Vacancies Have Church on the Hunt for New Talent

By Cathy Lynn Grossman
USA Today
July 2, 2003

Wanted: Super-bishop. Must be adept at shepherding a fractious, wounded flock while mastering a complex budget and be girded with unflinching faith in any crisis.

The Roman Catholic Church isn't placing ads for this fantasy post. But the church does face a potential record for retirement vacancies in the United States this year, so the hunt is on for extraordinary apostles.

By the end of 2003, 37 diocesan bishops and auxiliaries will have passed age 75, the age at which they're required to offer their resignation to the pope, says Matthew Bunson, editor of the Catholic Almanac. That's nearly 13 percent of 291 currently active bishops.

Eleven already retired. Up to 26 more, including Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, 80, of Philadelphia, could soon step down.

The vacancy picture doesn't change even with Tuesday's appointment of a new archbishop for Boston, Bishop Sean O'Malley of Palm Beach, Fla. Two other bishop transfers were announced the same day.

It's like musical chairs:

- O'Malley, a veteran healer of troubled dioceses, takes the ultra-sensitive head post in Boston, the epicenter of the child sexual abuse scandal for the past 18 months.

- Bishop Gerald Barbarito of Ogdensburg, N.Y., was named to serve Palm Beach. He is the diocese's fourth bishop in five years.

- Ogdensburg is left with the empty seat.

Trading seats no solution

Tuesday's Vatican announcement didn't increase the number of bishops, either. Miami Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Wenski will be coadjutor (a bishop who assists and will succeed an aging or ailing diocesan bishop) in Orlando, where Bishop Norbert Dorsey is 73.

"Very few people are brilliant administrative and pastoral personalities. These are supremely difficult tasks. And maybe people see that now, after the past year and a half," Bunson says.

That might explain why the pope has kept Bevilacqua in Philadelphia five years past retirement age. Also, octogenarians are ineligible for a cardinal's greatest task: choosing popes. Whoever replaces Bevilacqua probably will get a cardinal's red hat in a year, as will O'Malley in Boston. Both cities are Catholic strongholds.

Still, trading seats or gaining hats doesn't solve the vacancy problem.

Only promoting more priests to bishops can do that. The most recent was last week, when the Rev. Edgar M. da Cunha, pastor of St. Michael's Parish in Newark, N.J., was named an auxiliary bishop there.

There are more than 45,000 priests in the United States, but many rising stars and veteran crisis managers were tapped last year when 25 bishops retired.

The 2002 retirement class included Boston Cardinal Bernard Law, who court records revealed had covered up for predatory priests, and four bishops (in Lexington, Milwaukee, Palm Beach and New York) who admitted their own sexual misconduct. Only one, Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland, was at retirement age.

It's no easy process

The path from priest to bishop is circuitous and, supposedly, confidential.

- It's in the job description for current bishops and the papal nuncio, the Vatican's chief diplomat in the United States, to watch for priests who are extraordinary preachers, legal experts, administrators or staffers on Vatican commissions in Rome.

- In each of the United States' 33 provinces, bishops meet every three years to review candidates and send a list to the papal nuncio. He forwards them to the Congregation for Bishops, a panel of cardinals in Rome.

- When there's a vacancy, the nuncio consults with the retiring bishop and local priests and assesses the needs of the diocese. He's not confined to the list but is expected to forward his top three names to Rome along with documentation.

The vetting is hardly foolproof. When the bishop of Palm Beach admitted sexual misconduct in 1998, his replacement was Anthony O'Connell, who had made a secret settlement with a seminary student who claimed he was sexually abused by him. O'Connell resigned last year when the settlement came to light.

- The Congregation for Bishops, 28 cardinals worldwide including three from the United States, meets every month. One member is Cardinal Law. The group considers shepherds for the globe's 1.2 billion Catholics and draws up its own priority list for the pope.

Catholic commentator Margaret Steinfels, former editor of the Catholic public affairs journal Commonweal, sees a two-question litmus test today: "Whatever a candidate has ever said about birth control and ordination of women. If they have said anything that strays beyond this pope's views," they are out of the running.

"The laity do appreciate bishops who teach the Catholic faith, but they also want pastoral and accessible bishops," she says.

- The pope makes his pick, usually from the cardinals' secret list - but not always.

"At any given time there are scores of American priests working in Rome, serving on committees and in the curia (the Vatican bureaucracy) or studying. The pope will know them and encounter them all the time," Bunson says.

"All those lists (from local bishops) don't appear to be very functional," Steinfels says. The Congregation in Rome makes most of the decisions.

The fact that Law still sits on that committee is "pretty amazing to me," she says. "I wonder if he had any say in his successor?"


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