Tuesday, September 28, 2010

For the Future, Four to Watch

As previously noted, below you'll find Part Two of your narrator's Q&A for Michael Sean Winters at the NCR's Distinctly Catholic.

As you'll see, a strict construction of today's question proved impossible, and no less than another six freshmen to keep an eye on likewise come immediately to mind. Still, hopefully the result's as interesting as it ended up running a tad long; either way, it's just a treat to return, however fleetingly, to something a bit more long-frame than the usual. (And, admittedly, still feeling a bit rusty from the summer break, being able to hack it with a modicum of coherence has come as a pleasant surprise.)

As this isn't the kind of thing you'll find in The New York Times -- or, for that matter, pretty much anywhere else -- thanks again to everyone who's lent a hand to keep these pages coming your way. Compared to keeping the bills paid and the lights on, an analysis of this sort is a breeze, so to everyone who's made the former burden manageable and, ergo, the latter grace possible, just remember that this one's for you... and, indeed, thanks to you.

All that said, today's DC Question is "Who is an up-and-coming bishop we should keep an eye on and why?"

... and, without any further ado, your narrator's stab at it:

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Picking a single “up and comer” among the bench’s new crop is kinda like that potato chip slogan -- “you can’t have just one.”

Being accustomed to its sprawling nature, many of us tend to give it short shrift, but globally speaking, the US church is an immense enterprise -- only Italy and Brazil have more bishops, and given the scope of the turf here, it’s impossible to boil the situation down into a single column because, well, the culture of Catholicism in New England and New Mexico are two drastically different things.

As much as ever, the story of this moment in the American Catholic journey is that of divergent realities of East and West... only now, the latter finds itself in the driver’s seat of the national fold’s future -- and in a scenario that defies all precedent, with the South riding shotgun. For those of us who appreciate things through the lens of history, this is nothing short of an epochal shift, and God knows it makes for fascinating watching.

All that said, back to the main point: on a bench that counts some 300 active bishops and exists in a constant state of churn, I can’t really narrow my mind down to one rising star. And maybe that’s a fitting reflection on the conference’s dynamic at this point in the game. See, the days of one “strongman” bishop as the church’s de facto National Leader -- a line extending back to John Carroll, then John Hughes and James Gibbons, to Francis Spellman and his successors -- ended on 3 May 2000: that is, the night John Cardinal O’Connor passed from our midst.

While many among us have had high hopes for a restoration of New York's claim to the tradition under the latest of the line, for all Archbishop Tim Dolan’s considerable gifts, all of a decade since the Last Lion of Madison Avenue departed the stage, the church in America -- and, indeed, the wider world -- has become a very different place: more than anything else, the evolution of media has irrevocably busted up the Manhattan-based monopoly of the national conversation, granting a thousand bishops (or so it sometimes seems) entree to a broad audience; even more than the scandals, the polarization within the USCCB (only ever increased in 2002’s wake) would see any one viewpoint quickly and prominently rebutted -- we all know how the mainstream press loves a good ad intra spat, eh?; the demographic center’s double-whammy flight toward Hispanics and the West (expedited by a hemorrhaging of Anglos) has stripped the Northeast of its historic standing as the Stateside church’s flagship....

The scribe could go on, but you get the idea.

In a changing conference leading a changed church -- and one fallen on harder times than any of us have ever known -- the need for effective, credible, savvy leadership only becomes all the more pressing. And while this observer still hasn’t a clue what way the body will swing come mid-November in Baltimore as it elects its next vice-president -- a race that, thanks to all the new, markedly centrist blood in the electorate, feels more up in the air than it’s been in quite some time -- here are a couple names readers might well find guiding the high-hat fold as it journeys on over the years and decades ahead.

Before delving in, though, two explanatory caveats: first, tempting as it is to include earlier -- read: JPII -- picks that most armchair church-watchers would still see as “up and comers,” the group below were all still priests at Benedict XVI’s election and only named bishops once the pope got the selection process working his way....

And, lastly, lest anyone start trying to connect dots that don't exist, keep in mind that these names are listed in alphabetical order.

