Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Bishop Danny Departs – After 10 Month Wait, Philly's Thomas to Toledo

Settling the US church's longest mainland vacancy, at Roman Noon this Tuesday – in a rare August nod – the Pope named Bishop Daniel Thomas, 55, the senior auxiliary of Philadelphia, as eighth bishop of Toledo.

In the post overseeing the 300,000-member Northwest Ohio fold, the nominee succeeds now-Archbishop Leonard Blair, who was transferred to Hartford last October, just shy of his tenth anniversary in the diocese.

A longtime staffer at the Congregation for Bishops, Thomas' appointment to a chair of his own has been heavily expected over recent months, with Toledo and the likewise-pending slots in Lexington and Greensburg cited as the potential destinations. In any event, the nod marks the third time since June that a Stateside appointment has gone to a well-regarded veteran auxiliary first named in his 40s, after Baltimore's Mitch Rozanski was sent to Springfield and Newark's Edgar da Cunha (the US' first-ever Brazilian-born prelate) was tapped for Fall River.

Always quick with a smile and immaculately turned out, over a 15-year tenure running the English Desk at Bishops (1990-2005), the warm, wiry prelate universally known as "Danny Thomas" became one of the Roman scene's most popular American mainstays. Having doubled up his Curial workload with ministry as a spiritual director at the Pontifical North American College, the degree of affection most memorably showed at the young bishop's ordination in July 2006, when it looked as if half the Vatican and its attendant circles had descended for the festivities.

Over the time since, Thomas – who initially served as pastor of an Italian parish on his return from Rome – has been responsible for a sprawling chunk of the 1.1 million-member Philly church, stretching from his boyhood home in the city's Northwest corner across the predominantly wealthy and densely populated Montgomery County corridor, in addition to guiding the Chancery departments for clergy and communications. Known for a particular sensitivity to the sick and suffering, in his spare time the bishop has helped care for his 102 year-old great-aunt, who's now staying in a local Catholic nursing home.

In Toledo, the incoming shepherd will find a charge whose challenges are far from unique, but where the lion's share of tough calls has already been handled. A mix of hard-hit industrial towns and stable rural areas spread across 19 counties, like much of Catholicism in the Northeast and upper Midwest, the 8,200 square-mile diocese has felt the brunt of an aging, declining population over the last several decades. In light of the demographic shift, Blair undertook two difficult cycles of pastoral planning in 2005 and 2011, which yielded the closing or consolidation of a combined quarter of what had been 161 parishes. Beyond the apparatus, meanwhile, the diocese was roiled by the case of Fr Gerald Robinson, which made national headlines on his 2006 conviction in the 1980 murder of a religious sister at a local Catholic hospital where they both worked. The tumult resurfaced during the interregnum upon Robinson's July death in prison at 76, especially given the decision to give the criminal cleric a full priest's funeral.

While friends have voiced concerns over the back trouble that's reportedly plagued the appointee for several years, especially in light of the long drives ahead of him, on the whole, what Thomas will find in Toledo might just feel relaxing when compared with a Philadelphia scene in which everything that could've possibly erupted over the last four years has done precisely that. Even as an all-but-officially-announced papal visit in September 2015 for the Vatican's World Meeting of Families has begun to generate a measure of good feeling and enthusiasm, the mountain of crises that emerged in the wake of the 2011 grand jury report will take some years yet to be fully resolved. Among other facets, one criminal (re-)trial remains in the spring before roughly a dozen civil abuse suits can proceed, a planning effort that's already seen the folding of nearly 50 parishes has another two years until completion, and a steady stream of sales and leases of archdiocesan holdings are just beginning to level a long-term deficit which topped out in the $300 million range. Having braved the most thankless assignment an American prelate has known in at least the last half-century, Archbishop Charles Chaput OFM Cap. marks his third anniversary in the post next week.

A 9am presser called by Toledo Chancery, Thomas' installation in the majestic Rosary Cathedral (above) is set for 22 October, now the feast of St John Paul II.

With today's appointment, all of three Stateside dioceses remain vacant, while the number of (arch)bishops serving past the retirement age of 75 now stands at seven following this summer's birthdays of Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe and Bishops William Dedinger of Grand Island, Michael Driscoll of Boise and David Fellhauer of Victoria. With the quartet's letters submitted to Rome, no other US ordinaries will follow suit in 2014; indeed, as the Latin church goes, the next domestic spot to come open due to age will be Long Island's 1.5 million-member diocese of Rockville Centre, where Bishop William Murphy turns 75 next May 14th.

Of course, topping the current docket is the all-important nod for Chicago – with 2.3 million members, Stateside Catholicism's third largest outpost. Quite possibly shaping up to be Pope Francis' lone selection for the US hierarchy's top rank, an appointment is currently expected in late autumn, with Cardinal Francis George's successor installed by Christmas.

On a side-note, this Appointment Day finds Blair just up the road from Toledo in his native Detroit, where the Hartford prelate has returned to preach the funeral of his mentor, Cardinal Edmund Szoka, the longtime Vatican financier and Polish confidant of John Paul, who died last week at 88.