Monday, May 24, 2010

Twilight for "Hollywood"

(Originally published 28 January 2010.)

Over recent months, a growing wildfire of chatter -- both from the West Coast and points beyond -- has carried word of an expedited timetable on what'll arguably be Benedict XVI's most important pick for the Stateside bench: the pontiff's choice of a successor to Cardinal Roger Mahony as head of the nation's largest local church, the 5 million-member archdiocese of Los Angeles.

While this desk has spent practically all of January tracking the talk -- hence the low posting of late -- the story broke into the open late last week after the American Papist blogger Thomas Peters reported that Mahony "has approved a coadjutor bishop [sic] recently selected for him," and that "this news – and the name – will be publicly announced 'soon.'"

For the record, any claims of a selection already made cannot be confirmed and, as the lay of the land is looking at present, would appear premature. What's more, lacking an announcement from the Holy See, it should -- but, given the hysteria surrounding appointments, can't -- go without saying that anything can change at any time.

Keeping that important corollary in mind, scores of reports in church circles have circulated since November that, over a year before he reaches the retirement age of 75, Mahony is "widely known" to have petitioned for an understudy on his own initiative. In early January, three independent sources outside the archdiocese indicated to Whispers that the consultation stage of a selection process had been underway at least since mid-autumn, with one adding that the cardinal's request for a coadjutor had been granted by the Holy See in October. From there, the cardinal is credibly understood to have been given the privilege of approving the terna of his potential successors -- not the final choice -- with at least one Mahony aide anticipating an announcement sometime around the cardinal's 74th birthday, February 27th.

Once named, then installed with the customary "Mass of Welcome" some two months after his appointment, a coadjutor would spend roughly a year assisting the ordinary and learning the ropes before immediately succeeding to the archbishopric upon its vacancy -- in this case, on the acceptance of Mahony's resignation by the Pope shortly after the cardinal turns 75. Though such provision is often sought by prelates seeking a smooth transition of governance, it's likewise a savvy move; a departing ordinary usually stands a better chance of getting the coadjutor of his choice than a successor who's selected outright.

That said, while a putative version of the shortlist has made the rounds, given Benedict's commitment to intense personal study of case-files and making his choices his own, especially for major assignments, all bets are genuinely off until the Apartment has spoken. As for what's already on-record, Mahony let slip in a recent posting on his new blog that 2010 would be "my final full year" as head of his hometown fold, American Catholicism's progressive seat and one of the global church's most complex, energetic and diverse diocesan set-ups.

Long a flashpoint figure in the US church's eternal culture wars, the cardinal will mark his 25th anniversary at the LA church's helm in September. The longest-serving American cardinal named since the Council (and Paul VI's subsequent institution of a retirement age for bishops), the archdiocese has more than doubled in size since the native son's 1985 appointment, with Hispanics -- Mahony's most-cherished constituency and staunchest "base" of support -- now said to comprise approximately 70 percent of its total membership.

* * *
Even more than the pontiff's appointment of Tim Dolan to New York early last year, Benedict's choice to become LA's fifth archbishop will be thrust headlong into the three key threads of this chapter in the American Catholic story.

For one, the West's mega-see is still feeling the brunt of 2007's mammoth $660 million settlement of over 500 abuse cases -- the largest such payout by a Catholic diocese worldwide -- whose aftermath led the archdiocese to sell its famed Wilshire Boulevard chancery, birthed ongoing fiscal turmoil and, more recently, sparked a Federal grand jury investigation into the archdiocese's handling of accused priests. (LA's former vicar for clergy, Msgr Richard Loomis, recently appeared before the panel, for which he was granted immunity.)

On another crucial front, lacking both the institution-as-cult Irish tradition of the Northeast and the Bible Belt DNA of the country's newest cardinalatial post, the left-leaning SoCal ecclesiology that's made Mahony a lightning rod is unique among the US church's major hubs. Given the cardinal's endorsement of liturgical and theological concepts long panned as heretical or praised as visionary, the enduring polarization of the top tier and the moment's strong Roman currents toward traditional worship and a beyond-pure doctrinal fidelity, an LA selection will inevitably be viewed as the Vatican's definitive verdict on the archdiocese's Catholic culture: put bluntly, a "thumbs-up" choice... or a "crackdown" one.

(On a related note, claims of a possible revolt over a "more conservative" pick among the faculty of the archdiocesan seminary, St John's in Camarillo, appear to lack foundation, particularly as the house's days as part of the LA church could well be numbered. In tandem with Mahony's eventual departure, a division of the immense jurisdiction is said to be under consideration, with the most-proffered scenario eyeing the creation of a new diocese comprising the suburban counties of Ventura and Santa Barbara -- the former of which includes Camarillo. If implemented, a pared-down archdiocese would retain the lion's share of its Catholic population -- some 4 million in Los Angeles County, where the church is said to count 70 percent of its total inhabitants.)

Ultimately, however, the dominant storyline hovering over a Los Angeles process would be its staggering Hispanic supermajority… and with it, the distinct possibility -- if not likelihood -- of a watershed moment: a pick who would become the nation's first Latino cardinal.

To be clear, that outcome is by no means assured. Yet with key players in the process known to believe that "the moment has come" for two-fifths of the nation's 65 million Catholics to finally see one of their own reach the pinnacle of the Stateside hierarchy, the reality of the LA church -- and, nationally, the bench's relative dearth of genuinely "bi-cultural" figures in its topmost posts -- signals that, if not winning the day, the prospect of a Hispanic appointee will receive exponentially more consideration than any major opening has known to date on these shores.

Just as the Angeleno see's roughly 3.5 million Hispanic Catholics would, on their own, constitute the nation's largest diocese -- the figure's a million more the total Catholic population of the second-largest see, New York -- national trends indicate Rome's willingness to provide the burgeoning bloc with homegrown leadership.

