Friday, September 19, 2014

Reports: Chicago Imminent

After a sudden afternoon flurry of buzz, at 5pm Central the archdiocese of Chicago called a press conference for 9.30 tomorrow morning for an unspecified purpose.

Slated to be held at the Archbishop Quigley Center – the former high-school seminary turned headquarters of the 2.3 million-member local church – ops have begun to anticipate that the event will introduce the city's ninth archbishop on the retirement of Cardinal Francis George, 77. Named to succeed Cardinal Joseph Bernardin on 8 April 1997, George – widely hailed as the American hierarchy's leading intellect for nearly two decades – recently entered an experimental treatment program amid a third round of the bladder cancer he's battled over recent years.

The appointment to the US' third-largest diocese – for almost a century, the nation's largest local church – is likely to be the most significant choice for the Stateside bench Pope Francis makes during his entire pontificate. Accordingly, over recent weeks the Pope has reportedly phoned the American cardinals and other senior prelates to consult on his options for the choice facing him, even to the point of floating names he heard elsewhere past others. Given the timetable, it is unclear if the appointment has been processed through the Congregation for Bishops, which points to the surreal possibility that Francis circumvented the traditional final step to reserve the deliberations to himself.

Beyond its sheer size – and, globally, the red hat that's come with it for nearly a century – the Chicago post enjoys outsize influence at home due to the legal status of its archbishop as "corporation sole": that is, the full, unquestioned owner in civil law of all archdiocesan property and assets. With the archdiocese's assets most recently estimated at $2.8 billion and its fluid cash solidly in nine figures, at least on paper the appointee will become one of, if not the, wealthiest landowner in the United States. In addition, Chicago is home to American Catholicism's largest school system, for whose future a $300 million capital campaign has been afoot for some time.

As the process has wended through over the last several months, the concerns which have risen to the top of the identikit for the preferred nominee have touched on three areas: the archdiocese's emerging Hispanic majority, the administrative skill needed to effectively govern the sprawling apparatus of the nation's most centralized, complex diocese and, after years of difficult revelations of abuse and other tough calls, a general premium on a shepherd who can heal both the people and, in particular, the famously independent presbyterate. Beyond the recent Latino boom, meanwhile, it likewise bears noting that Chicago is home to the largest Polish community outside of Warsaw, and the city's legendary Polonia has never seen one of its own in the chair at Holy Name.

As for the possibilities of the choice, the historical precedent bears noting: since 1939, every Chicago archbishop has come to the post from the helm of another metropolitan see. That owes itself to the legacy of the first "Western" cardinal, George Mundelein, who essentially created his Chancery along the lines of a bank, thus requiring a high degree of expertise in governance at the top. That said, there is nothing to keep Francis from dispensing with the tradition... and in a time when an increasing number of suffragan sees are larger than many metropolitan churches, it could be said that the distinction has become moot.