Thursday, September 16, 2010

Sartain to Space (Needle): Joliet Bishop to Seattle

Roman Noon... and with the current docket's most significant opening on these shores, the Hatman Era begins in the Stateside church.

In a move that's as much masterstroke as surprise (at least, to many), the Pope has named J. Peter Sartain, 58, bishop of Joliet since 2006, as archbishop of Seattle.

Envisioned by many as an optimal choice to replace Cardinal Francis George in Chicago after the outgoing Bench-Chief reaches the retirement age in early 2012, the much-celebrated prelate instead succeeds Archbishop Alex Brunett, who passed the canonical age-limit in January 2009. Founded in 1850 and made an archdiocese in 1951, today's Emerald City church encompasses all of Washington State west of the Cascades -- some 25,000 square miles -- and a Catholic population that, by the chancery numbers, stands in excess of 900,000.

A native of Memphis (and professed devotee of its Krystal cheeseburgers and chili), the archbishop-elect -- his surname pronounced like "Tartan," hence last night's hint -- was groomed for the heights from early on, but is widely said to have maintained a keen pastoral touch. Following undergrad formation at St Meinrad and theological studies in Rome -- which included a degree in sacramental theology from the Benedictines at Sant'Anselmo -- he returned home, being named a high-school chaplain and diocesan vocation director, an episcopal vicar by 30, chancellor at 35, vicar-general and pastor of a parish at 40, then, in 2000 (at 48), bishop of Little Rock.

In Arkansas' statewide diocese -- which grew by roughly a quarter during his six years there -- Sartain scored high marks for the jolt of energy he brought to the sprawling turf. Among other key markers, Little Rock's crop of seminarians doubled within four years of his arrival, and he openly asked the people to send him their prayer intentions, that he might join in petitioning for them. Yet above all in a local church experiencing an ever-emergent Hispanic influx (much like today's Seattle flock), the bishop learned to speak Spanish, of which he's said to have picked up an impressive command, alternating between it and English at his major liturgies ever since.

Barely six years later, Sartain was named to Joliet -- with some 650,000 Catholics, six times the size of Little Rock and, perched on the edge of Chicagoland, a world away from Arkansas -- on the retirement of Bishop Joseph Imesch. While a bit of grumbling's been registered from within the presbyterate over what some have seen as the nominee's excessive use of the provisions of the Dallas Norms -- and the Joliet church made national headlines earlier this year after a local priest jumped from a choir loft on being accused of assaulting a 13 year-old boy -- the predominant verdict has been a glowing one, a rep repeatedly chalked up to the archbishop-elect's conspicuous ability to engage young people, intense spirituality and sense of prayerfulness, balanced temperament, and an earthy style that is anything but tied up in the trappings of office... or, as no less than the Chicago Tribune once termed it, a "humor, warmth and honesty that have become legendary."

In a nutshell, twenty-five years since the famous Hunthausen Wars roiled the Seattle church -- and, indeed, some of its progressive-minded crowd wondered anew whether Rome would seek to place "Attila the Hun" in the cathedra of St James' -- yet again in this pontificate, the concerns have proven themselves unfounded.

With his Westward transfer, Sartain becomes the youngest American archbishop. What's more, the Seattle nod sees B16 reach a crucial tipping point on these shores -- just short of five and a half years since his election, the pontiff has now named a majority of the Stateside bench's 32 Latin-rite metropolitans, almost all of them in their late 50s or early 60s.

In accord with the norms of the canons, the archbishop-elect must be installed in "Seatown" within two months of this morning's announcement.

Joliet now added to the mix, four Stateside Latin sees currently stand vacant, with another nine led by prelates serving past retirement age until the appointment of their successors.