Monday, August 17, 2009

In Big (Not-So-)Easy, the Archbishop Comes Home

As summer wraps up and school begins anew in the South, the region's mother church receives its seventeenth head on Thursday as Archbishop-elect Greg Aymond takes the reins in his native New Orleans.

The first son of the Crescent City to lead the 370,000-member archdiocese since its 1793 founding, Aymond returns to a hometown still rebuilding from the devastation of 2005's Hurricane Katrina and a church where, a quarter of its members scattered elsewhere in the Storm's wake, an already fraught way forward was made rougher by the oft-contentious closing of 34 parishes to reflect both the population shift and a decline in resources.

Having shepherded the diocese of Austin through a decade of all-around boom, as he prepared to return to his home-turf the Texas capital's daily of record got Aymond for a reflective exit interview on the past's accomplishments and the challenges that await:
We have... created a culture for vocations. This year, we have the most seminarians that we've ever had in the history of the diocese. The diocese is 62 years old, and we have 46 seminarians. God is the source of that; he's the one who calls them to discernment. But we've created a culture where becoming a priest or a brother or a sister is accepted and seen as God's calling....

What are some of the priorities you have for when you get to New Orleans?

I've been away for nine years, and I've invested myself in Texas in such a way that I really have lost a sense of what's going on in New Orleans. Two things have happened in the past nine years that have been traumatic. One has been Hurricane Katrina. The other is that there have been closing of parishes that should have been closed a long time ago, so it's a hurting community both from Katrina and the closure of parishes.

My goal for the first year is to be among the people. I'll start visiting parishes simply to celebrate Mass and to meet the people. I'll have meetings with the staff. What I'd like to do for the first year is really listen and reconnect as a native son, understand clearly what the struggles are as well as the gifts, and through prayer come up with a plan to address those.

It would seem to be the answer to your prayers to become the archbishop of New Orleans, the place you come from.

It's not something I was seeking by any means, but the Catholic faith came to New Orleans in 1682 and we've never had a native son. For the people, it's very exciting to be able to welcome back one of their own.

I remembered something someone I've come to know and love said, which is that a prophet is acceptable except in his own native land. So, Jesus and I laughed about that. I would say it's challenging. I know most of the priests, because I was a priest there for 25 years. I would have ministered with them or I would have taught them in the seminary, where I taught for 19 years. The challenge is that they know my gifts and weaknesses. The expectation, though it's greatly appreciated, I also feel that it's somewhat uncomfortable. We can build up an expectation for someone to do something they're really not capable of doing.
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A move crafted to enable the appointee to hit the ground running on the archdiocese's rebuilding plans, the unprecedented naming of a native son was also a tangible Vatican effort to soothe the considerable tensions aroused over the seven-year tenure of Aymond's predecessor, Archbishop Alfred Hughes.

In a farewell edition of the archdiocesan weekly replete with tributes to the Boston native (left), the incoming archbishop made a nod to the situation, saying simply that Hughes "has been misunderstood."

Appointed archbishop at 69, never expecting a hundred-year storm on his watch, the former rector of his hometown's St John's Seminary will take up a simple room at NOLA's formation house, where he'll return to the work he loves best: spiritual direction and leading retreats.

With some 60 high-hats from around the country planning to attend, Thursday's homecoming at the venerable Cathedral-Basilica of St Louis on Jackson Square will be webstreamed. On a historic note, the installation will give New Orleans a distinction without precedent in the Stateside church: four living archbishops.

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On a related note, every top-tier posting on the nation's appointment docket might now be put to bed, but the new vacancy in Texas' capital makes for a significant trio of Lone Star dioceses set to receive new chiefs.

What the three lack in prominence, see, they more than make up for in numbers, with each showing ever-expansive growth over recent years. Bottom line: it's all worth keeping an eye on.

Beyond the Austin church -- its membership doubled since 1990 -- Bishop Edmond Carmody of Corpus Christi (diocesan pop. 400,000, tripled from 1980) reached the retirement age of 75 in March, while the nation's most-Catholic diocese -- the million-plus Brownsville church, where Catholics comprise nearly nine-tenths of the Rio Grande Valley's inhabitants, all told -- likewise looks toward a successor for Bishop Raymundo Peña, who sent his letter over in February.

Its Catholic contingent likewise trebled in size since the 80's, the latter especially portends even more of a boom -- at the close of its first synod in 2007, fully half of the Brownsville fold was reported to be age 25 or younger, a stat one'd be hard-pressed to find anywhere else on these shores.

All three fall in the province of Galveston-Houston, home to the American South's first cardinal... himself still awaiting another auxiliary -- or, better still, two -- to help keep after his own charge, all 1.5 million of it.

At mid-decade, Texas' 5 million Catholics overtook Baptists to become the mega-state's largest religious group.

PHOTO: Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman(1); Frank J. Methe/Clarion Herald(2)