Thursday, March 16, 2017

For Wyoming, A Border Bishop – In "Rapid" Move, Cheyenne Nabs Its Neighbor

(Updated with press conference video.)

When one senior American prelate recently termed the new Nuncio to Washington "a real Speedy Gonzalez" on the appointments front, he wasn't kidding – even if Archbishop Christophe Pierre's prior assignment ostensibly went forgotten in the moment.

As fresh proof of a striking acceleration on the Stateside files since Pierre's Border-crossing last summer, Roman Noon this Thursday brings quite the "speedy" surprise: after a vacancy of just over five months, the Pope has named Fr Steve Biegler, 58 next week – until now vicar-general of Rapid City and Rector of Western South Dakota's Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help – as the ninth bishop of Cheyenne: Wyoming's statewide diocese of 60,000 members, spread across almost 100,000 square miles.

Once described in the same breath as "low-key [and] super-organized" and elsewhere as "humble with a quick smile," the bishop-elect – one of 13 children born onto his family's ranch – succeeds now-Archbishop Paul Etienne, who earned sky-high marks among the Cowboy State's priests and people before being quickly promoted to Anchorage last October. While Biegler's Indiana-born predecessor famously reveled in the outdoorsman's paradise that came with the Wyoming post, the incoming bishop is quite possibly even better adapted to his new turf given the proximity of the move; located along the far edge of the SoDak's "West River" half, Rapid City is only some 30 miles from the eastern border of the Cheyenne church.

Ordained from the Pontifical North American College in 1993 at age 34 (after several years spent working on the family farm), until becoming the diocese's #2 in 2011, Biegler spent his priesthood in full-time ministry as a pastor and school chaplain with two exceptions: a three-year return to the NAC as its pastoral formation chief (2003-6) and his election from the trenches in 2010 as diocesan administrator of Rapid City – one of the nation's smallest and poorest local churches – amid a yearlong vacancy in the bishop's office.

The latter instance is especially notable in this case, as Biegler became administrator in the wake of then-Bishop Blase Cupich's departure for Spokane. Now a cardinal-member of the Congregation for Bishops – and, from that seat, the linchpin figure on practically any move in the American West – Cupich would've enjoyed a considerable amount of "steering clout" on the Wyoming nod. Along the same lines, that Etienne was a year ahead of his now-successor at the NAC is likewise something one shouldn't easily discount.

According to the Rapid Chancery, Biegler's ordination and installation in Cheyenne is set for June 5th.

Upon today's move, six Stateside Latin church sees remain vacant, another four led by (arch)bishops serving past the retirement age.

On the broader front, with the recent openings in three million-member dioceses now put to bed, in terms of prominence the current diocesan docket is led by the Pope's impending picks for Indianapolis and Cleveland, both of which are said to be gathering steam and likely to come in relatively short order.

That said, however, given the relatively small number of current diocesan vacancies, the focus and energy-level of the Stateside files is quickly shifting toward resolving the massive backlog of requests for auxiliary bishops from coast to coast, many of which have been piled up for two years or more. With roughly a dozen of the slots already filled over the last several months, it is likely that at least some 20 more assistant hats will be named over the coming year – a development which won't merely have ramifications in their respective dioceses, but above all on the shape of the (voting) membership of the conference of bishops, thus securing Francis' stamp on the church's national leadership and direction for the next decade and beyond.

SVILUPPO: And here, via Cheyenne's diocesan Facebook – in the relaxed style unique to the rural West on occasions like these – this morning's presser introducing the Ninth Bishop to his new charge....

Alas, no tales involving power tools this time.... Then again, given the burden that comes with the call, it could be said that just once was enough.