Monday, December 02, 2019

For Alberto, The "Empire" – Capping Long Transition Plan, Chicago Aux. To San Bernardino

In the space of just four decades, the church in Southern California's "Inland Empire" based in San Bernardino has grown at a nearly unparalleled rate in modern times: today, the two-county diocese's 1.8 million Catholics now comprise a fold as large as Brooklyn, and just slightly smaller than Boston – all told, American Catholicism's sixth-largest outpost, now some seven times its size upon its founding in 1978.

And now, for just the second time since then, San Bernardino is under new management... or will be soon – at Roman Noon, in a surprise pick, the Pope named Bishop Alberto Rojas (above), the 54 year-old auxiliary of Chicago, as coadjutor to Bishop Gerald Barnes. The Mexican-born choice (de Aguascalientes), who came to the US as a seminarian before his ordination in 1997, will succeed Barnes at the mammoth see's helm shortly after the veteran incumbent – who's led the diocese since 1996 – reaches the retirement age of 75 next June.

The culmination of a two-year transition plan charted by the East LA-bred Barnes, his succession has fallen to the only active Hispanic auxiliary in any of the nation's three largest dioceses. In other words, with Rojas' promotion, the only active Latino prelate serving in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago will – at least, for the short-term future – be LA's Archbishop José Gomez, now the USCCB President. While that reality underscores the immense docket-wide challenge of meeting demand for native sons to minister to American Catholicism's de facto rising majority, it's likewise no accident that Rojas – a soft-spoken type whose low profile on the wider scene (until now) belies the affection with which he's regarded both at home and among the bench – has been sent to a charge whose Latin contingent is among the nation's largest, with Hispanics comprising some three-quarters of San Bernardino's faithful.

At the same time, even as the Pope's pick has overseen two of Chicago's six ample-sized regions in turn since his 2011 appointment as an auxiliary to Cardinal Francis George, the incoming Californian nonetheless faces a remarkable change of scale. For one, it's been a decade since a Stateside prelate has been catapulted into a post of this size without experience as a diocesan bishop. Yet what's more, while the now-retired Bishop Rutilio del Riego still lends a hand with Confirmations and other functions, Rojas will have no active auxiliary upon becoming the third bishop. (By contrast, San Bernardino's more established peers in terms of size each have four or more active deputies.)

Home to an unusually collaborative ecclesiology – the fruit of Barnes' lifelong premium on forging consensus (and asking questions) – the Inland church's growth and the unusually public transition planning have combined to leave no shortage of decisions for Rojas upon his ascent. Among others, Barnes has reportedly left to his successor whether the diocese should embark on building a new cathedral given the relative inability of the 700-seat Our Lady of the Rosary (a parish church at the founding) to host major events due to its space limitations amid the ongoing boom. At the same time, though the growth has occasionally led to rumblings that the diocese could be split, with its Riverside County half spun off, that notion is currently on ice amid a prevalent sense that two separate local churches would have difficulties being financially solvent on their own.

On another logistical front, San Bernardino faces the challenge of finding and forming sufficient priestly vocations to serve the growth. Accordingly, it's notable here that the incoming bishop spent nearly a decade on the faculty of Mundelein Seminary, and has taken a lead role on Hispanic vocations as Chicago's lead Latin prelate.

His Welcome Mass reportedly set for mid-February, Rojas will be introduced to his charge-to-be at a 10am Pacific press conference:

While the naming of coadjutors does not impact the US' docket-totals in the immediate sense, as of today, five Stateside dioceses are vacant, with another dozen led by (arch)bishops serving past retirement age. To broad shock, the former count increased yesterday with the sudden death at 59 of Bishop Paul Sirba of Duluth from a cardiac arrest as the Minnesota prelate was preparing for morning Mass in a local parish.

All told, the current pile-up of pending moves is merely a prelude to the "generational wave" set to hit through the next two years, over which time Francis will have a rare ability to recast the American hierarchy as more than 50 diocesan seats – nearly 30 percent of the nation's 179 Latin-church postings – come open due to age-outs and upward movement.