Thursday, September 14, 2006

Crescent City, Centennial City

For the first time since Katrina, the ecclesiastical traveling circuit has converged on New Orleans to mark an event as rare as a hundred-year storm... just much happier.

Later today, with a gala Mass at St Louis Cathedral, current NoLa Archbishop Alfred Hughes will mark his silver jubilee in the episcopacy; "Alfie" was ordained an auxiliary bishop of his native Boston on this date in 1981. Last month, Archbishop-emeritus Francis Schulte marked his 25th as well, and Schulte's predecessor, the legendary -- and, at 93, still-incredibly-hardworking -- Archbishop Philip Hannan, celebrated the 50th anniversary of his elevation to the fulness of the priesthood. Ergo, it's a triple jubilee, giving thanks for a combined 100 years of episcopal ministry. (The two junior archbishops are shown together at the 2002 Mass which marked Hughes' taking the reins of the archdiocese; he had been named coadjutor the year before.)

As many of you know, Archbishop Schulte -- one of the most lovely people you'd ever want to meet -- is a Philadelphian and, like most of our high-hat diaspora, has spent most of his retirement back here. The longtime supremo of Catholic education in this River City, Schulte was made a bishop at the last ordination of the John Krol era on 12 August 1981; he was sent to Wheeling-Charleston in 1985 and promoted to New Orleans in 1988.

A hometown celebration for our native jubilarian took place last weekend, where the archbishop was feted alongside his co-ordinand, Bishop Louis DeSimone, a retired Philadelphia auxiliary, one of the church's great pastors and gentlemen -- and the prelate who confirmed me, to boot.

Not to distract from the celebrationem authenticam (Archbishop Hughes sits on Vox Clara), but a brief word about Bishop DeSimone, a hidden treasure of this local church. The son of immigrants, Lou DeSimone served in the Army in Italy during World War II. During an audience with Pope Pius XII at the war's end, legend has it that the late pontiff saw him and told him, "When you go home, you'll become a priest" -- confirming something he'd mused upon but hadn't confided in anyone. And became a priest he did, as did his two brothers; some of our Roman friends will know one of these: the eminent Augustinian scholar Fr Russell DeSimone, who's probably more brilliant than the rest of us put together.

In keeping with the venerable, and recently-ended, Philadelphia tradition stretching back to 1898, the man known in South Philly simply as "The Bishop" spent 25 years as pastor of the old neighborhood's last mega-parish, St Monica's. Always keeping himself above the fray -- as many of you know, trying to corral a phalanx of Italians is no enviable task -- DeSimone led his people with a light touch and a gentle hand, making time for anyone and everyone who would wish to see him, never rushing a soul, all the while juggling the responsibilities of the parish, the diocese and the other commitments near and far he was routinely asked to fulfill.

Sure, the legendary cooks of the parish would give him grief when, on a 110-degree day, he'd try to slip into the kitchen in a golf shirt as opposed to clerics, and to have a genuinely private conversation with Russ -- who spent his non-Roman half of the year in residence at St Monica's -- they'd have to speak in French, but it wasn't for nothing that, at his 2001 installation as DeSimone's successor, Fr Paul Quinter (who has since become director of the English-language edition of L'Osservatore Romano) began his homily by paying tribute to "il vero pastore di questa parocchia," the "true pastor" of the parish, a reality which transcends retirement.

Back to New Orleans, but four years into his tenure, Archbishop Hughes is already three months shy of his 74th birthday and the post-Katrina situation on the ground requires more than a little adjustment and canvassing for any newcomer stepping into one of the city's major posts.... And coadjutor would make four, right?

PHOTO: Frank J. Methe/Clarion Herald