Stepping briefly away from the case at hand, but pertinent to it, at his Appointment Day press conference on Tuesday, newly-named Austin Bishop Joe Vasquez said that his selection as the first Latino to head the church in Texas' capital likely owed itself to Benedict's keen awareness of the linchpin role played by Hispanics in the sustained, exponential growth and vitality that's seen Catholics recently eclipse Evangelicals as the Lone Star state's largest religious group, and drastically shifted the demographic center of the Stateside church away from its faltering Northeastern birthplace toward Southern and Western locales which would've seemed unlikely hotspots even twenty years ago.

Once the youngest American bishop, the 52 year-old Vasquez might be freshly off-the-market, but he's just one member of a rising generation of American-born, Hispanic-bred clerics whose native fluency with both Anglo and Latino communities has become the most desired quality for appointees in no shortage of spots over recent years -- if only a sufficient supply existed.

In a time when most of the country's major cities see the local Univision and Telemundo affiliates battling, and even besting, English-language TV in the ratings, this small but growing "crossover" group (which, among others, likewise includes Bishops Jaime Soto of Sacramento, Richard Garcia of Monterey, Brownsville's Daniel Flores, and San Antonio auxiliary Oscar Cantú) stands poised to reshape the face and extend the reach of the Stateside bench over the years to come.

All told, it's a far cry from 1917, when the vicar-general of San Francisco, John Cantwell, was named bishop of Monterey-Los Angeles, ending a two-year vacancy that saw four other clerics decline what was then an ecclesiastical backwater.

Two decades later, the boom having arrived, the Irish-born prelate became the city's first archbishop.

On another historic note, just two American cardinals have previously received coadjutors: Bishop Michael Corrigan of Newark was named to aid and succeed the nation's first red-hat, New York's John McCloskey, in 1880, and out West, Mahony's predecessor, the future Cardinal Timothy Manning, was appointed coadjutor to Cardinal James McIntyre in May 1969, succeeding California's first clerical prince eight months later. And speaking of cardinals, it bears especial underscoring that two of Mahony's Camarillo classmates will likely shepherd the process' penultimate stage from their seats on the Congregation for Bishops: Philadelphia's Justin Rigali, and the CDF prefect William Levada (who was Mahony's auxiliary for a year before his 1986 promotion to Portland in Oregon). The trio have remained friends since their seminary days.

Asked on 5 January for comment on the coadjutor reports, the cardinal's influential and omnipresent spokesman, Tod Tamberg, pulled out his A-game, memorably telling Whispers that "speculation is for people who watch football," but conspicuously avoided any denial of the buzz. Some days later, another member of the cardinal's inner circle replied simply that "Cardinal Mahony will turn 75 a year from this February 27 and is looking forward to submitting his letter."

* * *
Regardless of when or how the moment comes, or even one's impressions of the man, at least one truth transcends opinion: that Mahony's departure will bring down the curtain on one of the monumental reigns in the four-century history of the American church.

Named an auxiliary bishop of Fresno 35 years ago this month, the cardinal's episcopate has seen him march with Caesar Chavez, spar with Mother Angelica, bless a Democratic convention, bury Joseph Bernardin and -- in a move his critics should've appreciated, but ignored -- help short-circuit the 11th-hour opposition to the impending Roman Missal at last November's USCCB plenary in Baltimore.

Considerable as all that is, it's not even the top line of the story. We won't see Mahony's duration repeated anytime soon, if ever… nor, perhaps more significantly, the scope of his influence.

Beyond his own turf, the cardinal's spent most of his quarter-century as the lone red hat West of the Mississippi, his onetime auxiliaries now run dioceses from the Rio Grande to the Pacific, and among his former clergy are found the head of California's other metropolitan church and, indeed, the two most influential Americans in the history of the Holy See.

Even for that, though, his empire's mostly been built at home, among a crowd where he's more revered than loved. And what's more, even amid the scandals and controversies of the years, the long eye of history has its way of looking at matters differently than many might see them today.

For any student of the church's journey on these shores, the story is familiar: an ethnic "old guard" wrought by divisions, chatter and complacency finds its model of church wiped off the map by a mass infusion of fresh blood, true believers in the faith and the promise of the land. Even within the church, this "immigrant church" of great fervor and hard work experiences scorn or disdain just as it births both renewal and a considerable growth spurt. Yet still, for all its talents and testimony, it would take the emergence of one transformative leader to integrate the newcomers' gifts into ecclesial life, to shepherd them to their rightful place and, indeed, to herald their arrival -- not just as a presence, but a force, both within the walls and on the streets.

Faced with a rapidly changing, growing local reality, this "born fighter" builds an epic cathedral both to gather his own and make immortal the church of his vision. He defends his institutional prerogatives with the same vigor he devotes to his beloved migrants. He revels in the prestige and possibilities of politics, quells ethnic strife as he divides public opinion… and by the end of the day, himself becomes an icon -- not so much a leader of the church as, among his own, the very personification of it.

Sure, that's a rough sketch of the Mahony legacy… one that finds its precursor in John Hughes.

Perhaps that's why Our Lady of the Angels happened to be built one foot longer than the "Dagger"-wielder's dream project -- read: St Patrick's, New York. Still, for the titan-pastors of both coasts, the tale would end the same way: for all their work and the transformation they oversaw, all the controversies braved in the moment and accomplishments birthed for generations onward, each bore his respective charge to the threshold of the brass ring… but only under their successors would the local churches they revolutionized become American Catholicism's capital see.

Who'll bring that title Westward is the choice we await.

For all of it, as always, stay tuned.

PHOTOS: Getty(1), Newscom(5)