Wednesday, July 31, 2013

"The Czar's" Gift to Connecticut – Brooklyn's Caggiano to Roiled Bridgeport

Resolving the longest-standing vacancy on these shores – and one that's had the natives even more on edge than usual – at Roman Noon the Pope named Bishop Frank Caggiano, the 54 year-old auxiliary and lead vicar-general of the 1.7 million-member Brooklyn church, as bishop of Bridgeport.

At the helm of the 430,000-member diocese comprising Connecticut's Fairfield County, the nominee succeeds now-Archbishop William Lori, who was transferred to the Premier See of Baltimore in March 2012.

While some have come to take the 16-month wait as an indication of the Bridgeport file being "lost in the shuffle," in reality, the wait can be chalked up more to finding the right pick for an extraordinarily difficult situation.

Already tarred before the opening by several high-profile cases of sexual and financial misconduct among the presbyterate, the sede vacante saw the arrest and indictment of Msgr Kevin Wallin, a former bishop's secretary and rector of St Augustine Cathedral, on Federal meth-production charges. The counts dating to a leave of absence Wallin took from 2011 – during which time he likewise ran a pornography and sex-toy shop – the fallen cleric pled guilty to the charges in April, and was sentenced to 11 to 14 years in jail.

Along the way, the steady drip of the case made for a headline as memorable as it was unsavory when, in January, a Connecticut Post lede blared "Sources: Cross-dressing meth priest liked sex in rectory" atop fresh disclosures. Another Bridgeport priest, Michael Jude Fay, died in Federal prison in 2009 while serving a 37-month sentence for embezzling $1.3 million from his monied Darien parish, the stolen funds – first discovered by the rectory bookkeeper – found to have been spent fueling a hidden life of decadence.

Were the vacancy and the scandals not enough to test the diocese's nerves, an even more brutal blow came last December with the massacre of 20 young students and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in the quiet village of Newtown. Amid the horror of the second-largest mass shooting in the nation's history, the dedication of the local pastor, Msgr Bob Weiss, amid the strain of the moment became a widely-cited rallying point for the shaken community. Even more recently, the diocese offered early-retirement buyouts to some 60 of its 130-person chancery staff in late spring in an effort to cut costs.

All that in mind, a challenging scene requiring a solid mix of toughness and tenderness will have its share of both. 

Named an auxiliary of Brooklyn at 47 in 2006, Caggiano – the son of Italian immigrants and a Gregorian-trained theologian who became a popular teacher at home – has garnered a reputation as a formidable second-in-command to (the now-tweeting) Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, the ever-colorful figure whose preferred governing style has inspired the widely-used moniker of "The Czar." Yet even if recent years in the outer boroughs have required tackling a mega-diocese's share of hard calls, it's not to say the nominee is all iron; while juggling an auxiliary's schedule and running the shop on Prospect Park West, Caggiano moved back into his boyhood home for several years to care for his ailing mother before her death in 2011. Bottom line: while dropping a Brooklynite into a bucolic environment is bound to yield some unpredictable results under any circumstances, the unique mix of factors here only increase the odds.

Lastly, the appointment comes quickly on the heels of Caggiano's well-received turn as one of the eight US catechists at last week's World Youth Day in Rio. The team lead by two cardinals, the then-auxiliary – who likewise led sessions at WYD 2011 in Madrid – was the lone prelate of the group who wasn't a diocesan bishop. (Summaries of the talks are available for download.)

Scheduled for 10.30 today, the Appointment Day presser in Bridgeport will be livestreamed by Brooklyn Chancery. Per the norms of the canons, the installation must take place within two months. (SVILUPPO: The rites have been scheduled for 19 September – the feast of San Gennaro, the patron of Naples; according to Caggiano, the choice was made "for obvious reasons.")

With today's move, the longest vacancy now becomes that of Maine's statewide diocese of Portland, which came open on Bishop Richard Malone's May 2012 transfer to Buffalo; Malone has since remained as apostolic administrator. All told, seven US Latin-church sees remain without an ordinary, with another seven led by (arch)bishops serving past the retirement age of 75. 

Given the normal shutdown of the Curia through August, the Bridgeport nod is likely the last we'll see for the summer. That said, while some speculation has recently perked up claiming an excessive "slowdown" of the appointment process, the change of Popes cited as the supposed explanation, it bears reminding that several US diocesan openings in the first days of B16's reign skirted, or even exceeded, the two-year mark.