Monday, April 29, 2019

"Midnight Sun" to "Emerald City" – From Alaska, Pope Launches Etienne To Space (Needle)

(Updated 7.30am ET with first official comments.)

As it turns out, the Vatican can indeed handle “Prime” shipping.

Less than 72 hours after Whispers’ broke news of a coadjutor in the works for the million-member archdiocese of Seattle, at Roman Noon this Monday, the Pope appointed Paul Etienne – the 59 year-old archbishop of Anchorage, long seen as one of the US bench’s key rising figures – as successor-in-waiting to Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, who, as reported here Friday, petitioned for an early transition late last year at age 66 in light of long-standing spinal issues that’ve increasingly challenged his mobility.

Even before Etienne’s name emerged over recent days, ops apprised of the process projected that the coming understudy would take the reins from Sartain after a roughly year-long apprenticeship. Yet regardless of the handover's precise timeframe, the move only serves to bolster a decade’s worth of rock-star buzz surrounding the Indiana-born pick – whose stock among his confreres has risen even further amid the last year’s crisis footing – now bringing him into an assignment where his considerable talent can be harnessed to its fullest potential.

As biography goes, the following is taken from these pages' 2016 report on Etienne’s transfer to Alaska’s top post:
A son of rural southern Indiana, Etienne (pron.: "A-chen") hails from an almost-storybook ecclesial clan: one of six siblings, three became priests, and his sister is a Benedictine. For his part, the archbishop-elect's vocation had its fits and starts – needing a break from the seminary, the future prelate managed a shoe-store before his first brush with church officialdom as a lay employee of the US bishops in planning the mammoth Papal Visit of 1987, when John Paul II cris-crossed the country for two weeks.

Ordained in 1992, Etienne was immediately placed in vocations work alongside parish ministry, pastoring four churches alongside a stint as vice-rector of Indianapolis' college seminary. Only underscoring his love for life on the land, the 2009 phone call with word of his appointment to Wyoming famously came while the nominee was surrounded by power tools, cutting down trees on family property for his day off. (As the new Alaskan's mentor tells it, the priest-brothers gave each other hunting rifles as ordination gifts, to boot.)

A fly-fishing rod ever tossed in the back of his truck – and tipped as a rising star from the get-go – the road-warrior bishop has brought Wyoming two qualities that are exceedingly difficult to pull off for a statewide fold spanning 100,000 square miles: cohesion and action. While interminable hours behind the wheel to reach every place went a long way toward doing the trick, technology's provided a useful assist, with Etienne taking to a blog (and, with time, a Twitter feed) that, beyond keeping the locals updated on his travels, often veered into reflections on prayer and things in the news.

This morning, with the nominee said to be "shaken" over the move, the new archbishop's page carries a simple message to Wyoming: "I love you."
Back to the present, while the archbishop’s Northern exposure has been markedly brief, that’s unsurprising on at least two fronts: first, the need in Anchorage for a quick, decisive shot of energy has already been met, and most ops felt it a matter of time before a larger post came up (with this month's other Washington nod likewise cited as a possibility). Just as much, however, the challenge of pastoring a mammoth, 140,000 square-mile turf – a more sprawling mission-field than 46 of the 50 states – proved a daunting test even for Etienne’s well-honed ruggedness, so much so that friends have expressed frequent concern for his well-being from the assignment's early days.

Here, the “Emerald” church he’ll inherit is considerably more cross-able – less than a fifth the land-size of Anchorage... and, for good measure, a quarter that of Cheyenne. Yet what Seattle lacks in (relative) travel-time, the hub of the Pacific Northwest more than makes up for in terms of population, prominence and challenges alike, each of these ever more increased over the last two decades.

For one, this past weekend’s fatal collapse of a construction crane – which killed four people in the streets below – underscores the prime reality of Seatown’s current moment. Over recent years, Seattle has led the US in its concentration of high-end construction projects; while the respective 90s-era booms of Microsoft and Starbucks began the arc, the explosion of Amazon from the mid-2000s onward has put it on steroids.

Just since Sartain’s arrival in 2010, the population of the King County-based metro area has spiked another 15 percent, and the expansion of the e-commerce behemoth with its lucrative jobs has seen median house prices in the city skirt the $800,000 range. Indeed, the fallout has already made an imprint on the national conversation – as scores of cities sought to court Amazon last year while the company scouted a location for a second headquarters, activists in a host of potential sites warned that a similar tide in the chosen locale would destabilize, or even destroy, long-standing communities; such was the outcry in New York that the company reversed course on its decision to give half of the planned “HQ2” to Long Island City in Queens. In Seattle’s case, the infusion of wealth has brought a notable uptick in homelessness due to cost-of-living spikes, even as the city became the first major US jurisdiction to adopt a minimum wage in the range of the $15 an hour rate increasingly touted by progressives as a “living wage” standard.

