Saturday, September 30, 2006

The Road to Salt Lake

I don't know about you, but the second most-popular question I get -- after "Who on earth are you?" -- comes from those dioceses experiencing vacancies at the top; in case you couldn't guess, the question is "Where's our new bishop and who is he?"

OK, that's two questions, but still.

In the US, there are currently seven sees in need of a bishop: in order of time-lapse, they are Lake Charles, Youngstown, Birmingham, Salt Lake, Little Rock, Pittsburgh and Great Falls-Billings. The first three have been open for well over a year, the Pittsburghers are resigned to the fact that, Wuerl being Wuerl, their "vacation" won't last much longer, not to mention the twelve US dioceses at present whose bishops have exceeded the retirement age of 75 and await their successors.

The latter figure increased by two in the last week alone as Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb of Mobile and Bishop Victor Balke of Crookston hit the Big Birthday, and it'll go up two more in October as Bishops John Yanta of Amarillo and William Friend of Shreveport have to send their letters in.

Bottom line: over 10% of America's 197 dioceses are in for an impending change at the top. And more than ever before, the specter of that change has yielded an intense amount of anxiety and concern in the local churches. To be candid, they're flipping out about it.

More on what you'll be seeing in due course. For now, though, you know the process is coming to a new level of attention when the Salt Lake Tribune -- i.e. not a place known for its heavy Catholic contingent -- devotes a Sunday story to it. That's due in large part to two things: the growth of the church in Utah over the last decade (a tripling in size made up largely of Latin arrivals, who now comprise 2/3 of its membership) and the figure of its prior incumbent, Archbishop George Niederauer, whose proficiency for reaching out won him a wide profile in the community, most notably the gushing love of the LDS church -- aka the Mormons -- for whom the state was conceived.

The Trib repeats anew what this readership heard in 2005: the pole position in the buzzmill belongs to Jaime Soto, the 50 year-old auxiliary bishop of Orange. Of course, the perception wasn't hurt by reports that Soto's brother just happened to drop into Salt Lake's Cathedral of the Madeleine in late spring....

Given Cardinal Levada's relative familiarity with the diocese, the natives are expecting their provision shortly.

Anyways, to the piece:
"I've heard more speculation than you can imagine," says Monsignor Terrence Fitzgerald, interim administrator of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City. "Some of it is outlandish."

Fitzgerald swears he knows nothing, and neither does Niederauer. They are waiting, like everyone else, to hear from the Vatican.

When asked his preference, Fitzgerald says Utah Catholics need a bishop who is ecumenical and can deal well with the LDS Church and other faiths, is physically able to travel the 85,000 square miles that encompass the diocese, and can be pastoral and present with people as Niederauer was. Given that 66 percent of Utah's 200,000 Catholics are Latinos, it also might be nice if the new man spoke Spanish.

If patterns hold - and there's no telling they will - the candidate is likely to come from the West and not be a full [i.e. diocesan] bishop already. That suggests Niederauer's replacement may be one of the church's Latino auxiliary bishops....

In the end, the decision may depend less on ethnicity or experience than on "who the kingmaker is," says another church watcher. Niederauer, Levada and the pope's ambassador (nuncio) in Washington, D.C., Archbishop Pietro Sambi, all will have input.

"Sometimes if you have a weak nuncio, then cardinals in the hierarchy hold sway and name their guy. If you have a strong nuncio, cardinals are beholden to him," the watcher says. "If you get a pope with an agenda, you could get somebody coming out of left field."
Given his predilection of this pope to do some interesting things on his end of the process, we won't know until... we know.

Oh, the piece mentions San Fran auxiliary John Wester for Salt Lake, too. But it seems he's been given dibs on Monterey.