Friday, July 29, 2011

The Shadow of Pietro

Before all else, according to late word yesterday, the shape of Archbishop Pietro Sambi's Stateside farewell has changed.

While a 6 August funeral Mass in Washington was initially eyed as the American sendoff for the late "Super-Nuncio," logistical hurdles amid the summer slowdown were reported to have shelved the plan.

The archbishop's body now slated to return this weekend to his native Italy for burial, a capital liturgy for the US church and the diplomatic corps is now said to be in the works for 14 September, the feast of the Triumph of the Cross, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

Even without the development, the new date would have much of the bench's top brass in DC for that week's Fall Administrative Committee meeting of the USCCB, at which the agenda for the following November's plenary is decided.

On a procedural note, with 3339 Massachusetts Ave. NW (above) now fallen vacant for the first time upon the death of its occupant, the #2 diplomat at the Washington Nunciature, Msgr Jean François Lantheaume, now becomes interim chief of the Holy See's US mission pending Rome's appointment of the next Nuncio and the latter's presentation of his credentials to President Obama.

While the current "deputy mayor" of Vatican City, 70 year-old Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, had been tipped to succeed Sambi as earlier indications foresaw a handover of the post on the late Nuncio's expected move to a Curial slot, any move is subject to change lacking a formal announcement from the Holy See.

* * *
Either way, the lack of a permanent legate for what could be several months until a successor's arrival is likely to create a backlog in the Nunciature's workflow, both as extraordinary matters would optimally be held for a new ambassador's input, and given the time needed for the fresh arrival to learn his sprawling, complex turf and form his own impressions of civil and ecclesial affairs alike.

As internal tasks go, the transition-related delays are almost certain to impact the crucial area of the appointment of bishops, where a Nuncio's extensive dossier on the state of a vacant diocese tends to be the linchpin element of the selection process.

Even if the docket's turnover time has, of late, slimmed to its quickest levels in nearly a decade, it bears recalling that several vacancies extended anywhere from 24 to 30 months at the time of Sambi's arrival in early 2006, and the late Nuncio needed the better part of three years on the ground to build a sufficient network of information and fine-tune the searches to meet his standards.

Further up the chain, however, the presence of five American cardinals of divergent leanings on the Congregation for Bishops -- to say nothing of a Pope keen to "own" his personnel picks in the trenches -- has made for its share of curveballs in domestic appointments during Sambi's tenure. But even that crucial group is set to change markedly over the coming year, as two of the home-grown quintet will leave the Thursday Table on their 80th birthdays, at which point cardinals automatically "age out" of their Curial memberships.

The longest-serving US members of the body that recommends episcopal nods to Pope Benedict, the respective superannuations of Cardinals Bernard Law in November and Francis Stafford next July will likewise leave the Stateside church with eight electors in a hypothetical conclave, a figure which will have taken a net loss of four (that is, a third) just since early 2010.

Given Benedict XVI's prior elevation of five of the eight US electors who'll remain -- and, for three of them, their respective entrances into the "papal senate" in their early 60s -- the current and impending openings set the stage for the completion of the most sweeping revamp of American Catholicism's pre-eminent leadership caucus since the number of the nation's cardinals was multiplied from the US' historic quota of three in the years following World War II.

As Sambi's chosen cardinals-in-waiting in stand to remain in office for the better part of two decades, his successor isn't left with terribly much to shape on the bench's top tier, save for Chicago, where Cardinal Francis George reaches the retirement age of 75 in January. After the Windy City and barring the unexpected, the next of the traditional scarlet-clad seats to come open for reasons of age is Washington, but Cardinal Donald Wuerl's walking papers aren't due until the last weeks of 2015.

With seven Latin dioceses currently vacant and another seven led by ordinaries remaining in office beyond the retirement age pending their successors' arrivals, the wider docket is currently topped by the metropolitan openings in Denver and San Francisco. A dozen more diocesan bishops on these shores will turn 75 between now and the end of next year.

* * *