Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Wait is Over... Finally.

[8am: Updated with statements... scroll down.]

Riffing off Sunday’s warning shot, a reader mused that “if it's [neither] the butcher or the candle-stick maker… IT MUST BE THE BAKER.”

And it is – and, at long last, it’s official: at Roman Noon today, the Pope named Bishop Robert Baker of Charleston to the diocese of Birmingham, which covers northern Alabama.

If you're surprised, you haven't been paying attention.

Baker, 63, succeeds Bishop David Foley, who retired as Birmingham’s ordinary in May 2005. Foley, 77, has since served as diocesan administrator; he’s led the diocese since 1993. Over the last 14 years, its Catholic population has grown by half, now exceeding 90,000.

A native of Ohio, the whole of the incoming bishop’s ministry has been spent in the rapidly-expanding church of the American South. Ordained for the diocese of St Augustine in 1970 and sent to Rome for doctoral studies in dogmatic theology shortly thereafter, he served in turns as a parish priest, campus minister and seminary formator before being tapped to lead South Carolina’s statewide diocese in 1999.

As bishop of Charleston, Baker has presided over rapid growth; thanks to a combination of Rust Belt transplants and adult converts, the Palmetto State’s Catholic population boomed by almost 40% (to 175,000+) during his tenure, and dedicating new or expanded churches, schools and parish facilities has been both the imperative and the norm. Further highlighting the church’s new prominence in the diocese – whose 1820 founding marked American Catholicism’s entrance into the Deep South – last month the bishop ordained the diocese’s largest class of priestly ordinands since 1956. The liturgy was held in a convention center to accommodate the number of well-wishers, and a class of similar size is in the pipeline for next year.

On the surface, given Birmingham’s assets of fewer priests and faithful than the diocese Baker leaves behind, the move would seem a curious one. However, the long haul to this morning’s appointment has, at long last, yielded a nominee well-seasoned both in the episcopacy and the burgeoning church of the “Bible Belt.” What’s more, Rome’s choice looks set to receive a warm welcome from the hometown product that’s made the “Magic City” the unlikely home of the nation’s, and possibly the world’s, most influential outlet of Catholic communication.

It’s become the stuff of legend that, 45 years ago, a Poor Clare nun from Baker’s home state came to Alabama with a vision… and nothing was ever really the same again; Birmingham is, of course, home to that vision's famous fruits – the Eternal Word Television Network and its many offshoots.

Once the host of his own EWTN show -- a weekly live hour on the Catechism of the Catholic Church -- Foley’s tenure in particular saw several moments of the bishop's presence in an intermediary role on the network’s relations with the wider church, and particularly the Holy See. While the level of episcopal oversight in has, canonically speaking, diminished since EWTN’s foundress, the "matriarch of Catholic communication" Mother Angelica, spun off control of the network to its lay board in 2000, the length of the succession process (and, after a series of fits and starts, Benedict’s final choice) indicates the extent to which the TV and radio apostolate has loomed large in the succession deliberations, and to which the appointment is a sign of Rome’s good faith toward the Irondale studios and its intent for continued good relations.

(As one of the debates between the network and Foley touched on norms for the televised celebration of the liturgy versus Dei/ad orientem, it's worth noting that Baker had granted ample provision for public celebrations of the "extraordinary rite" of the Mass in Charleston well before last month's Summorum Pontificum.)

Baker comes to his new post as a friend of the network; he’s been featured in its programming (including plaudits for a historical novel he recently co-wrote) and authored a 2004 book alongside a longtime EWTN favorite, Fr Benedict Groeschel, the founder of the New York-based Franciscan Friars of the Renewal.

This morning’s announcement might bring the suspense to an end but, in fact, the vacancy continues until Baker is installed – which, per the norms of the canons, must take place within 60 days.

With Charleston now vacant, the lateral move keeps the number of US dioceses lacking a leader at ten; the longest wait now belongs to Arkansas, whose lone diocese of Little Rock has been open since May 2006.
"The move will reportedly be announced in time for the nominee to roll out the anniversary cake...."
...tomorrow marks the 26th anniversary of EWTN's launch.

SVILUPPO: Installation set for 2 October, feast of the Guardian Angels; Baker's "farewell" statement to Charleston and remarks for the B-ham press conference (scheduled for 10.30 local time) are already making the rounds....

