Thursday, February 08, 2007

Into the Home Stretch

Almost two years into his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI has named but two Americans to head metropolitan sees -- George Niederauer to San Francisco and Donald Wuerl to Washington. That figure will double in short order as the top tier of the US' vacancy docket is put to bed with the long-awaited appointments of new archbishops of Detroit and Baltimore.

The oldest active prelate of the US hierarchy, Detroit's Cardinal Adam Maida turns 77 in March. Despite his passport's provenance, Maida's heritage earned him a place in the late Pope John Paul II's circle of Polish friends and confidants. Amid the final stages of a reconfiguration of Detroit's parishes and institutions and local controversy over his archdiocese's investment in Washington's Pope John Paul II Cultural Center, the cardinal -- who's headed the 1.4 million-member archdiocese since 1990 -- has been permitted to continue in office well past his 75th birthday, and was notably given a new auxiliary bishop toward the end of 2006.

Months of near-silence on the Detroit succession have ended in recent days, with word spreading that an announcement is believed to be "coming quickly," and two separate reports saying that the dossier had reached the pontiff's desk, awaiting Benedict's final sign-off.

Keeping in mind that the sitting Pope has shown a greater independence in deciding episcopal appointments than his predecessor, the most prevalent name linked to the post over recent months has been that of Archbishop John Myers of Newark. Said to enjoy close ties with Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, Myers, 65, is a member of the executive committee of the John Paul II Center alongside Wuerl, Bishop Bernard Harrington of Winona (a former Detroit auxiliary) and Maida, who serves as the museum/think-tank's president.

Other names proffered have included Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre, and a trio of onetime Detroit auxiliaries -- Bishops John Nienstedt of New Ulm, Allen Vigneron of Oakland and Leonard Blair of Toledo -- who would ostensibly enjoy the support of Maida's predecessor, Cardinal Edmund Szoka, who has effectively served as Detroit's advocate on the Congregation for Bishops.

In the nation's "Premier See," November's dedication of the restored Basilica of the Assumption and the subsequent plenary of the US bishops in Baltimore marked Cardinal William Keeler's symbolic farewell to America's first diocese, which he's led since its bicentennial year of 1989.

After an October car accident in Italy that killed one of his closest friends and injured Keeler and the car's driver, the 13th successor of John Carroll rallied back to return to a full public schedule. In recent weeks, however, a new set of difficulties has prompted Keeler to recuse himself from prominent commitments, including the annual March for Life in Washington in late January. (The cardinal served two tours of duty as chair of the USCCB's Committee for Pro-Life activities, the last of which ended earlier this year.)

A year younger than Maida, the Baltimore prelate will leave to his successor what is, arguably, the best-run of the US' marquee dioceses, and the one in the healthiest shape, with sound finances, a palpable good feeling among its people, the church's public standing still high and the damage wrought in many places by the abuse storm largely nonexistent, all due in large part to Keeler's abilities of foresight and prudent judgement.

A keen student of history, Keeler's approach has reflected the unique ecclesiology of the "Maryland tradition" -- the playbook for a distinctively American brand of Catholicism scripted by Carroll and restored in later eras by Cardinals James Gibbons and Lawrence Shehan. That Baltimore enjoys continued energy and good fortune while many of its peers have experienced a quickened pace of diminishment has reaffirmed the wisdom of Carroll's construct.

But the tradition's future hinges on the choice of the 15th archbishop, who'll get to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Baltimore's elevation to metropolian status in early 2008. The terna for Keeler's succession is said to have gone to Rome only in recent weeks; offered an opportunity for consultation, the cardinal is understood to have expressed a preference against one of the four names listed.

One name believed to be on the list who would enjoy Keeler's staunch support is Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee. A student of the legendary church historian John Tracy Ellis, Dolan is one of the handful of prelates who donated to the basilica restoration project in his own name. And with his affinity for old croziers -- he accepted a pastoral staff first used Frederick Katzer, the turn of the century archbishop of Milwaukee, at his installation there in 2002 -- receiving the 1820 model that belonged to Ambrose Marechal, Baltimore's second archbishop, would be a natural fit for the 56 year-old prelate, a former rector of the Pontifical North American College and one of the few US hierarchs with genuine rock-star cache.

Beyond Dolan and current Baltimore auxiliary Denis Madden -- a sentimental favorite with broad experience, not to mention fans on both ends of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway -- others in the mix of the mentioned include Bishops Terry Steib of Memphis, Paul Loverde of Arlington, William Lori of Bridgeport, Lawrence Brandt of Greensburg and Archbishop Henry Mansell of Hartford.

Just as Szoka will be keen to push a candidate of his own preference as his second successor in Detroit, who ends up with the keys to 408 N. Charles St -- the residence of the archbishops of Baltimore -- will likely hinge on the leanings of one of its former occupants. Cardinal James Francis Stafford lived at the stone mansion directly behind the nation's first cathedral from 1976-82 while serving in his hometown as auxiliary bishop and the archdiocese's second urban vicar. Currently the major penitentiary of the church and a former archbishop of Denver, Stafford is also among the four US cardinals on the membership of the Congregation for Bishops; the others are Cardinals Bernard Law, the former archbishop of Boston, now archpriest of the Liberian Basilica (St Mary Major), and California's William Levada, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

A former Roman official and auxiliary to Law, the push to promote Murphy to an archdiocese is viewed as such a fait accompli that the name of Auxiliary Bishop Kevin Farrell, the well-regarded vicar-general of the archdiocese of Washington, has already surfaced among senior officials as a prospective bishop of Rockville Centre.

Home to 1.4 million Catholics, the Long Island diocese marks the golden anniversary of its founding this year. Plans for a diocesan synod, announced by Murphy in 2006 and scheduled to take place during the jubilee, appear to have been scuttled.

Even if successors for the two US cardinal-archbishops past the canonical retirement age of 75 are named before the end of Lent, the docket's A-list won't be empty for long. Beginning what will instantly become Benedict's most high-profile (and, likely, contentious) selection process to date for an English-speaking post, Cardinal Edward Egan of New York reaches the milestone on the Monday of Holy Week, 2 April.