With that, away we go.
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Paul Etienne, 51, bishop of Cheyenne: As the current state of things has made the high-hat an ever heavier object, “within reach of power tools” is probably the last place you’d want a nominee to be on learning of his appointment. But, indeed, it was while brandishing a chainsaw to chop some trees on a Monday off last summer that Etienne got the call informing him that he was B16's choice to head Wyoming’s statewide diocese, which had been vacant for nearly 18 months.

Luckily, the rural Indiana pastor didn’t harm himself at hearing the news, accepted, and in retrospect, the moment vindicated the wisdom of the selection process: if you’re seeking a good fit for Wyoming, someone whose idea of relaxing is cutting trees (and who, with his priest-brothers, swapped hunting rifles as ordination gifts) would be hard to beat.

Keeping with the “golden thread” highlighted yesterday, Etienne was pastoring two country churches when the nuncio’s call came; one was his boyhood parish, his parents still living in its lines. On a farewell tour of his prior assignments before heading West, each Mass was packed and said to be notably emotional. Yet behind the woodsy angle lies a veteran of the national scene, with a pedigree that some Catholic conversationalists might find rather curious.

Such is the current bleeding of secular politics into the ecclesial discourse that, most days, you’ll easily find someone or other calling for the detonation of the USCCB, citing this or that passage from Joseph Ratzinger’s writings. One thing the pope himself would’ve noticed in Etienne’s file, however, is that while on a leave from the seminary in the mid-‘80s, the future bishop found his way onto the staff of the old NCCB/USCC in its full-tilt, highly-liberal heyday. Clearly, Benedict saw that as anything but a deal-breaker (and accordingly, not long after his appointment, Etienne returned to Mothership duty, landing a seat on one of the conference’s most work-intensive, high-stakes committees of recent years -- namely, Child and Youth Protection.)

More to the point, the young bishop of Yellowstone Country brings a refreshing shot of openness to the table; performing his first priestly ordination, he preached about his own struggles with accepting celibacy, he blogs daily, and a recently-released vision statement for the diocese saw Etienne speak of his longtime “ache” over the high number of inactive Catholics and call for a new spirit of outreach.

“For God’s family to be whole,” he wrote of the fallen-away, “we need to do all we can to reach out.... We need to listen to their stories and experiences and, where possible, help them find healing and wholeness. We need to do all we can to help them take up their rightful place within our practicing family of faith once again.”

As a progressive friend in Wyoming recently put it, the bishop has "worked wonders" in his first year on the job... pointedly adding that, with the new boss’ arrival, “the Council has finally arrived” in the Cheyenne church.

Daniel Flores, 49, bishop of Brownsville: Usually, the head of one of the nation’s 15 dioceses with a million or more Catholics wouldn’t be eyed as a cleric yet to make his mark, but as someone already established in the top tier.

When it comes to the guy known at home as “Bishop Danny,” however, one can’t help but see even bigger things ahead.

As noted yesterday, before the South Texas-born prelate’s December return from Detroit after braving (by his count) “three winters” as an auxiliary there, no Hispanic bishop of any age had ever been given a Stateside diocese of a million-plus, and no Anglo still in his 40s had nabbed a post so massive since Roger Mahony’s triumphant homecoming to LA a quarter-century ago this month. That alone should underscore the height of expectations Rome has for the 49 year-old who’s quickly carved out a rep as one of the most intense, brilliant, charismatic figures in the Stateside church’s emerging generation of leadership, even if his national profile is still to launch.

Able to quote verbatim from Thomas in Latin, Tolkien in English and Sinatra in song, with a mind for penning poetry in his spare time, Flores inherited a border church that’s home to the most densely-Catholic population per capita (85%) of any US diocese. Its boom shows no signs of abating, either; tripled in size since 1980 and doubled since 1990, a majority of today’s Brownsville church is younger than age 25.

To its north, the archbishopric of San Antonio -- for the last three decades, seat of the bench's lone senior Hispanic -- might be awaiting its next occupant (...and with the post's ethnic distinction now left for Hollywood along with Archbishop José Gomez, could just see an Anglo named to fill it). Either way, for now, the bench’s Latin star reigns by the Rio Grande, and the locals couldn’t seem more pleased; Flores' February installation saw some 2,000 people pack the Brownsville’s Mission Basilica for the Mass....