To the church of Charleston:
How blessed I have been these past eight years as your bishop, working closely together with all of you to build up the Kingdom of Christ here in South Carolina. We have seen growth in numbers, but most importantly we have experienced, I am confident to say, a growth of faith through the power of God's grace working among us. For all of that I am so very thankful.

Our friendship in Christ will never cease, but my days of Shepherding the Diocese of Charleston now come to an end as I officially receive the appointment from our Holy Father on August 14th as the new Bishop of Birmingham in Alabama. I am truly honored and humbled by this new trust placed in me by Pope Benedict XVI; but it is not easy for me to say "Good-Bye," especially to people who have helped me learn to be a bishop, first-hand. (Of course, I'd like to compliment you by saying how much I appreciated your words of encouragement, sometimes couched with a reminder that I needed to do a little better job here and there! But that's okay. How else was I to learn? May the people of the Birmingham diocese benefit from all your good coaching and coaxing! But it is still with difficulty that I day to you "Good-Bye!")
...and to Birmingham:
I am grateful to His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI, for this graced opportunity to serve the Lord and His Church in a new and special way as the Bishop of Birmingham. I am both humbled and honored by this appointment, and I pledge to serve you good people of this diocese with all the grace, wisdom, and spirit the Lord will give me and to always faithfully reflect back to you the Gospel message of Jesus and the teachings of our Catholic faith in their fullness, in support of the pastoral leadership of our Holy Father. I ask our Blessed Mother, whose special feast is tomorrow, the Feast of Her Assumption into Heaven, to be my continued companion on this pastoral journey in being your shepherd and servant in the pattern of Her Son Jesus, to everyone who is in my care as bishop.

I was hoping that my appointment would coincide with Mary's feast tomorrow, as I have always found comfort and support in her as a priest and bishop, but it was simply impossible to pull that one off; so she has allowed me to settle for my appointment to be on the vigil of her feast day. Mary has never abandoned me in all my hopes and endeavors. I know she is with me now, encouraging me anew to take up this ministry for her Son.

And so I am not afraid of the challenges before me. And I realistically know they will be many. As a bishop coming from another diocese a little ways east of Birmingham, the Diocese of Charleston, I have come to know and love this portion of Christ's Kingdom. Though not a southerner by birth, I am a southerner by choice, having served as a priest of the Diocese of St. Augustine in north Florida for 29 years before moving to Charleston eight years ago as bishop. I have come to know and love the warmth and friendliness of southern hospitality. It is a unique characteristic of our Judeo-Christian heritage to welcome the stranger in our midst. The culture of the south engenders that warmth of welcome automatically. As the new stranger in your midst, I am grateful for the warm welcome I have already received....

I greet all the manifold ministries that are serving our diocese so well, and all the apostolates fostered by clergy, Religious, and lay people in the Diocese of Birmingham, including the evangelizing efforts of Etemal Word Television Network, with its vast Radio component, which has benefited greatly the people of South Carolina in my time there as bishop. I commend the EWTN family for all you have done and continue to do to share the Gospel message of Christ and His Church locally and world-wide. In a special way I greet Mother Angelica and ask for her prayers for me, as I extend my prayers and good wishes to her and her Religious communities.

I will be installed as your bishop on October 2, the feast of the Guardian Angels. Catholics believe everyone has a Guardian Angel. I hold that bishops probably need two or three Guardian Angels. We would keep one too busy. That, of course, is not a doctrine of the faith, just a theological opinion that holds no weight. I have chosen that day, October 2, as the day of my installation, as a reminder of how much God loves us, that He in his providential wisdom, has given us personal guardians and guides, unique and special emissaries of His divine love. God shows His love in manifold ways. Principally He shows that love in giving us His Son Jesus, the Son of God. The angels are a lesser, but real manifestation of God's love for His people. On that day we will honor them and pray to them for guidance on your new bishop, who prays to his Guardian Angel twice a day, every day, when he rises in the morning and when he retires in the evening. And I want you to know, my Guardian Angel (or Angels) always comes through for me!

I hope in my days as your bishop I can underline for you some of those many ways God has manifested his love for you. I look forward as your bishop to sharing with you what I have personally experienced so many times, in so many ways, as a Catholic Christian growing up in Ohio, as a priest in Florida, as a bishop in South Carolina-- God's tremendous love.