Wednesday, January 28, 2009

In Motor City, the Son Rises

Of course, this week's Main Event on the circuit comes later today with the installation of Archbishop-elect Allen Vigneron as head of the 1.5 million-member church in his hometown of Detroit, the nation's sixth-largest diocese.

Four years in the making, the return of the first native ever to return as the Motor City's ordinary has been greeted with even more anticipation than usual as the economic downturn has hit the auto capital with a singularly devastating force -- the nation's highest by state, Michigan's unemployment rate of 10.6% increased over three points just in the last month.

Sure, he was long foreseen to get the post in succession to his twin mentors... but even so, as the historic appointment finally came to pass earlier this month, the expectations awaiting the 60 year-old Vatican vet became all the greater. Now, with his parents and five siblings -- one of them an auto worker -- in attendance (and, at 23 days, after the shortest transition period of recent decades on these shores), the former bishop of Oakland and builder of its cathedral will take the reins at a 2pm ET (1900GMT) liturgy in Blessed Sacrament Cathedral; a webstream is being provided, and the worship aid's already posted.

All that said, who is Detroit's sixth archbishop? On Installation Eve, his hometown paper of record took its best grasp at an answer:
Allen Vigneron is a bookish man, a theologian with a doctorate in German philosophy who spends his spare time reading medieval history and British authors such as Charles Dickens.

All are tools he has used to aggressively defend the teachings of the Catholic Church in his decades as a clergyman. Vigneron has shown he is not afraid to act on controversial issues -- from removing teachers he thought strayed from church doctrine at Sacred Heart Seminary, to helping lead a massive protest against gay marriage in California. And he plans to continue speaking out as the next archbishop of Detroit.

In a wide-ranging interview, he said he also wants to boost Catholic schools, help needy people, continue the interfaith work promoted by outgoing Cardinal Adam Maida and create ethnic harmony. It will be a challenge given the diverse cultures and opinions that make up the 1.4 million Catholics of southeast Michigan.

Set to assume his new role Wednesday, Vigneron also said he plans to first spend a great deal of time listening, something for which he is well known, according to those who work with him.

"He's just a totally collaborative leader," said Sister Glenn Anne McPhee, chancellor of the Oakland, Calif., diocese where Vigneron is the outgoing bishop. "He takes ... advice. He doesn't make arbitrary decisions."
His strong beliefs, though, come with a gentle demeanor, said those who know him and have followed his work.

Speaking last week from California, Vigneron stressed the importance of Catholic teachings on issues such as abortion and stem-cell research, comparing them to slavery and racism. Asked about the success of a stem-cell research proposal on the Michigan ballot in November, he said: "Having lost a political battle ... we're not going to give up the war."

Slowing down to emphasize his views, he added:

"Once we begin to treat any one human life as if it could be put to the use of another human life, without any concern for the one we're exploiting, we're back to a place we really don't want to go."...

In a 1987 Free Press story, he criticized "cafeteria Catholics" who pick and choose which doctrines to believe in, saying they "are confused about what it means to be a Catholic."

In Detroit, he worked closely with the Muslim community on fighting a ballot proposal that would have made assisted suicide easier; one night in 1998, he spent hours in conversation with Imam Mohammed Elahi, head of the Islamic House of Wisdom in Dearborn Heights -- a discussion interfaith leaders recall as a pioneering effort in outreach.

In California, Vigneron was an effective administrator who was able to deal with the dizzying range of Asian and Latino cultures that make up a sizeable chunk of Catholics in northern California.

While the past three Detroit archdiocese leaders were golf buffs outside of work, Vigneron enjoys quiet contemplation.

"He's an introvert, and needs space and quiet," McPhee said. "But he also loves being with his people."
* * *
Today's installation comes three days after Cardinal Adam Maida marked his 25th anniversary as a bishop and bade farewell from the cathedra at a special Mass that, according to local reports, drew a "huge" crowd.

After some time off down south, the 78 year-old cardinal will return to Detroit, where an apartment has been prepared for him at the archdiocese's onetime minor seminary (...and some apartment it is...).

After a 19-year tenure marked by charity and controversy, the Pittsburgh-born compatriot and confidant of the Polish Pope did his own round of press in advance of his departure from office, predicting a rebound for the long-beleaguered city:
[Maida] pointed to [the archdiocese's] recent purchase of several storefronts along Washington Boulevard as a sign of his optimism about the future of a region he has lived in for the last 18 years.

"Some of these stores are still vacant," said Maida, 78, sitting in front of stained glass windows in the chancery offices next to St. Aloysius Church on Washington. "So we just bought three ... of them right next door because this is going to be a hustling, bustling place one day. ... The church is going to be here. It's going to be here for the people, for our society."

When Maida assumed leadership of the archdiocese in 1990, the local Catholic Church faced demographic challenges that went back decades, with many Catholics moving out to the suburbs and leaving behind churches they or their ancestors built across the city.

Since then, the Catholic population in southeastern Michigan has shrunk to about 1.4 million.

But Maida said the archdiocese will not abandon Detroit because the church plans for the long term, often making decisions with the distant future in mind -- as he put it, "a 100-year vision."

Sixty years ago as a student, he recalled "coming down Washington Boulevard in those days and visiting Hudson's."

"It's going to happen again. It won't be the same stores ... but this is going to be a very busy, beautiful place. I won't see it in my lifetime, but I feel very proud of the fact that I've been part of this history and that I've seen some of the transformation already taking place."

During his tenure, Maida had to close many Catholic schools and parishes and merge others.

It was painful for him, he said, but necessary to survive.

"The very big hopes and plans you have, have to be realistically addressed," Maida said. "And so, maybe one of the hardest parts of my ministry is rather than building up, I had to downsize in some ways. ... And it looked like in the eyes of some, we were going out of business, but that's not so. What we're doing is reorganizing so that we can become stronger."

Sort of like the auto industry, Maida said.

"These closings ... are not unlike what's happening in the automobile industry," he said. It was once "the heart of our economy." But now, "it's got to downsize."

"And so it is with the church," he said. "The church has to keep changing. We don't change our fundamental truths, our doctrines, our values. But we have to maybe change the way in which we do things."
PHOTOS: Archdiocese of Detroit(1,2); Roman Blanquardt/Detroit Free Press(3)