Wednesday, July 06, 2011

With Island Transfer, Texas' "Boomtown" Opens

For all the 197 parts that make up the body of the Stateside church, one of the most impressive hotspots of recent years has emerged in a place most would find unlikely: East Texas.

Spread across 33 counties of Lone Star Country's border with Arkansas and Louisiana, on a turf where the church has adopted a cheerful, vibrant feel that can often seem uncannily Evangelical, the diocese of Tyler's Catholic population of 80,000 is more than double that of its founding in 1986. While the parish-count of 42 has stayed constant -- and many of its people have to drive 50 miles or more to reach a church -- well more impressive is the growth of the clergy who serve in them: the gaps temporarily plugged by a high number of "import" priests, Tyler has succeeded like few other Stateside churches at building an in-house presbyterate, one that's now over triple its initial size, and grown out significantly more each year with large ordination classes.

Just to use one example, this Jubilee Year brought the place a priesthood class of six -- just as many as Los Angeles and Boston alike, and half more than the diocesan group ordained for New York.

Contextually, if LA ordained at the same proportion to its size, Southern California would've had 375 new priests this spring -- a nearly two-thirds growth of its current crop in the trenches.

To be sure, that's not to play a numbers game, but simply a way of noting the sizable degree of accomplishment that exists in the "Little Diocese That Could"... where, as of this morning, the top post has suddenly come open.

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After leading the Tyler church for just shy of half its lifespan, at Roman Noon today the Pope transferred Bishop Alvaro Corrada del Rio SJ back to his native Puerto Rico to head the diocese of Mayaguez, whose 380,000 Catholics on the island's western coast comprise nearly five times the East Texas fold's size.

Having served both in the commonwealth and on the mainland since leaving Puerto Rico at 13 and entering the Jesuits in 1960, the 69 year-old prelate (ordaining at left) was named Washington's first Hispanic auxiliary bishop in 1985, serving in the capital for a decade, when he was tapped to temporarily oversee one of Puerto Rico's six dioceses as apostolic administrator.

Corrada was sent to Tyler in 2000 on returning from the island assignment.

The bishop's homecoming in Mayaguez is scheduled for 12 September, the feast of the Purification of Our Lady, to which its cathedral is dedicated.

In a warm, immensely close-knit diocese where buzz is known to fly at warp speed, the Tyler vacancy makes for a second docket-file in the province of Galveston-Houston that's bound to be tracked closely on the ground. The other, of course, is the long-awaited naming of at least one auxiliary for Texas' cardinalatial see -- with 1.5 million Catholics, by far the largest Stateside diocese with a single active bishop, a reality which has repeatedly led many of the natives to wonder what's taking so long.

Suffice it to say, such is the intensified scrutiny of the process these days that considerably more time is needed for a set of candidates to be vetted for elevation than in eras past. Accordingly, it bears recalling that, in cases where an auxiliary has been needed on an expedited timetable, it's a reflection of the new state of things that several nods have fallen to clerics from outside their eventual destination who have already passed safely through the gauntlet of the beefed-up investigation and, as a result, had already been cleared to receive an appointment. The flip-side here is that looking into a localized slate of contenders, or one with names not previously on-file, would require an exponentially longer process, but the option remains available if a diocesan bishop doesn't mind biding his time.

In other words, the longer an auxiliary search runs, the more likely a petitioning ordinary is to find his leanings reflected in its outcome. Ergo, while an apparent delay might seem on the surface as if Rome's "forgotten" a place, in reality, the extended timeline evinces an especially high degree of diligence and work to attain the intended result, even if waiting on it makes for a rough haul in the interim.

On top of the several locales in precisely that position and still anticipating auxiliaries not named in the recent months' blitz, Corrada's transfer now makes for six Stateside churches vacant at the helm, with another nine led by diocesan bishops serving past the retirement age.

SVILUPPO: Having ordained a priest for Tyler on the island last weekend, Corrada's already in his new charge, where he met earlier today with the priests and media. The prodigal son will only be the second bishop of the Mayaguez church; his now-predecessor, Bishop Ulises Casiano, has led the diocese since its 1976 founding.

As some other contextual notes go, the appointment signifies Corrada's departure from the USCCB, as Puerto Rico has its own episcopal conference and likewise takes part in Latin America's continental mega-bench, the CELAM.

The last time a Stateside bishop was transferred to an off-shore diocese came in 2004, when the highly-regarded, well-loved Baltimore auxiliary Gordon Bennett SJ was transferred to Mandeville, the poverty and violence-stricken church encompassing Jamaica's interior. After two difficult years during which he suffered a "silent stroke" among other health problems, Bennett's early retirement was accepted in 2006. Unseen in ministry since then -- even if several of his American confreres have sought him out -- he's currently understood to be living with his Jesuit confreres.

Strange as Bennett's move to Jamaica was to begin with, though, transfers to Puerto Rico are far less unusual or unheard of; after all, the island's metropolitan, Archbishop Roberto Gonzales OFM of San Juan, 61, was born in New Jersey and served as a bishop in New England and Texas before returning to the West's oldest diocese in 1999.

Ordained an auxiliary of Boston in 1988 at age 38 -- the years over the canonical minimum age for prelates -- Gonzalez was the last American bishop to receive the mitre before his 40th birthday.

Given the ever-younger trend of recent years' nominees, though, whether the "40 Barrier" will again be broken after 23 years has emerged anew as a very salient, worthwhile question... and, perhaps, something to keep an eye for as time wears on.

PHOTOS: Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Tyler TX(1); Lee Hassell/Longview News-Journal(2)