Bishop-Elect Embodies Humility

By Gary Soulsman
The News Journal

July 13, 2008

New head of Wilmington Diocese a down-to-earth type who loves the Lord, people and a good laugh

That was the Scripture for Friday Mass at the light-filled Basilica of the Assumption in Baltimore, the nation's first cathedral.

During his homily, Bishop Francis Malooly joked that it was not the best verse for a man hoping to make a good impression on the 230,000 Catholics in Delaware and the nine Eastern Shore counties of Maryland that he will soon lead as bishop of the Diocese of Wilmington.

Francis Malooly, bishop-elect of the Diocese of Wilmington, earned the respect of colleagues and congregants in 20 years with the Baltimore Diocese.

Few worshippers picked up on the joke by the bishop-elect, partly because many were tourists visiting the domed cathedral to see the restored white marble floors and pews.

So Malooly moved on in his homily, concluding by urging worshippers to take the joy and peace they experience in church and use it to be the face of Jesus to those they meet after leaving Mass.

The bishop's lighthearted sense of humor is one reason there's a buoyant mood among the Wilmington Diocese's 122 priests who have spent time phoning and e-mailing colleagues this week to learn more about "Bishop Fran." He will be their boss in two months and he'll set the tone for all that happens within the region's largest denomination. So they wonder: What's he like?

"This is a bishop who speaks about the joy of being a priest and I can tell you that priests are happy with what they're hearing," said the Rev. Joseph Cocucci, rector of St. Peter's Cathedral in Wilmington.

Bishop-elect Francis Malooly stands in the sacristy of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption in Baltimore.

They're hearing that this is a seasoned, well-rounded and humble man who is first and foremost interested in people and parish work, Cocucci said. They heard Malooly is a hard-working bishop from the region and is known to many priests on the Delmarva peninsula. He's also a skilled administrator who's already run a much bigger shop, and he's dealt with the priest sexual abuse scandal in Baltimore in ways that drew praise.

The positive feelings that he and other priests are picking up also are felt by laity and scholars tuned into their parishes, the Catholic press and blogs.

"The buzz is that people are very excited," said Ellen Barrosse, a member of St. Joseph's on the Brandywine and a founder of an education group called A Rose and a Prayer to foster respect for the sanctity of life.

Ellen Barrosse, a member of St. Joseph's on the Brandywine, said people are excited about the new bishop.

In her view, the Holy Spirit seems to have been at work in Papal Ambassador Pietro Sambi's assessment of the Wilmington Diocese and his recommendation to Pope Benedict XVI for the replacement of Bishop Michael Saltarelli with Malooly. Saltarelli turned 75 in mid-January, the mandatory age of retirement.

Priests say it's likely Saltarelli recommended Malooly, too, given that he said on Monday that he felt Malooly would be an excellent replacement as early as 2001.

Nationally, one of the earliest commentators to signal a thumbs up for Malooly was Rocco Palmo of Philadelphia, a popular blogger (Whispers in the Loggia) on church matters. After Pope Benedict XVI announced Monday that he was appointing Malooly to Wilmington, Palmo wrote that this was a choice many predicted because it makes so much sense.

Bishop-elect Francis Malooly pours wine Friday during a Mass at the Basilica in Baltimore. Malooly will be installed as bishop of the Diocese of Wilmington on Sept. 8.
Photo by

For one thing, he's a native Marylander who has spent 38 years in ministry just 70 miles down the road in Baltimore. And he's still a trim and youthful 64, a man who doesn't have to learn the ropes of being a bishop, having been ordained in 2001.

Moreover, Malooly is "a savvy, well-loved yet low-key 'workhorse' known for his longtime commitment to young adults, social justice and the ecclesiastical equivalent of good government," Palmo wrote.

A shepherd and a CEO

But, really, why all the fuss over one man?

The Rev. Tom Flowers of St. Polycarp in Smyrna said the healing from the sex-abuse crisis is ongoing.

The answer is that a bishop of a diocese plays a central role in the life of Catholicism wherever it's practiced and the faith is the largest denomination in the region, said Margaret McGuiness, chair of the religion department of La Salle University in Philadelphia.

