In River City, Two for Tuesday
This Roman Noon, Benedict XVI has named:
- Bishop Joseph McFadden, 63, auxiliary of Philadelphia since 2004, as tenth bishop of Harrisburg, succeeding Bishop Kevin Rhoades, named to head Indiana’s diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend (read: Notre Dame) last November;
- and Monsignor Michael Fitzgerald, 62, the River City's judicial vicar since 2007, to succeed McFadden as auxiliary bishop of Philadelphia. (Yes, all of two weeks after the last one...)
The son of a working-class family raised at the city’s western tip, McFadden didn’t enter the seminary until after spending several years as a high-school social studies teacher -- and, more importantly, basketball coach and athletic director.
When it comes to summing up the new head of the 230,000-member capital church, the latter bit says it best. On his first day at Overbrook, the story goes that the new arrival met at least some of his classmates by asking where the house court was... and many years later, the headquarters of this town’s dominant religious institution -- i.e. the Eagles front-office -- named McFadden to its list of the “75 Greatest Living Philadelphians.”
Like Auxiliary Bishop-elect John McIntyre -- named but two weeks ago today -- the young priest’s path would wind through the Cardinal’s Office: but a year after his 1981 ordination, McFadden was appointed secretary to John Cardinal Krol, remaining aside the iconic Pharaoh well into his retirement. After a decade serving the figure still known in some local quarters simply as “The Cardinal,” Krol finally released his protege, and McFadden returned to Catholic education -- this time as president of Cardinal O’Hara, the archdiocese’s second-largest high-school.
Having given the famed institution "the feel of a parish" over eight years at its helm, in 2001 the future bishop was named pastor of St Joseph’s in Downingtown, one of the booming communities of the empire’s western suburbs, where he was tasked with building fresh space to accommodate the parish's explosive growth over the prior decade. Three years later, dozing on the couch while watching golf on Memorial Day afternoon, the call to the high-hat came -- and when Appointment Day arrived, the press conference was delayed some minutes as the overwhelmed pick needed more time to collect himself before he could appear.
Entrusted with the vital portfolio of overseeing Catholic education alongside a quarter of the 1.5 million-member archdiocese, McFadden’s proven a skilled, conciliatory operator amid often rough tides: the now-annual ritual of painful school closings (and the arduous media and nerve-soothing duties that come with it) while seeking out new ways of keeping the survivors viable; stepping in as needed to help tend to the brothers; literally walking the streets... and the list goes on.
Believed to have been the presbyterate's choice in its consultations for an auxiliary, the new bishop scored “thunderous applause” at his ordination on telling the guys that “I am proud to be called a Philadelphia priest... for you I have become a bishop, but with you I am and always will be a Philadelphia priest.”
Between the lines, the words were a plea that he might remain here forever.
Clearly, Providence had other plans. And to say that’ll spark grief among a broad swath of the hometown crowd is no overstatement.
Alongside his duties as head of the 15-county church in Pennsylvania's largely rural south-center, McFadden will assume the lead role of the church’s engagement with state government -- the capital's bishop traditionally holds the presidency of the Keystone State’s Catholic Conference.
McFadden's installation in Harrisburg's St Patrick's Cathedral has been set for Wednesday, August 18th.
His CV might read like that of a predestined star -- law school and clerking for a Federal judge, Gregorian JCD, in-house chancery counsel, vice-rector of Overbrook, officialis of the Philadelphia church. Truth be told, though, each assignment was far less something the nominee sought than recognition from above of his standout skill-set.
If Fitzgerald had his way, by now he would’ve been several years out of the office, happily immersed in the simple, rewarding life of a parish priest. Instead, the top-shelf canonist whose low profile belies his tireless work ethic and keenness of mind has usually ended up with the most demanding and unsung of tasks -- a list which, it could be said, merely continues with the burden of the episcopacy in this place at a particularly challenging moment in its history.
Again, the bio might tell one story. Yet what it conceals is even more telling -- the countless hours and amount of energy he’s devoted in the trenches, keeping fulfilled (and just as busy) outside the office in the heart of pastoral work.
Over most of the two decades since he returned from Rome and was tapped to establish the chancery's legal desk, the bishop-elect’s spent his nights and weekends serving in parishes at the core of the city’s committed, but ever-changing, ecclesial landscape. Even now, no shortage of Sundays will find Fitzgerald shuttling between three churches to celebrate Mass: an Italian liturgy on South Philly’s 9th Street, filling in at a former assignment, and his current home-base just off the city’s Rittenhouse Square, its makeup infused with a sizable influx of young adults over the last decade-plus.
Granted, if you're looking for someone to set the world on fire, Fitz might not be your top pick. Yet far more importantly, when it comes to the most shining qualities one could hope for in a priest and bishop -- fidelity and devotion, wisdom, kindness and compassion; gentleness, prayerfulness, selflessness... holiness -- the latest addition to the century-long line of hometown auxiliaries is one of the finest, most sterling examples this scribe has ever known, and to say the choice is a blessing to this place doesn't, by any means, begin to describe the gift of it.
Sure, a day of mixed feelings just dawned for much of the local crowd.... For the road ahead, though, you really couldn't ask for a better start -- and given the timing with today's feast of the patron of lawyers, a more providential one, to boot.
Fitzgerald will be ordained alongside McIntyre on Transfiguration Day, 6 August.