Impressive as that sounds, it gets even better -- another 2,000-plus celebrated outside.

Wild as the enthusiasm might seem, to have watched Flores is to know this caliber of reaction as something approaching standard fare. In an attribute that likewise held up in Detroit, as pastor of Corpus Christi Cathedral -- and, at the same time, a commuting vice-rector of Houston’s St Mary’s Seminary -- prior to being named the youngest US bishop, his base of admirers extended all the way from his former ordinary, Bishop Rene Gracida (whose retirement blogging usually refers to the White House’s current occupant as “Barack Hussein Obama”), to at least one Anglo veteran of the Catholic Worker movement who, during those fractious days of the 2008 elections, wrote in to fume that “McCain will find more people to kill if he becomes president”... but only after going on about how much he missed “Danny.”

On an ecclesial scene whose ever-warring echo chambers barely seem to agree on Revelation, that breadth of regard says it all.

Bernard Hebda, 51, bishop of Gaylord: The paper-trail is unusually distinguished, even for an American bishop -- Harvard BA, JD from Columbia Law, JCL from the Gregorian, for 13 years a top-flight Vatican canonist as the #3 official at the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts.

Ask the folks back in Pittsburgh, though, and you’re more likely to hear stories of Bernie Hebda doing the “Electric Slide” at parish festivals on return trips to his hometown.

Over the course of his reign, B16’s shown a distinct liking for the Steel City, naming three more of its native sons to head dioceses (for a grand total of seven), sending the native-born former ordinary to the nation’s capital, bringing the energetic, pastorally savvy Bishop David Zubik home in Donald Wuerl’s footsteps... and above all, in Dan DiNardo, giving the Burgh its second native-son to reach the brass ring and don the cardinal’s red hat.

The trend’s been wise -- if you’re rebuilding a bench, Steeler Country’s a great place to start; Eastern enough to boast a strong Catholic ethos, but Midwestern enough to be devoid of the ecclesiastical grandeur that’s only expedited the faith’s epic fall along much of the Amtrak/I-95 corridor. Moreover, Pennsylvania’s western edge prides itself on its down-home sensibility -- and like DiNardo before him, Hebda’s yearning to trade St Peter's for PNC Park became so well-known that, one night a couple years back, a friend in the Canadian hinterlands called with word that “Bernie wants out,” even if the "news" was never a pontifical secret.

In the end, Hebda had to settle for half his wish -- as opposed to a return to the Burgh, his ticket out of the Vatican saw him dispatched to the northern reaches of Michigan, where the nuances of the canons are about as useful as shorts in December. But the move was no exile -- despite his path, like most of his fellow appointees under Benedict, Hebda’s blood runs more pastoral than administrative; fresh from the Greg, he spent three years on a pastoral team tasked with serving a new parish formed from the closure of seven churches, then led a local college’s Catholic center when the call to Curial service came. Seen far more widely as “brilliant, generous, gentle and pious” than through the lens of ambition -- the latter being, as never before, a particular file-killer in Benedict’s value-judgment -- even if he was heading to a place he’d never been before, simply returning to the trenches made for an especially happy homecoming.

Still, the story is just seeing its start.

When DiNardo was named the American South’s first-ever Roman prince three years ago, this scribe asked a friend what would happen to the simple “Council ring” the cardinal-designate received at his 1997 ordination as bishop of Sioux City -- the only bishop’s ring he would wear until the pope slipped the gold bas-relief of the Crucifixion (today’s version of the now-abolished sapphire band) on his finger.

Quickly, the answer came: “He’s holding it for Bernie.”

After seven happy years in northwestern Iowa’s 125,000 miles of cornfields, the cleric who'd become "Sixburgh’s" second Roman prince was transferred to Texas, and the rest is history.

Hebda marks his first anniversary in Gaylord come December... so for the rest, see you in 2016, or sometime thereabout.

David O’Connell CM, 55, coadjutor-bishop of Trenton: As the dust kicked up by the church’s battle royal over health-care reform was still settling, at the episcopal ordination of a figure (strangely) viewed as "arch-conservative" by his critics, one face particularly stuck out in a front pew of Trenton cathedral: the bishops’ bete noire of the health-care brawl, the president of the Catholic Health Association Sr Carol Keehan.

The move was vintage Dave O’Connell. Policy spat, hell or high water, nothing would get in the way of having a close friend of three decades sit with his family -- and, later, be offered a dinner seat alongside the Vatican crowd in attendance -- as, after years of widespread chatter over where the 14th president of the Catholic University of America would end up, the Philly-born Vincentian landed in an unsung gem of the downtrodden ecclesial Northeast: Central Jersey’s 850,000-member diocese, home to a notably happy presbyterate, the nation’s second-largest crop of permanent deacons, nationally-recognized lay ministry efforts and, all around, a warm, happy, energized local church.

In case any readers have been living under a rock, the successor to the beloved Bishop Mort Smith is anything but your typical rookie high-hat. For starters, while most new bishops walk the Vatican’s inner halls like kids on their first trip to Disney World, O’Connell’s 12 years effectively re-founding the nation’s top pontifical institute made him a familiar presence in Rome... and, indeed, his hosting of the pope during Benedict’s 2008 visit to Washington isn’t just warmly recalled by those in the room who listened to the pontiff’s speech. The same spirit of esteem is shared by the bishops -- for whom, until joining their ranks with his June appointment, he worked -- and but the latest proof of their enduring goodwill has just landed on the table: with stunning speed, this year’s November ballot for USCCB leadership posts already has O’Connell slated for a head-to-head vote to oversee one of the conference’s key task-groups....

Guess which.

Sure, he might be anything but a stranger to the Floor at the “Fall Classic” -- even if he’d rather be singing karaoke down in the lounge. Still, not in memory has the body nominated a member for a committee chairmanship who has yet to attend his first Plenary as a bishop. Then again, remember well that the last time an American priest began his episcopacy with this kind of mega-watt prominence, his name was Tim Dolan. Unlike the new Trentonian, though, even now, not even the made-for-TV Manhattanite can claim the words “CNN analyst” for himself.

When that's the cred one brings to the bench, there's nowhere to go but up. But what's even more, now freed from answering to a Board of Trustees that features more bishops than the whole episcopates of multiple small countries combined, in a way, the once wild-haired religion teacher gets to be his own man again... and as that gear-shift gets underway, you might just want to buckle up.

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As a final note, we'd be remiss to forget two other recently-elevated, pastorally-gifted American prelates who’ll likely be key leaders on the road ahead... for now, though, they’re not members of the Stateside bench -- at least, not yet.

Of course, this refers to the two US-born archbishops now serving atop Roman Congregations: the elegant, Yale-trained theologian (and B16 favorite) Gus DiNoia OP at Divine Worship, and the “Congregation for Religious’” just-named “ray of hope,” the former Redemptorist superior-general Joe Tobin, who’ll be ordained next month in St Peter’s Basilica by no less than Benedict's very "Vice-Pope."

Most of the time, Vatican practice holds that the #2 officials overseeing the church's lead "cabinet" departments tend not to remain Curial lifers. Many, if not most, are eventually given high posts at home, so smart money would expect at least one to return to a major archdiocese here at some point down the line. In that light, while a lot can change in three years, one prediction’s already hit the ground, and however premature, it makes particular sense: given the latter’s Midwestern roots, penchant for collaboration, experience both in Rome and with running a large, complex ecclesial apparatus on top of his ministry-long care for a Hispanic flock whose language he's said to speak "beyond fluently," once Tobin’s done bringing the controversial and turbulent Apostolic Visitation of the nation’s women religious in for a smooth landing on all sides, the early line has already posited the Detroit-born Big Red in the mix as a strong contender for Chicago in succession to Cardinal Francis George, who reaches the retirement age of 75 in early 2012.

Lest anyone forgot, the Windy City crowd can easily recall another shepherd who arrived as “Joseph, your brother”... and an encore might just work the same kind of magic.

SVILUPPO: Correcting the initial draft of this piece, DiNardo was not, as previously stated, the first Pittsburgh native elevated to the College of Cardinals, but the second after Adam Maida, who received the red hat in 1994, four years after his appointment as archbishop of Detroit.

The post has been edited to remedy the error.

PHOTOS: Diocese of Cheyenne(2); Joel Martinez/The McAllen Monitor(3); The (Trenton) Monitor(5)