Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The State of the Docket

Earlier this month, presenting B16's Jesus of Nazareth before a full house at Washington's JP2 Cultural Center, the papal nuncio Archbishop Pietro Sambi responded to a detailed introduction chronicling his life by noting that "the miracle will come in the next chapter."

The line got a laugh, of course. But its full context was likely lost on most in attendance.

Though he's reportedly said that his nunciature "is not a bishop-making factory," one of the main competencies of Sambi's "laboratory" at 3339 Massachusetts Avenue NW is the preparatory work for the nation's episcopal appointments. Led by Birmingham -- now in its 25th month without a diocesan bishop -- eight US dioceses currently lack an ordinary. And, just as a hypothetical, if none of those, or dioceses with bishops serving past the retirement age of 75, are filled before year's end, the docket would contain a staggering 25 American Sees in line for new leadership come December.

And that's not counting coadjutors and auxiliaries, nor vacancies that arise from deaths or early resignations.

"It is without precedent," one diocesan bishop recently mused on the state of things. "We have a crisis of vocations to the episcopacy." Add to the mix a more deliberate pontiff, a sprinkling of the traditional Roman squabbles and a more thorough emphasis on consultation, and there are the causes of your backlog.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

For his part, however, Sambi's due diligence has won accolades for his "thoughtfulness" toward the outgoing ordinaries -- many of whom have made no secret of their desire to run for the door as soon as possible. Retiring diocesans have been canvassed on who they think would be a good fit to take their place, and at least some have gotten to see the terna for their successor, with the option of consulting on the traditional shortlist of three. And already, months before he's required to do so, one of 2008's superannuating bishops has submitted his letter of resignation, reportedly with the assurance that his successor will be in place in a timely manner after the retiring bishop's 75th.

The docket is headlined by Baltimore and Detroit, where Cardinals William Keeler and Adam Maida have long seen their letters off and await the other shoe to drop. While some in the provinces have predicted quick appointments, others closer to the situations report that the transitions have yet again been delayed, with the possibility that it could be Advent before either or both of the two see new archbishops. (The US' third over-75 cardinal-archbishop, Edward Egan of New York, is widely expected to remain in office until after the archdiocese's bicentennial celebrations close next April.)

Elsewhere, the archdiocese of Louisville -- where Archbishop Thomas Kelly sent in his papers last summer -- is said to be nearing its day in the sun. But even so, the States still faces the potential of a first-of-its-kind situation, in that it could well be that no American prelate will receive the pallium from Pope Benedict in a month's time. By contrast, Canada's four new archbishops named within the last year will be present, with the possibility that they'll be joined by a yet to be named fifth metropolitan. (An archbishop-elect may receive the garment proper to the office in advance of his installation.)

It's useful to keep in mind that, though Benedict XVI has appointed but three prelates to lead US archdioceses to date, two of the three have been promoted from within the provinces they now (or, in the case of Coadjutor Archbishop John Nienstedt of St Paul and Minneapolis, will soon) head.

The third, Washington DC, only has one suffragan see -- St Thomas in the Virgin Islands... which, apropos of the state of things, is currently vacant.