"On the one hand, the bishop is a shepherd offering encouragement to people," she said. "But he's also like a college president or CEO who has an eye on all that takes place in a diocese."

His guidance touches everything from parish appointments to new seminary candidates; to worship, education, athletics, money, sexual-abuse policy and the founding of new parishes, she said.

She predicts one of the first things people will see him do is travel the diocese, talk to people and try to understand how people view their resources.

"He has a reputation for good management and that's how it's done," she said. "You don't make changes in schools or parishes -- or assignment of priests -- without knowing the turf."

Bishop-elect Francis Malooly shares a laugh while getting ready Friday in the sacristy room of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption in Baltimore.

In Delaware, the Catholic faith has a hand in charities that have a significant influence on the region's growing Hispanic population and the lives of the poor.

There are more than 14,000 Catholic school students in 22 elementary schools and five high schools.

Since 2002, the sex-abuse crisis has been a subject of enormous importance, as leaders in the nation's largest faith have admitted that children were not adequately protected in decades past. The fallout is causing churches and diocese around the country to cut budgets and services. Belt-tightening is going on in the Wilmington diocese, too, Cocucci said.

The almost 300 bishops have committed themselves to healing past mistakes -- and should continue to do so, the pope said during his visit to the United States in April.

Healing continues

In Delaware, this issue is an open wound, given that the Legislature approved a two-year window for the filing of civil suits dealing with past abuse. Those filings continue to make headlines, said the Rev. Tom Flowers of St. Polycarp in Smyrna.

"We still need prayers and healing and apologies," he said.

Some priests say it's not possible for this diocese to move on while cases are still being filed. In more than a dozen interviews last week with priests and laity, people said they are encouraged because they believe Malooly understands this.

In 2002, he was a bishop in the Archdiocese of Baltimore when it became one of the first to release a list of priests -- 57 in all -- who had credible abuse allegations against them.

To help with the anger, hurt and confusion people felt on all sides, Malooly took part in open-door listening sessions. It was challenging and gratifying, particularly when victims got up to thank the archdiocese for releasing the names, he said.

In the Diocese of Wilmington, victims, advocates and others may still need to tell their stories about the sexual-abuse crisis, Malooly said.

They may have already told their stories, but they are welcome to come and tell him again, Malooly said."I'm willing to listen."

Judy Miller, who recently started a Delaware chapter of SNAP -- The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said she is cautiously optimistic and hopes to meet Malooly.

"I imagine that a lot of people from all walks of life will meet with me," he said. "If, by my coming, I can offer more hope and healing, I am delighted by that."

As bishop, he'll wear many hats

But this will only be part of his work. Another signature of Malooly's ministry is his encouraging teens in confirmation, their faith initiation.

Young people give him a sense of hope, especially when he sees their commitment to service, said the Rev. Jeffrey Dauses, rector of the basilica in Baltimore. Malooly often includes their faith experiences in his homilies.

Whatever he turns his attention to, Malooly reports early and doesn't mind working hard, said Archbishop William Borders, who assigned Malooly many of his duties. And though his first passion is parish ministry, Malooly accepted that his superiors saw that he would be an effective manager, Borders said.

For 20 years, Malooly has handled day-to-day duties in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, a jurisdiction that has twice as many people as the Wilmington Diocese.

He has also worked with many priests in connection with the Maryland Catholic Conference, a group that sets public policy and lobbies the Maryland Legislature. A member of that conference, Monsignor John Barres, chancellor in Wilmington, is among those predicting an easy transition.

Malooly knows a good deal about the Eastern Shore, a growing part of the diocese. As a child and adult, he vacationed in Ocean City, Md.

In the parish of the Rev. Thomas J. Protack of St. John Neumann Church in Ocean Pines, Md., Malooly's reputation as a homegrown priest counts a good deal.

"There's excitement that we're getting a native Marylander who doesn't have to be introduced to the Eastern Shore," Protack said.

Contact Gary Soulsman at 324-2893 or


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.