: a public, long-running feud between Ochoa and one of his priests which contained all the hallmarks of American Catholicism's never-ending Great Family Food Fight, a rare spectacle that likely helps explain the bishop's having remained in charge from Fresno during the long interregnum.

After Fr Michael Rodriguez made statements in support of a 2011 recall effort of El Paso's mayor and other officials – reportedly over their support for granting benefits to same-sex partners of city employees – Ochoa removed the cleric from his post as administrator of a city parish, naming Rodriguez parochial vicar of a church some 250 miles away, the bishop publicly citing the priest's potential impact on the diocese's tax-exempt status as his rationale.

After further assessment, Ochoa accused Rodriguez of mismanaging funds at his prior parish, to which the priest and his supporters sought to portray the bishop's actions as attempts to punish the priest over his advocacy for the 1962 Missal and a four-part series on homosexuality written by Rodriguez, which were published as paid advertisements in El Paso's lead daily newspaper. The row culminated early in 2012 when Ochoa – then already named to Fresno – filed a civil lawsuit against Rodriguez citing an unaccounted-for $27,000 of the initial figure at issue, which was said to have exceeded $200,000. (According to a local report at the time, some parishioners said that $46,000 was donated for the specific purpose of renovating the church to more fully accommodate the celebration of Mass according to the "Extraordinary Form," the pre-Conciliar rite for which the now-retired Benedict XVI granted an enhanced permission with 2007's Summorum Pontificum.)

While the bishop said that Rodriguez's "handling of donated funds compromised the financial integrity" of the El Paso parish, the priest shot back that he had "never misappropriated or misused parish funds.

"I will continue to do my best to be a good and holy priest, no matter the cost," Rodriguez replied in a press release. "I will continue to proclaim and teach the truths of the Roman Catholic church, especially in the area of sexual morality, no matter the cost. I will continue to adhere to the Ancient Rite of the Roman Catholic church, no matter the cost."

Almost a year and a half later, no resolution to the suit has ostensibly emerged.

According to the norms of the canons, Seitz must be installed in his new charge within two months of this morning's appointment. Until his successor takes office, however, Ochoa remains apostolic administrator, with the full powers of the diocesan bishop.

With the move, eight Stateside Latin-church sees remain vacant, with another seven led by (arch)bishops serving past the retirement age of 75. Of the combined docket, two more are in Texas – the 700,000-member Fort Worth church remains unfilled following Bishop Kevin Vann's transfer to Orange last September, and just east of El Paso, Bishop Michael Pfeifer OMI of San Angelo turns 76 later this month. (Together with his confrere, Chicago's Cardinal Francis George, the two Oblates are currently the nation's oldest diocesan bishops.)

As Papa Bergoglio continues to get up to speed on the process he's inherited, as these shores go, he'll be aided by an unusual lull – beyond the seven prelates currently over 75, the next US ordinary in need of replacing won't join the ranks until Halloween, when Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany reaches the milestone. A native son, Hubbard was named to lead New York's capital church in 1977 at all of 38.

On a related note, later today brings the meeting of the Harrisburg consultors to elect a diocesan administrator following last Thursday's sudden death of Bishop Joseph McFadden, who will be buried on Wednesday at the close of four days of farewell rites.