Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Felipe, Upstate: Miami Aux to St Aug

Just over six months ago, it was routinely taking the Holy See well over a year -- or often, even close to two -- to find replacements for US bishops who had reached the retirement age of 75.

For the second time in as many days, however, what had become the customary wait-time has seen itself slashed in half.

This morning, B16 named Miami's senior auxiliary, Bishop Felipe Estévez, 65, as bishop of St Augustine, succeeding Bishop Victor Galeone, a onetime missionary in Peru who's headed Florida's mother-diocese since 2001 and turned in his requisite "walking papers" last September 13th.

A Cuban exile cherished by many for his pastoral focus and kindness, the Upstate nominee -- who was left the island as a boy via the Pedro Pan airlifts of the early 1960s -- spent his seminary days in Montreal before his 1970 ordination in the US for a Cuban diocese. After further studies in Honduras, Estévez was incardinated into the South Florida church in 1975, and after being sent for an advanced degree in spiritual theology at Rome's Pontifical Gregorian University, spent the bulk of his priesthood in priestly formation and spiritual direction work before being named an auxiliary of Miami in 2003.

Now home to some 195,000 Catholics, the St Aug church -- which, as numbers go, is anchored by Jacksonville, now Florida's largest city -- has seen something of a boom over the course of Galeone's decade at the helm, particularly among its numbers of Hispanic and Haitian faithful. Given the upstate reality's new reflection of South Florida, a Miami-based appointee is the closest outside thing to a natural fit for the post.

The appointee is the third Miami priest to be given a diocese in just over a year, following Rome's October 2009 choice of a fellow exile, the local pastor and high-school president Fr Fernando Isern, as bishop of Pueblo, and last October's appointment of the archdiocese's junior auxiliary, John Noonan, to Orlando, where he succeeded Thomas Wenski -- the iconoclastic, Harley-riding South Florida native -- who was returned home as archbishop nearly a year ahead of schedule.

With over 1.3 million Catholics in what's now the nation's eighth-largest metropolis, Miami is the Southeast's largest local church, and is widely tipped to become a cardinalatial see in the years just ahead. As the Sunshine State's wider scene goes, meanwhile, the St Augustine nod is the third to fall in Florida over the last year, following Wenski's homecoming and Noonan's transfer.

It won't be the last, however -- following Bishop John Ricard's early retirement for health reasons, the Panhandle diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee stands vacant... not to mention the Holy See's impending response to Wenski's quickly-placed petition for replacement auxiliaries in Miami, at least one of whom could well be coming from outside.

In accord with the norms of the canons, Estévez must be installed in his new cathedral -- the nation's "first parish" -- within two months.

With this morning's move, the top posts of six Stateside Latin churches remain open, with another six dioceses led by prelates serving past the retirement age, four of them older than Galeone.

PHOTO: Marlene Quaroni/The Florida Catholic