Friday, December 31, 2004

#1: The New Breed

A Happy New Year to one and all!

Forgive the delay of this post -- Christmas and burying one's Newman Chaplain made for a very hectic week. More on that down the road....

In days past, it seems, Richard John Neuhaus and Tom Reese tried to jump on my bandwagon. But they're too late. Unlike Neuhaus -- misled by his own ego -- and Reese, to get it right, you must credit me.

The #1 story everyone missed this year brought the nexus of the American Catholic ambit to places like Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Kansas City, and Salina, Kansas.

It wasn't all that long ago that the road to the episcopacy almost invariably ran through the vicar general's office. The administrative center of dioceses was seen as the best possible proving ground for the men I like to call episcopabili (a bad rip of the Italian papabile, but nonetheless salient). One of Rome's consistent problems with America has been the premium on overadministration that many bishops place under the guise of "pastoral ministry." The people across the Pond feel that this robs the bishop of the true core of his ministry, being out in the parishes, and the abuse scandal -- cataclysmic mess of maladministration that it was -- gave them the opening to pursue a new mould of bishop.

When the 46 year-old Peter Jugis was appointed bishop of Charlotte in August, 2003, it was almost universally thought to be a flash in the pan. The youngest bishop in the United States as a diocesan bishop? It hadn't happened in a long time, and though Charlotte was Jugis' home diocese -- where he had served as Judicial Vicar and pastor of a parish prior to his appointment -- many still believed his experience was insufficient.

If anything, Jugis was the sentinel for the new trend: 40-something, vigorous priests with loads of pastoral experience and superior educations both in the theoretical and practical elements of church, who have been far removed from the vicar general's office. While the cries of inexperience, and the stubborness of older priests grousing about reporting to a much younger ordinary, are a harsh reality of the drawbacks, Montalvo's resurrection of the Jadot strategy of the 70's has many upsides, at least as the policymakers see things.

Three examples of the movement from this year are Kevin Rhoades, 47, Bishop of Harrisburg; Paul Coakley, 49, Bishop of Salina; and Robert Finn, 51, Coadjutor-Bishop of Kansas City-St. Joseph.

First, not having served as vicars general, these new bishops are administratively "clean" -- there are no personnel transfers on their watch which will return to haunt them. But it also means that they are less rigid in adhering to a particular mode of governance. It's not as if each are complete neophytes to running the show: Finn was editor of the archdiocesan paper in St. Louis and held several curial odd jobs, Coakley spent the better part of a year helping run the (still vacant after 15 months) diocese of Wichita -- but the better part of the latter's ministry has been in parishes, Newman centers and as director of formation at Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg. (The seminary posting gets Rome weak in the knees with excitement; you know seminary formation's one of their "biggies.")

Second, the movement of the JPII pontificate has been reversed -- bishops are being named to their home dioceses, or close by. Rhoades' name surfaced for Harrisburg in the spring (he had been rector of Emmitsburg seminary prior to his appointment), and he had stunning cred: S.T.L., J.C.L -- one magna, one summa; significant experience as head of a major national seminary at the Mount; administrative experience in Harrisburg combined with running the diocese's Spanish apostolate. (The devoted support of a cardinal-patron doesn't hurt, either.)

Third, the long-term legacy instincts of of the Revolution are served here. Take a look at the history of the USCCB, and you'll find that all the presidents -- with the upcoming exception of George (53 then) -- were named bishops in their mid-40's or younger (Skylstad, 43; Gregory, 35; Keeler, 47; Bernardin, 35... all the way back to Dearden, 40 and John Krol, 43). Why does this happen? The only way one can integrate the challenges of the presidency with those of an already-arduous episcopal ministry is by being a bishop long enough to figure it all out and compartmentalize his life in a healthy fashion. (By this standard, Chaput, named a bishop at 44, should be electable... No further comment.) So look for leadership in the conference from these guys, regardless of regime change.

On a fourth note, thanks to the news of recent days, we can now see the what becomes of the young bishop with Jose Gomez to San Antonio. Will these "boy bishops" form the farm team for the next crop of archdioceses, as Gomez was clearly groomed to do in Denver (on his way to L.A., as the whispers have already begun), or will they be left to season for bigger things? Time will tell....

We're led to think of what's to come. Sioux City and Wichita have been open for longer than a year, Grand Rapids will soon be that long, and the pile of resignation letters waiting to be taken is getting bigger and bigger. Rome might soon approve cloning, just to keep a sizable enough pool of potential bishops. But seriously, the scandal has narrowed the pool and while the first "clean" crop was able to be spread around somewhat easily, as things wear on the background checks will be causing many headaches at the Nunciature, as everything desired in certain promotions and transfers will not be able to come to pass.

This new year will be a watershed in this renewed tension between quality and quantity. But the fruits of the experiment are there for all to see -- and keep your eyes on 'em, they're good.



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