Monday, September 08, 2008

For Wilmington's New Bishop, Fran Frenzy

For the church in the nation's First State, a new era at the helm begins today as Bishop W. Francis Malooly takes the reins of the 280,000-member diocese of Wilmington as its ninth shepherd.

Beloved both in the trenches and pews of his native Baltimore, the 64 year-old prelate known to the world as "Fran" served for two decades as the Premier See's second-in-command before being named to lead its rapidly-growing northeastern suffragan in early July; alongside all of Delaware, the Wilmington church includes the nine counties of Maryland's Eastern Shore.

In keeping with recent tradition, given the size of St Peter's Cathedral -- where a vespers service was held last night -- today's rites will take place at the larger St Elizabeth's in the see-city's southern section. 

With portable AC units being brought in for the day, over 20 bishops, 200 priests, 100 deacons and a crowd of 1,000-plus well-wishers will be on hand, led by Malooly's mentor Cardinal William Keeler, current Charm City Archbishop Edwin O'Brien (presiding over his first installation), the papal nuncio Archbishop Pietro Sambi, and -- ostensibly -- the most prominent member of the flock: the Democratic vice-presidential nominee Sen. Joe Biden (whose presence, given yesterday morning's doings, would make things, er, really interesting). 

But even the potential descent of the campaign and its attendant circus wouldn't distract the day from being, above all, a downright lovefest. Believed to be the overwhelming first choice of both the Wilmington clergy -- many of whom he already knows well -- and now-retired Bishop Michael Saltarelli, Malooly had long been touted as the natural fit for the post, and the general mood on the ground since the nod became official has been one of genuinely high excitement.

No video feeds will be available, but audio of the 2pm liturgy will be livestreamed via local radio outlet WDEL.

In print, the diocesan Dialog has extensive coverage -- complete with move-in shots of Malooly clad in t-shirt and shorts (above right) -- and Sunday's hometown News-Journal saw religion writer Gary Soulsman do the yeoman's work of cranking out both a straight look-ahead...
"I know so many of the clergy, I believe we'll have an easy transition," said Malooly, a native of Baltimore, who hopes to visit the 58 parishes by February.

The 2 p.m. ceremony will be in the city of Wilmington's largest Catholic church, St. Elizabeth, where a Mass will be celebrated after the installation.

In his homily, Malooly will apologize for sexual abuse of church members by priests in the diocese, he said.

At the end of August, he received a letter from Judy Miller, Delaware director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), asking that the installation not be held at St. Elizabeth, home of the last three installations.

The Rev. Francis G. DeLuca, a former priest at St. Elizabeth and other local parishes for 35 years, has been the subject of eight abuse lawsuits and in August was officially defrocked or "laicized."

Malooly said Miller makes a good point. But by the time he received her suggestion, it was too late to move the service because the invitations had been sent.

"I regret we didn't think about this sooner," he said.
...and a richly detailed profile:
"He was always the best in all of us and the sort of person you were pleased to have as a friend," said John Baesch, a childhood friend.

Like many on Sunday [at a farewell reception], Baesch stayed after worship for an outdoor reception with cake, cut fruit and sodas. It was held in the shade of a tree next to the church parking lot -- once a grassy field where Baesch, Malooly and friends played sports as kids.

At the reception were Steve and Sandy Smith. They were the second couple Malooly married after becoming a priest.

"Bishop Fran is like Jesus to me," said Sandy. "Jesus was supposed to have grown in wisdom, age and grace, in favor of God and in favor of man. Well that's how I feel about Bishop Fran."...

On one occasion, Malooly hit a baseball through a church window and went to confess.

"I remember Fran as a regular guy like everyone else," Delcher said.

The Maloolys attended weekly Mass, novenas on Wednesday night and sometimes would say the rosary after dinner.

Even as a teenager, Malooly never had an unkind word for anyone, said Baesch.

"And you know how most teenagers are," he added.

In fifth grade, Malooly became an altar boy and, living only a few doors from the church, was called on when other servers did not show up.

"I became a parish priest because the men I saw in this role were happy," he said.

One was Monsignor Jim Cronin of St. Ursula who felt that with God's presence "there was nothing better than to be glad and to do well during life."

Another who seemed happy was his mother's brother, Bishop T. Austin Murphy, who ordained Malooly in 1970 at St. Ursula. The bishop and other members from his mother's side of the family often vacationed in Ocean City, Md.

And it wasn't long before Malooly talked to his parents about training to be a priest, which meant entering Baltimore's St. Charles seminary, a residential high school, in Catonsville (now closed). This was followed by college-level seminary training at St. Mary at Paca Street and what is now St. Mary's Seminary and University.

"My parents thought I should wait until after high school," he said. "But I recalled my father saying he was in sixth grade when he knew he wanted to be a chemist. And I reminded him of that."

So they let him go, coming to see him once a month, often bringing a picnic.

"They gave me a great gift by telling me if I ever wanted to come home that I could call and they would pick me up."

Even with the seminary's regimented seven-day "boot camp" schedule, he says he never regretted becoming a priest.

And he believes one of his roles is to model, not just endurance in the face of suffering, but a joy in living.

In 2005, he drew on his faith when two teens held him up at gunpoint. He'd finished a half hour of exercise on a stationary bike and stepped outside his apartment -- at St. Thomas More Parish on McClean Boulevard -- to cool down.

"When they held the gun to my head I opened my car and gave them about $10 from my glove compartment, and they walked away," he said.

Then something happened, and the young man carrying the gun shot himself in the leg.

"It was scary in retrospect," said Malooly.

"The other fellow, without the gun, had said something like 'You seem like a nice fellow. I'm sorry we did this to you.' "

After Malooly reported the crime, the teens were arrested.

"Everyone is redeemable," he said. "I hope somehow they've gotten their lives together."
Suffice it to say, Go Phils, and Go Fran -- at long last, welcome to the neighborhood.

PHOTO: Chuck McGowen/The Dialog