Thursday, July 03, 2008

Wilmington in the Wings: First See Auxiliary Headed for First State

Fresh off the heels of the July 4th weekend, the long-awaited handover of the church's top post in the nation's First State is slated to take place.

(As soon as) Monday, Pope Benedict is expected to name Auxiliary Bishop W. Francis Malooly of Baltimore to head Delaware's statewide diocese of Wilmington. As its ninth ordinary, the 64-year old prelate would succeed Bishop Michael Saltarelli, who reached the retirement age of 75 in mid-January.

In accord with the customary pre-announcement protocols, spokesmen for the Wilmington and Baltimore churches declined comment on the report; in the church's practice, no appointment formally "exists" until it is published in the daily Bollettino of the Holy See Press Office.

With Malooly's name having topped the buzzmill since before the succession process began, few observers will see the choice as a surprise -- to many, the only question has been the timing. The anticipated nod would place the growing local church comprising the whole "Diamond State" plus nine counties of Maryland in the hands of a savvy, well-loved yet low-key "workhorse" known for his longtime commitments to young adults, social justice and the ecclesiastical equivalent of "good government."

Officially home to 228,000 Catholics -- plus another 40,000 or so unregistered Hispanics, according to the locals -- the Wilmington church has almost doubled in size since Saltarelli's 1996 arrival from his native Newark. In response, the diocese has marshalled its resources over recent years to accommodate the boom; at least five of its 57 parishes have opened new facilities in the last year alone, and the pace of building has consistently accelerated, particularly along the coastal and downstate areas that form the core of the growth zone.

With its rapid expansion a regional bright-spot as several of Wilmington's northern neighbors experience a combination of declines in participation and significant parish consolidation efforts, the growth story's been accompanied by a more challenging thread that's further stretched the Delaware church's means: the ongoing "window" suspending the statute of limitations on civil sex-abuse cases. To date, the diocese has been served with multiple suits under the two-year provision, which the state's legislature enacted last year. While a handful of the docket has been settled for an undisclosed sum, several other cases remain pending.

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Scion of an archdiocesan dynasty -- his coat of arms is that of his home-see in triplicate -- Malooly was ordained a priest in 1971 by his uncle, the late Baltimore auxiliary T. Austin Murphy. (A nephew of the same name was ordained in 2003... and has a blog.) The lone thing missing from the bishop's CV might be a stint as pastor of a parish, but Malooly's filled practically every other niche in the course of his ministry, including a decade as a curate in two parishes, running a youth retreat house, director of clergy personnel under Archbishop William Borders and, from 1989, the Premier See's vicar-general and moderator of the curia.

Ordained an auxiliary to Cardinal William Keeler in 2001 -- at which time responsibility for the archdiocese's extensive Western Vicariate was added to his plate -- the prelate known universally as "Fran" essentially ran the 525,000-member Baltimore church's front office in the later years of his mentor's historic tenure as Keeler concentrated his energies on the restoration of the Basilica of the Assumption and his global commitments to ecumenical and interreligious dialogue.

Praised for his affable, quiet touch at the wheel, just as the expected move weds Malooly's administrative skills to a local church with big decisions on its agenda, the appointment creates a gaping void in the Baltimore curia as the first anniversary of Archbishop Edwin O'Brien's appointment sees Keeler's successor increasingly fleshing out his own style in the governance of the nation's mother diocese.

Though closer to Philadelphia (and once part of its diocese), the Wilmington church has long taken its cultural lead more from the Southern intimacy of the Premier See -- its metropolitan -- than the high-corporate model that gloriously reigns on a half-hour up I-95. In that light, the appointment of another Charm City bishop as Delaware's ninth shepherd gives the former a historic majority -- with the coming appointment, five of Wilmington's chief pastors will have hailed from Baltimore since the First State's spinoff as a local church in 1868. (The last Marylander to head slightly northeast was Bishop Thomas Mardaga, another onetime Baltimore auxiliary who led the interstate diocese from 1968 until his death in 1984.)

Given the crush of late-summer vacations and the beginning of school, early indicators point to an installation date right against the canonical deadline of two months following the date of appointment. Considering the small size of Wilmington's St Peter's Cathedral, several larger parish churches are under consideration to host the rites.

Pope Benedict greeted Malooly among the bishops present at yesterday's General Audience; along with the other Baltimore auxiliaries, the appointee-in-waiting has spent the last week in Rome with the archdiocesan pilgrimage for O'Brien's Sunday reception of the pallium.

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On a related note, also seen heading homeward in the days after this feast of St Thomas is a nomination of an even more exotic sort -- not just because of its tropical locale, but as it'd mark the conversion of a precedent untouched in 71 years.

As always, stay tuned... but in the meantime, suffice it to say, next week's looking like a win-win for the Route 1 Beaches.

PHOTOS: AP/Steve Ruark