Wednesday, September 29, 2021

For Brooklyn, “Columbus” Day Comes Early – In NY Homecoming, Pope Taps Brennan to Succeed “The Czar”

In the first Stateside move of the Vatican’s new working year, the most significant opening on the current US docket is off the table… and as Mets fans can always use good news, for once they’re in luck – the new shepherd of Citi Field is already one of their number.

At Roman Noon on this feast of the Archangels, the Pope named Long Island’s own Bishop Robert Brennan – the 59 year-old head of Ohio’s capital church in Columbus – as the eighth bishop of Brooklyn: the US’ fifth-largest diocese, its 1.8 million members comprising the nation’s largest non-metropolitan see.

After less than three years in Buckeye Nation, Brennan succeeds one of the bench’s most formidable players, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, who reached the retirement age of 75 in June 2019. Arguably the “central casting” image of a Brooklyn prelate – down to a hard-charging style that’s seen him widely referred to at home as “The Czar” – today’s move comes a month after DiMarzio was cleared by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of two allegations of sexual abuse dating to the 1970s in his native Newark, making him the only US prelate to date to emerge unscathed from an investigation under Vos estis lux mundi, the 2019 norms for cases of direct abuse or mishandling of cases by bishops. Nick being Nick, however, another piece of his final lap is an even bigger point of pride: never one to shy away from war (and the louder it is, the better), late last year DiMarzio took his longtime nemesis, now-former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, to the Supreme Court, winning a unanimous “shadow docket” ruling that overturned the state’s pandemic capacity limits on church attendance as a violation of religious freedom.

Well beyond the transition at hand, the Brooklyn church itself has undergone a remarkable evolution over DiMarzio’s 18-year tenure, headlined by a torrent of gentrification that’s upended long-standing ethnic bastions with a stratospheric infusion of wealth and development, and the tensions that come with it. At the same time, while the diocese’s long history as the ultimate nexus of the American “melting pot” – which saw Brooklyn launch the global church’s first diocesan-level ministry for immigrants 50 years ago – has continued unabated, the reality of African, Asian and Caribbean emigres overtaking the earlier waves of Europeans and Hispanics has put new demands on the ecclesial talent pool, all as the aging infrastructure of the “city of churches” makes the solvency of its famously complex and sprawling apparatus an ever more urgent concern. Yet on the whole, much as the diocese has traditionally prided itself on being the church of “the peripheries” in the nation’s largest city well before Francis popularized the term, if anything, today’s Brooklyn and Queens is more at the center of New York power and consequence than at any time in living memory, a clout underscored by the pending handoff of the mayor's office from one Brooklynite to another.

Given the host of changes and challenges facing the outer boroughs, the Brooklyn succession could’ve been handled any number of ways. In that light, it’s telling that Francis has opted for a very comfortable choice, both in terms of the administrative and pastoral dynamics that make up what might just be the most unique diocese in the US church.

Beyond having spent his life in the neighboring diocese of Rockville Centre, Brennan has already lived in his new charge, having attended the Vincentian-run St John’s University in Queens. Marked out early as a rising star, he was vicar-general of Long Island’s 1.5 million-member fold by 40, then raised to the bench as Bishop William Murphy’s hand-picked auxiliary a day after turning 50. In the context of Brooklyn, while anyone taking DiMarzio’s place would inevitably be seen as an octane-lowering choice in terms of personality, Brennan in particular is decidedly not a headline machine. Nonetheless, his considerable skillset in terms of nuts-and-bolts governance has long been admired by Francis’ current crop of hat-makers, so much so that, until now, his name was atop the credible field of contenders to succeed Cardinal Seán O’Malley OFM Cap. as archbishop of Boston when the handover of the nation’s fourth-largest diocese is eventually broached. (Though O’Malley and DiMarzio turned 75 in the same month, to date, the Boston process has not yet been initiated.)

Once he takes the reins at 310 Prospect Park West, Brennan’s familiarity with the turf will come even more in handy as he inherits an outsized crucible of issues that border on the existential. For starters, as New York state's two-year “window” suspending the statute of limitations on sexual abuse cases closed last month, only now will its dioceses face the brunt of addressing the largest flood of litigation the US church has seen since the eruption of the scandals. Already, however, while four of the New York province's eight sees – led by Rockville Centre – have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, Brooklyn has not yet made that call despite an even larger caseload; just on his own, the celebrated plaintiffs’ attorney Jeffrey Anderson has lodged over 700 suits against the diocese under the Child Victims Act.

Bankruptcy or not, the resolution of the crush of cases – for context, a larger docket than that which the archdiocese of Los Angeles paid $660 million to settle in 2007 – will determine the extent of the fiscal crunch which, in turn, will shape the contours of Brennan’s tenure. And that picture plays into the other looming crisis on deck... or one of them: the challenge of broad-scale pastoral planning, which has only been tackled at the edges to date, with 30 parishes (of an original 216) slimmed out in the first decade of DiMarzio’s tenure. The need for a more concrete and diocese-wide approach is underscored by the recent development of several Brooklyn pastors now being assigned to two parishes at once. Even beyond the basics, meanwhile, this month’s historic flooding of much of the diocese by the remnants of Hurricane Ida portends a future of tackling the fallout of increasing, and far more damaging, natural disasters, with the diocese's coastal location and population density exacerbating the effects of climate change.

In accord with the norms of the canons, Brennan must be installed within two months. With today’s move now opening Columbus, four US dioceses stand vacant, and another 12 led by (arch)bishops serving past the retirement age.

SVILUPPO: With DiMarzio hailing his successor as "a perfect choice," Brennan's installation has been set for Tuesday, 30 November in St Joseph's Co-Cathedral, the gentrifying "downtown" parish which became the diocese's de facto seat in 2013.

Meanwhile, even before today's 10am press conference, the incoming bishop issued a soothing first message to his new presbyterate, the state of its morale cited as a key priority over the course of the process: 

...and here, fullvideo of the presser, featuring Brennan as steeped in his new gig as a non-native could be on Day One: