Tuesday, March 05, 2019

At Graceland, "Taz"-mania – Capping US Hat Trick, Pope Sends "Whirlwind" To Memphis

(Updated with presser video.)

Moving quickly to remedy the damage of a disastrous tenure that left West Tennessee's Catholic community wounded and reeling, the Pope has unleashed the most potent option to heal and restore the diocese of Memphis – and to get cracking with all possible speed.

At Roman Noon this Tuesday, Francis named Bishop David Talley (right), 68 – the "hyper-relational," Atlanta-born head of Louisiana's Alexandria diocese since 2016 – as 6th bishop of the 70,000-member fold on the banks of the Mississippi: a vibrant, tight-knit church with an extraordinary record of activism and service.

And to be sure, that's just one of three marquee moves for the day: elsewhere, the Pope tapped LA Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Brennan, 65 this month, as bishop of Fresno – the outpost covering the lower third of California's Central Valley, now home to 1.2 million Catholics...

...and in just the latest nod to the US church's burgeoning Asian presence, Msgr Alex Aclan, 68 – Filipino-born, and until recently LA's clergy personnel chief – will take Brennan's place as an auxiliary of American Catholicism's flagship diocese, heading up one of Los Angeles' five pastoral regions, each of which comprise over a million faithful.

With Aclan's appointment, the bishop-elect – ordained a priest at 42 after a career as a computer programmer – becomes just the second Filipino ever named to the Stateside bench, and the second Asian priest overall to join the hierarchy within the last 18 months.

While Francis' all-important choice of an archbishop of Washington still hangs like a sword over the rest of the docket, it bears noting that today's trio of moves represents the US' fullest slate of appointments since the latest national round of abuse scandals broke last summer.

*  *  *
An adult convert of Southern Baptist roots, his dual background as a social worker and canon lawyer  unique among the US bench, the new Memphis prelate – famously dubbed "The Tazmanian Devil" at one of his parishes for his usual whirlwind activity – arrives at Graceland as a unifier with a mammoth degree of regard across all sorts of divides.

Indeed, whether from his 1990s housemates at the Casa (the Roman base for American priest grad-students), onetime parishioners in the booming Atlanta suburbs, Chancery co-workers or the national scene he's now been part of for six years, all you'll ever hear when Talley's name comes up is affection on steroids – a reputation perhaps best summed up by the sense that, as several of his collaborators have noted over time, losing him to another assignment brought the difficult realization of how he could never be fully replaced.

Along those lines, much as it'll come as no surprise to those who know him, now it can be told that Talley's name has figured at high levels over recent months as a stealth prospect for the opening in the nation's capital. Even more than the optic of a down-home convert cleric in a rumpled suit and tab-shirt would've struck an immediate, glaring contrast with the cool refinement of the embattled Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Talley's personal history as a state-employed social worker assigned to help abused children in Atlanta's housing projects – the work he was doing as he discerned entering seminary – wouldn't just have made for a deeply evocative story, but provided a rare skill-set for tackling the local nexus of what's become American Catholicism's deepest national crisis in two centuries.

Instead, however, a smaller crucible came calling, but a crucible nonetheless.

In a tenure that barely lasted two years, Bishop Martin Holley's aloof, deference-heavy style of governance brought the Memphis church to the point of near-implosion – a collapse first staved off by a rare Apostolic Visitation to investigate the situation (and comfort the locals), then halted last October with the 64 year-old prelate's forced removal from office by the Pope, a first for a US bishop in modern times. (Not to be outdone, the booted prelate subsequently took to EWTN in a bizarro attempt to defend himself, terming his opposition "racist" – despite the fact that his widely well-regarded predecessor of a quarter-century, Bishop Terry Steib, was likewise African-American.)

Named administrator by Rome upon Holley's ouster, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville – whose province includes Tennessee – has garnered universally high marks among the Memphians as a healing and calming presence who's done much to prop up the roiled scene. Still, with the former USCCB president having to drive five hours each way to juggle two dioceses, the effort hasn't been easy. Accordingly, since the summer 2018 Visitation served as the consultation on the state of the diocese – the first and longest stage of an appointment process – that and a desire to ease Kurtz's daunting workload combined to produce a permanent successor in rapid time.

According to a Whispers op involved in the process, Talley was the archbishop's emphatic first choice. Yet even as both Kurtz and his new suffragan share a common background in social-work, the identikit of Memphis' new bishop is a remarkably tailored fit to respond to the three overarching issues that Holley's tenure blew open.

Beyond coming as a booster-shot and fix-it man for a people languishing under low morale – albeit on a lesser scale, the same reason he was sent to Alexandria – Talley's sizable experience in handling clergy personnel matters recalls Holley's explosive decision to arbitrarily reshuffle some two-thirds of Memphis' priests (including some close to retirement) within a year of his arrival: that is, the moment most frequently cited as the initial salvo of the diocese's immersion in tumult. What's more, meanwhile, the incoming bishop's well-burnished community work directly hearkens back to the biggest outcry stoked by his now-predecessor: Holley's move to shutter the diocese's Jubilee Schools – the nine inner-city elementaries funded by a coalition of civic and corporate groups that've provided an alternative to Memphis' public schools since 1999.

Hailed as one of US Catholic education's great success stories of recent decades – and seen locally as a catalyst for furthering racial reconciliation and the common good in the city where Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated – Holley's ax to the Jubilee Schools (reportedly due to his distaste for serving non-Catholic students) caused shockwaves across the wider church. With the schools under agreement to be spun off to a charter-school provider after this academic year, an op close to the situation relays that an attempt to reverse the arrangement would be futile at this point. In any case, though, Taz being Taz, it's a safe bet that the new bishop will come up with some new push to ensure and enhance the church's ongoing mission and presence in the struggling city – if he hasn't figured it out already, give him 'til noon.

On top of the lingering threads in Holley's wake, the interregnum has brought a pair of fresh challenges. First, local ops report that, while a broad aversion to the now-removed bishop managed to unify sparring factions in the Memphis church, Holley's departure – and the vacuum of long-term leadership it created – has resulted in a distinct spike of tensions between ideological camps over the course of the vacancy.

In addition, as dioceses across the US race to publish historic lists of their credibly accused clerics, last month's disclosure from the diocese of Richmond ricocheted to Memphis as the latter's founding bishop, Carroll Dozier, was listed among abusive priests who worked in Virginia, where Dozier was born and served from 1937 until 1971, when St Paul VI chose him to establish the West Tennessee fold.

While Richmond's entry on Dozier as being accused solely noted that the allegation was received after his death in 1985, a conspicuous lack of reaction from the diocese he founded is said to have rattled, if not infuriated, at least some of the Memphis faithful, all the more given the exalted standing with which the founding bishop is held there.

Featured on a city mural among local icons of the civil rights movement (above left), Dozier – whose 12-year tenure first charted the diocese's penchant for social-justice – is buried under a side-altar inside the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, the tomb topped by kneeling angels sculpted in marble.

A notoriously early riser known to be at his desk by 5am, Talley will be presented to his new charge by Kurtz at a 10am Central press conference. As of press time, an installation date remains unknown.

As ever, more to come... and just remember, when this scribe says it'll be busy, believe it.

SVILUPPO: His opening statement here, below you'll find Talley's full Q&A on his debut before the Memphis crowd – the installation is set for Tuesday, 2 April, its site yet to be determined.