Thursday, October 04, 2012

"Lion Heart" Meets Lion's Den – In San Fran, It's Showtime

On the memorial of a saint who prayed to be "an instrument of peace," San Francisco is set to mark its patronal feast with something of a contrast this year – namely, "heavy security" and the promise of protests, wrought by today's arrival of the city's ninth archbishop.

In the presence of at least two cardinals, over 40 bishops, some 300 priests and a congregation of 2,000, the rites installing Salvatore Joseph Cordileone as head of the 500,000-member Church By the Bay are set to begin at 2pm Pacific (5pm Eastern; 2100 GMT) under the spindle of St Mary's Cathedral.

Usually, of course, a moment of the sort signals a light, festive spirit, auguring a "honeymoon" for the incoming prelate regardless of his challenges at hand. However, as the wider worldeven in Rome – seems to understand clearly by now, this is no ordinary appointment, and the prevailing mood in the region's ecclesial and secular quarters alike can be perceived as something considerably closer to that of a siege mentality.

Then again, with American Catholicism's lead hand on the defense of traditional marriage being wedded to the country's – arguably, even the world's – de facto capital of gay life and culture, perhaps an Opening Day devoid of epic tension would be even more surprising. What's more, though, it would seem no hyperbole to sense that the tenure beginning today could see San Francisco – long viewed by no shortage of Cordileone's confreres as the country's "most difficult" diocese to oversee – become the national nexus of an ongoing battle for the soul of the Stateside church.

With demonstrations planned by several gay-rights groups – some having voiced a desire to disrupt the liturgy – among other unusually stringent moves, tickets for the "strictly" invitation-only Mass each bear the name of their intended holder, whose identity must match up, as well as reportedly warning of potential arrest for anyone who attempts to interfere with the event. And not even the media is immune from the tightened measures; mainstream reporters will be left to cover the rites from a large-screen TV in the plaza outside the cathedral (which will be closed to the public), as inside, all of one Associated Press photojournalist has been credentialed to serve as the Pool shutterbug for secular outlets.

Given the set-up, it's seemingly understandable if at least some attendees unconsciously started removing their belts or shoes en route to the entrance points. For the waiting, watching world beyond, meanwhile, the only broadcast of the Mass will come courtesy of an in-house online stream... which, given the intense interest in this nod, hopefully won't crash. (The strains being what they are, lest some at a distance were keen on scanning the crowd for the city's most prominent – and, indeed, controversial – Catholic politico, an official involved in the planning specifically noted that, in yet another break from the normal installation protocols, public officials "were not invited" to the Mass.)

Set to include both Catholic and non-sectarian demonstrators, among other groups intending to protest are the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence – the cadre of drag-queens who, reflecting the unique high-wire of the NorCal post, forced Cordileone's predecessor to issue a public apology after he was surreptitiously recorded giving the Eucharist to two of its members during a 2007 Sunday Mass at Most Holy Redeemer church in the city's Castro district.

Long a working-class ethnic enclave before the city's postwar transition, the community has come to be known over recent decades as the nation's preeminent "gay parish."

While Cardinals Roger Mahony and the recently-retired CDF chief William Levada – Cordileone's predecessor once removed – are slated to preside in choir at today's rites, the new archbishop's longtime mentor, the church's Wisconsin-born "chief justice" Cardinal Raymond Burke, will apparently be conspicuous by his absence.

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As contrasts go from the last Golden Gate handoff, much as the retiring Archbishop George Niederauer is a Los Angeles native – and quite beloved among his home-crowd, to boot – his late 2005 appointment to St Francis' City never made the front page of the Sunday LA Times.

The entrance of his San Diego-born successor, however, did.

With his selection a month after turning 56, Cordileone becomes the second-youngest of the US' 34 archbishops, and the youngest Anglo to currently hold a metropolitan seat; named in late 2010, San Antonio's Mexican-born Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller will reach the same age in December.

At the same time, it bears noting that the San Franciscan's three-year stint in Oakland has been the shortest period by far that an American archbishop named by Benedict led his prior diocese before being promoted. For purposes of context, among all the rest of this pontificate's top-shelf picks on these shores, a new metropolitan's tenure in a suffragan slot has spanned anywhere from six years to a decade or longer.

