Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Love Week in Philadelphia

Get out the red carpets and the spotlights, kids. Party time's a-comin' in the River City.

Next week, in the dead of summer, Philadelphia returns to its customary place -- the center of the ecclesiastical universe, for the unawares -- as another of its sons is raised to the fulness of the priesthood, and yet another rendered a bittersweet farewell.

For anyone who knows how it goes here, it shouldn't come as a surprise that vacations have been cancelled or rescheduled. For the church circuit, it's the de rigeur week to be in town. The Romans are coming, after all -- a prime indicator that, indeed, this is still God's Favorite Archdiocese.

At least, that's the operative thinking. Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper... you get the idea.

Once upon a time, a Philadelphia priest who had gone on to serve the wider church called a friend near as he lay on his deathbed. Calling him closer, the dying bishop told the priest words which the latter never forgot, but everyone always knew anyways: "Tell them I loved Philadelphia."

How true that is for all of us.

For Philly priests, to get the purple rain is the dream, to get the high hat as a hometown auxiliary is the blessing, to get sent to a diocese the ultimate sorrow. Through the decades, as sons of the City of Brotherly Love go forth, you hear about the homesickness of having to leave behind this most comfortably parochial of places, a part of the world which is remarkably self-contained and always a proud but gritty entity unto itself. And they all end up retiring back here, to boot.

But for a native son of this Last Bastion to be raised to the episcopacy in the Cathedral-Basilica of Ss. Peter and Paul is the moment which our kind don't dare to dream. When it comes, however, it arouses a frenzy of emotions. On the morning of his appointment, for example, one auxiliary-elect had to be pulled downstairs for the chancery press conference, which began late due to his uncontrollable upstairs in a mix of shock and a sense of his unworthiness. (Believe me, if anyone was ever worthy of it, he was the guy.)

On 26 July, the grand tradition which stretches back to 1897 continues when Cardinal Justin Rigali ordains his faithful and trusted collaborator Daniel Thomas as auxiliary bishop and titular bishop of Bardstown. Co-consecrators will be Archbishops John P. Foley, Overbrook class of 1962 and president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications (who Thomas served as a master of ceremonies on many of the former's travels) and Edwin O'Brien of the Military Services (the bishop-elect's first NAC rector of his time in residence on the Gianicolo).

No less than 1,300 invitations have gone out for the Mass and following dinner (to quote a visiting bishop as a prior shindig was winding down, "Gosh, you people really know how to party!"). Among the invitees are said to be the 15 years of NAC alums with whom Thomas lived and served as a spiritual director in addition to his duties at the Congregation for Bishops. A flood of other Roman friends and colleagues, many of whom are now dispersed across the universe, and bishops from downright everywhere are also planning to show.

The 47 year-old auxiliary-to-be has chosen to be ordained on the feast of Ss. Joachim and Anne. It's ostensibly a tribute to his mother, Anna, who died in December 2004. The lone hiccup of the very happy press conference on the day of Thomas' appointment -- e.g. Rigali almost seemed prepared to dance a softshoe, Italian was spoken, etc. -- was a heart-rending break in the bishop-elect's voice as he mentioned his mom.

The day promises to be a deluge of emotion, shimmering grandeur and all the fixins (full choir, orchestra, kettle drums, etc.) for which this place is known -- in other words, a three-hanky event.

Two days later, the clan reconvenes for Bishop Michael Burbidge's last stand before his departure for Raleigh, where he'll be installed on 4 August. A Cathedral evening prayer service will be held.

As the locals cannot overpower a native son's new See by showing up en masse, the Philadelphia farewell has become a ritual unto itself. The departing prelate celebrates, the archbishop presides in choir from the cathedra, the tributes are given, the schoolkids bring flowers and (don't be surprised) another party breaks out.

Given Burbidge's widespread popularity among the people, a packed house is expected, along with lots of tears/primal screams of grief, three rounds of "Domine, salvum fac" -- and, if we're lucky, a rendition of "Fly, Eagles, Fly." But I doubt the clergy know the latter.

Whatever the case, it'll push the Shore traffic back a couple hours.

If you see a guy in the back, crying, trembling and banging his head against a wall or something, just let me be and don't come up to say hello.... It won't be pretty, but we all have to work things out as best we know how, right?

In an unprecedented gesture, outgoing Bishop Joseph Gossman and a group of Raleigh clergy are said to be making the trip for the farewell. Given the small size of the southern diocese's Sacred Heart Cathedral, the installation liturgy will be held in Meymandi Hall, home of the Raleigh Symphony. A Philadelphia delegation will be present... some in attendance, some in participation.