Monday, September 19, 2011

Granite Gets Rock: Long Island's Libasci Headed to New Hampshire

Long in its anticipation, the ManchVegas nod has dropped -- Bishop Peter Libasci, the 59 year-old auxiliary of Rockville Centre, will succeed the retiring Bishop John McCormack at the helm of New Hampshire's 330,000-member statewide church.

The appointment formally made by Pope Benedict at Roman Noon today, the tenth bishop of Manchester will be formally presented at a 10am presser slated for the rectory of his new charge's St Joseph Cathedral.

Libasci will be formally installed on 8 December, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception.

By that point, it'll be just shy of sixteen months since his predecessor reached the retirement age of 75; in keeping with the norms of the canons, McCormack will serve as administrator of the diocese with day-to-day powers of governance until Libasci's arrival.

Over six years into his pontificate, the Manchester pick represents Benedict's first appointment of a diocesan bishop in New England.

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Born in Queens and an alumnus of Indiana's St Meinrad Seminary -- whose Benedictine monks notably have another considerable base in New Hampshire -- Libasci was ordained a priest for the 1.4 million-member Long Island church in 1978.

Prior to his appointment as an auxiliary to Bishop William Murphy in 2007, the Granite State nominee spent his entire priesthood in pastoral work, earning an added advanced degree in catechesis early on.

Described as "gentle" and "holy" by his collaborators, the high-stakes assignment will require all the soothing Libasci can muster as he takes the place of a prelate whose 13-year tenure has both required thankless calls and garnered searing criticism.

To an almost unparalleled degree for an American prelate, McCormack's stewardship of the New Hamshire church was saddled with the fallout of the clergy sex-abuse scandals, a reality that owed itself above all to his history as an auxiliary bishop and clergy-personnel chief to Cardinal Bernard Law in Boston. Adding to the load, in the wake of the crisis' national eruption in 2002, an investigation of Manchester's handling of earlier cases by the New Hampshire attorney general forced the diocese into a legal agreement by which -- in exchange for periodic audits of its files by law enforcement -- the state declined to press criminal charges against the Chancery or any "individual agents" suspected of engaging in a cover-up.

Earlier this year, the storyline flared anew as a top state legislator excoriated McCormack as a "pedophile pimp who should have been led away from the State House in handcuffs with a rain coat over his head in disgrace" during a budget battle that saw the church call for the least fortunate to be spared the brunt of spending-cuts. Under the pressure of a sizable public backlash at the comment, which quickly made national headlines, the Republican lawmaker -- said to be a practicing Catholic -- apologized days later during a meeting with McCormack, prior to which he said that his "inartful, undiplomatic remarks" were "unbecoming of proper political discourse in New Hampshire."

Among other considerable challenges, the Manchester church has tackled the needed, but ever-thankless Northeastern task of consolidating parishes due to declines in its participating population and a shrinking, aging presbyterate. Its contingent of priests down a quarter since 1990, the diocese slimmed its church-count by roughly a third over the course of the departing bishop's tenure.

Notably, Libasci will take over the bishop's chair in the midst of the Granite State's quadrennial turn in the national spotlight as New Hampshire's "first in the nation" presidential primary heats up. The traditional early ballot is expected to take place on February 14th.

One of the seven US dioceses to comprise an entire state, the Manchester nod leaves seven more Stateside dioceses whose bishops are serving past the retirement age of 75 pending the appointment of their successors. Another eight Latin-church sees on these shores stand vacant.