Yet even as the specter of the top canonist's forthright approach to teaching, capped by his role in the genesis of Proposition 8 – California's successful 2008 referendum outlawing same-sex marriage – and, more generally, a cultural clash over issues of sexual morality and family life have dominated the wider frame to today's installation, the demographics of the three-county archdiocese tell a drastically different story.

According to a recent census, today's San Francisco church comprises a Catholic population that's 41 percent Hispanic, 17 percent Filipino and ten percent "other," with Anglos the remaining third.

Over the decades to come, odds are similar figures will reflect the composition of many more Stateside dioceses than they do today – not solely in "progressive" areas, nor just on the West Coast. Along those lines, having spent his domestic ministry in even bigger mixes of a similar kind, both in his Southern hometown and just across the Bay Bridge – the latter of which Cordileone has called the nation's "most diverse" fold – guiding a relatively young, growing next generation of the American church to take up its full place at the table would seem to be Job One over and above anything driving the story from outside.

The only difference here is the profile that comes with the San Fran archbishopric. Still, that brighter spotlight can make for quite the difference.

"Well, San Francisco has a reputation," the nominee noted in a recent interview with his diocesan weekly. "[B]ut there are a lot of good people here and a lot of good things happening among our Catholic people and I think a lot of people don’t see what has been going on here."

Come Sunday, that sense of the day-to-day will come firmly to the fore as the new archbishop's first parish visit won't be to a church serving the city's more liberal professional crowd, but a predominantly-Latino community where poverty and violence are said to run high.

In a diocese whose founding bishop was Spanish-born and whose successors largely tended an immigrant church, the thread isn't so much the rise of something "new" as it is "Back to the Future." It's a time-warp from another angle as well; should he remain at the helm until the retirement age of 75, the ninth archbishop's term would equal that of the legendary John Raphael Quinn (1977-95), the last of the line to hold the post for more than a decade. And if the incoming prelate serves even a few months beyond that, Cordileone would become the city's longest-tenured chief shepherd since the brusque New Yorker John Joseph Mitty, who reigned for 26 years until his death in 1961.

Notably, long tenures are a distinct tradition of the San Francisco church – the first four ordinaries held the post for a combined 108 years, from 1853 to 1961. Either way, this Day One already brings a touch of the historic: for only the second time in the US church, an archdiocese can count four living archbishops, with Quinn (now 83), Levada, and Niederauer (a quiet figure, once memorably described in the SoCal press as a "raving moderate") rounding out the quartet.

The last time said distinction was reached, the freshly-arrived archbishop was tempted to ask, "Who's really in charge?"

In this instance, though, something seems to say the answer will need no clarification.

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In his lengthy entrance chat with Catholic San Francisco, Cordileone spoke in broad terms of the current state of Americans' practice of the faith.

"Right now there are no consequences for being a Catholic," he said, "so it’s easy for people to call themselves Catholic even though they don’t go to church, they don’t believe everything the church teaches. It could be in our society, though, that that’s going to be inconvenient and people aren’t going to pay what it takes to be a Catholic. Those who do, it will be because they believe firmly that this is the truth and that they’re willing to die for it."

Reflecting the style that's won him a devoted national following among church conservatives, the archbishop told the newspaper that while "some" progressive Catholics have been receptive to his approach, "I think other people are more influenced by the forces of the dominant culture and see the church as having to change to conform to the culture.

"But Christ didn’t found the United States of America," he said. "Christ didn’t found San Francisco. Christ founded the church to keep us in the truth. So if we take him at his word we have to trust that what the church teaches is true."

Even if the extent of today's demonstrations remains to be seen, perceptions of the new arrival's blunt talk and paper trail have already made for quite some scorched earth – but not, however, from his own side.

In a highly unusual letter posted on his blog, San Francisco's Episcopal leader, Bishop Mark Andrus, told his diocese that while he "look[s] forward to working with Archbishop-designate Cordileone when and how we can," his hope for common purpose could not obscure that "the recognition of the dignity and rights, within civil society and the church of lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgendered people, and of women are as core to our proclamation of the Gospel as our solidarity with the poor, with victims of violence and political oppression, and with the Earth."

"In working together with the archdiocese of San Francisco, I will not change my course with regard to the full inclusion of all people in the full life of the church," Andrus wrote, adding the impolitic impression that, with Cordileone's arrival, "some Catholics may find themselves less at home... and they may come to the Episcopal Church. We should welcome them as our sisters and brothers."