In ecclesial terms, while today’s Seattle church is roughly three times its 1990 size (in one critical metric, its number of infant baptisms outpace funerals by more than 2-to-1), the sense has lingered that the dynamism of its trenches has not been reflected at the top – or, as one op portrayed the scene, a diocese “longing for leadership.”

With the boyish, energetic Etienne in hand, that concern is effectively vanquished.

In particular, once he steps into office, it’ll fall to the incoming archbishop to re-establish a public presence for the role. Ever since the tumultuous days of 1986-7, when Rome stoked an international firestorm by imposing an auxiliary bishop with special faculties – namely, one Fr Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh – as a means of curtailing the authority of Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen due to complaints from conservatives, the successors of “Dutch” (who died last July at 96) have been historically reluctant to take on a high profile, instead preferring a low boil and an internal focus.

To be sure, the reticence is arguably due as much to a heavily secularized local culture as to the long shadow of the Hunthausen clashes. Nonetheless, having had the itch to ramp up the church’s media outreach in Anchorage, Etienne – who, in Cheyenne, became one of the first bishops to take on a significant digital presence – now has an environment fully suited to follow through on it.

Above all, though Seattle hasn't taken much of a hit in terms of the fallout of abuse – almost a rarity in the Northwest, where several dioceses long ago declared bankruptcy in the wake of hundreds of lawsuits – Etienne made waves amid the latest throes of the scandal last summer, when he made the first substantive proposal by a US prelate on strengthened norms for the accountability of bishops, saying at the time that while "it is accurate to say that most regular, church-attending Catholics still trust their priests, who minister and serve the People of God faithfully... the same can no longer be said of bishops.

"We have lost the trust of many of our priests and people," he said, "and we must act wisely in the face of this present challenge in the hopes of regaining that trust."

Prepared with the process-obsessed eye of a onetime USCCB staffer, Etienne's plan was so well received – at least, among the bench – that it formed the de facto core of the protocols on which the body was supposed to vote last November, until the motion was scuttled by an order from the Vatican announced in the meeting's opening minute. Yet even if those votes failed, later that week the bishops rapidly elevated Etienne onto the all-important Administrative Committee – the 30-man group which sets the conference's agenda and consults on policy between the twice-yearly meetings of the whole.

All that said, if the new arrival has one weak suit, the Seattle appointment will bring Etienne’s first assignment in a Latino-heavy context: at least one third of his new archdiocese is Hispanic, and while the Mexican-born Auxiliary Bishop Eusebio Elizondo has heroically carried the load for 14 years, figures submitted for last year’s national Encuentro relay that each of Seatown's 14 Latino priests serve at a ratio of one per almost 18,000 Spanish-speaking Catholics (some six times the national average across demographic groups).

As coadjutors aren’t installed per se, a Mass of Welcome traditionally marks an understudy’s arrival in contrast to a full-on Installation; along the same lines, no rite signifies a coadjutor’s ascent to a diocese’s helm as the succession takes immediate effect upon the vacancy of the see (in this case, at the moment when Sartain’s retirement will be granted).

Per an early report, Etienne’s reception in Seattle's magnificent St James Cathedral – by practically any measure, the US' most vibrant diocesan seat – is slated to take place in early June, prior to the USCCB Summer Meeting in Baltimore, at which the bench’s latest accountability proposals are slated for final debate and vote. The incoming archbishop turns 60 later in the month.

Once this transition is carried out, with today’s pick, Francis will have chosen exactly a third (read: 11) of the US’ 33 Latin-church archbishops over his six-year pontificate. Given the pending cycle at hand, meanwhile – its specifics reported here last week – the reigning Pope will have five more metropolitan seats come open before the end of this year… and even before the “domino effect” of the vacancies spurred by those promotions kick in, Francis will be able to name the heads of some 30 Stateside dioceses (one-sixth the nation’s total) by summer 2020 simply on account of current openings and posts whose occupants are already or will soon reach the retirement age of 75.

Again, a generational wave is indeed at hand – and today’s as good a foretaste of it as you’ll find.

SVILUPPO: Per an early release from Seattle Chancery, confirming the reporting above, Etienne's Mass of Welcome is slated for Friday, June 7th; the USCCB Plenary begins the following Tuesday, the 11th.

In his first public comments on his move to seek retirement a decade ahead of schedule, Sartain wrote that he "began praying" about seeking a coadjutor some 18 months ago in light of his spinal issues, then formally petitioned Francis for his early succession last September.

Upon the understudy's arrival, “Archbishop Etienne and I will finalize the date later this year on which he will formally succeed me as Archbishop of Seattle,” Sartain said. “In the meantime we both look forward to working together to serve the Lord.”