Numbering some 27,000 members across a far larger area than Cordileone's new charge, Andrus' diocese of California includes much of the new archbishop's former turf in Oakland.

In addition, welcoming the new archbishop proved a contentious topic at this week's meeting of San Francisco's city council, the Board of Supervisors.

As the city's Chronicle reported, a bisexual member of the chamber – raised as a Catholic – blasted what she saw as Cordileone's "hostility to the (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning) community," accusing the archbishop of "unkind words" that "in many ways seem to defy the very basic principles of the New Testament."

Following the barrage, two openly-gay Supervisors sought to extend a warmer hand; as the paper noted, "local archbishops in the past have managed to reach accommodations with the city's gays and lesbians on several issues, even if there was more than a little 'don't ask, don't tell' to those agreements."

For its own part, the city's journal of record underscored the significance of the shift – and lobbed its own gauntlet at Cordileone – by publishing an op-ed page ultimatum in this Installation Day's editions from Brian Cahill, a former executive director of the city's Catholic Charities who's since become an occasional contributor to the Chronicle on issues of gays in the church.

Noting that – despite firm stances in favor of comprehensive, humane immigration reform and against capital punishment – Benedict's pick "comes here perceived as a one-issue bishop," Cahill wrote that the archbishop "has a choice to make."

"He can continue to be the aggressive, outspoken leader of the American Catholic bishops in their effort to prevent civil gay marriage, or he can be the shepherd of his flock.

"He can't be both," the columnist said. "And if he tries, he will fail."

The piece was the former charities' chief's second broadside on the Pope's pick, following a column run within days of Cordileone's appointment in which he asserted that "unless church leaders, including Cordileone, figure out a way to rethink their position" on same-sex marriage, "they will continue their slide toward irrelevance, continue to be on the wrong side of compassion, on the wrong side of inclusiveness, on the wrong side of Jesus' message of love and, not for the first time, on the wrong side of history."

Explaining his approach to the paper he inherits, the archbishop said that "I try to teach what the church teaches, and try to promote that teaching, helping people deepen our tradition so it’s not just a matter of hooking yourself on to one ideology that you want to prevail but understanding what’s deep in our tradition in the context of today."

Citing the polarization of church teaching among the nation's Catholics, Cordileone added that "We have to break through on our understanding of human dignity, affirming human dignity at every stage from conception to natural death, in every condition. Children are the most vulnerable: They need the support of a mother and father. Immigrants are the most marginalized: We need to reach out and incorporate them into society. … So, teaching the core truths of our faith is what will bring us through these divides."

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Amid all the very public tumult, in a quiet yet notable concession to the heat that comes with the his new role, the agenda of the US bishops' November Meeting in Baltimore released yesterday implied that – in a break from the body's routine practice at each of its twice-yearly meetings since 2010 – the new archbishop will not be presenting his usual status report on the efforts of the bench's Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage.

As referenda to allow same-sex marriage face voters in two states this election cycle and others move on constitutional amendments banning the unions, the update will instead be given by the chair of the committee overseeing the marriage group, Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend.

Two years ago, Cordileone was named chair of the recently-formed subcommittee by the newly-elected conference president, now Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, after its initial leader, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, was selected as the bench's vice-president, a nod which precluded the latter from any other conference posts.

All that said, there is one difficult upcoming turn the new archbishop can't avoid.

Following a late August arrest in San Diego on suspicion of driving under the influence after a dinner with friends, Cordileone is scheduled for a court appearance related to the charge in his hometown on Tuesday of next week.

In a statement quickly released once the incident emerged, the prelate apologized to his collaborators and the faithful for "for any embarrassment I’ve caused you, any confusion or hardships I have caused you."

Vowing to "repay [his] debt to society," Cordileone asked "forgiveness from my family and my friends and co-workers at the diocese of Oakland and the archdiocese of San Francisco," adding his prayer "that God, in his inscrutable wisdom, will bring some good out of this."

Considering the scene – and, indeed, the stakes of the road ahead – perhaps that should be everybody's prayer today.

SVILUPPO: Along with an update on the protests – and a Mass-time incident alleged by the Episcopal bishop – fullvideo of Cordileone's inaugural homily is posted.

PHOTOS: Michael Short/San Francisco Chronicle(1,3)