Friday, February 03, 2017

On The Island, A Shake-Up Continues

Amid a wider scene dominated by no shortage of noise and flash whether inside or beyond Churchworld, what's happening on an apparently quieter plane is arguably well more significant.

Look at it this way: on November 1st – nearly four years into this pontificate – just one of Pope Francis' appointees had taken his place among the heads of the US' ten largest dioceses....

Now, that figure stands at four. (And if you're surprised, you're not paying attention.)

Put another way, though, as an unusual flurry of major moves in the American hierarchy wraps up, with the recent handovers on Long Island, in Newark, Arlington, St Petersburg (read: Tampa), Salt Lake and Dallas all decided within some ten weeks, the combined result is no less striking: new leadership for almost a tenth of the nation's 70 million faithful. What's more, meanwhile, with the lead trio among the bunch comprising either the "shoulders" of the nation's largest media market – or, in Big D's case, the church's anchor in what's become the country's fourth-largest metro area – even the numbers don't fully explain the impact...

...and, to be sure, that was true even before a cardinal was parachuted onto the "other" bank of the Hudson.

Tempting as it is to muse at length on the shape of things elsewhere, suffice it to say this: in a moment when hype is too often confused for "news" – by producers and consumers alike – the key lies in knowing the difference. And with that, let's pick up the latest installment of the shift at hand.

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Despite one of the most illustrious academic resumes among the US bishops – Princeton undergrad, an MBA from NYU, and advanced Roman degrees in both theology and the canons – over seven and a half years in Upstate Pennsylvania's land of "iron and coal, and chromium steel," Bishop John Barres resisted the role of an ecclesial "public intellectual," choosing instead to keep his head down and do the work of a pastor.

Along the way, however, the 57 year-old has nonetheless amassed a quiet yet formidable following among much of the Stateside bench. So when Pete Carril's onetime JV point-guard took the reins of Long Island's 1.6 million-member diocese based at Rockville Centre on Tuesday, a picturesque snowfall framing the scene, the prodigal New Yorker marked his return with a splash – an extraordinary turnout of over 60 prelates: that is, almost double the crew an event of the kind would normally see.

The son of Protestant ministers who would become leaders among Manhattan's 1960s convert scene, from boyhood Barres had an almost unique immersion in the modern history of Catholic evangelism in the United States: Frank Sheed guided the future bishop's parents into the faith, Fulton Sheen would baptize him, Avery Dulles was another longtime family friend who'd attend his first Mass.

But even if those are the well-known figures, the most pivotal player in the making of the Island's Fifth Bishop might just be a less-prominent, even more beloved character: Mickey Saltarelli, the lifer in the North Jersey trenches who, as bishop of Wilmington, "coached" his young Chancellor for a future in the top rank and hung on to see its start, dying of cancer two months after he served as Barres' co-consecrator in Allentown. (As for the meaning of said tutelage, the most emblematic "Mickey moment" remains the time when, on welcoming John Paul II at the door of Newark Cathedral as its rector, all anyone could notice was the black thick of a tab shirt popping out of his bishop's choir dress.... Long story short: if he ain't a saint, nobody else stands a shot.)

Reflecting the richness of his background and the moment, Barres' opening preach to the Island's mega-church proved an according tour de force – probably the first of its kind to draw from one of the Great American Novels... definitely the first in a good while to cite Pius XII... and – with the ever-dreaded challenge of overhauling the parish structure looming in his new charge's future – a very stirring, yet clear-eyed kicker, "asking the Holy Spirit for new and creative approaches... to pastoral and strategic planning that are both Spirit-driven and data-driven, and that break through a tired and broken, 'us vs. them,' self-referential mentality."

As there's well more where that came from – with thanks to the diocese's own Telecare – here's the fullvid:

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With this month's dual New York leg of the tour now put to bed, the focus to come happily shifts southward to the Metroplex, now overflowing with "human sunshine" after Bishop Ed Burns' arrival yesterday to prep for his installation as Dallas' eighth shepherd next Thursday.

Given the Pittsburgh native's own dedicated fan-base among the bench – and, conveniently, the confluence of the National Catholic Bioethics Center's annual bishops' seminar in town through the week – as with Rockville Centre, a very healthy contingent is slated to be on hand. Even so, amid a local church grown nearly seven times in size since 1990, the top line on the move remains the staggering shift of scale facing the Pope's pick: for every member of the flock he leaves behind in Juneau (the nation's smallest Latin-church diocese), no less than 130 of 'em await in Cowboys Country.

For a good while now, "Everything's bigger in Texas" has been a good slogan for Stateside Catholicism at large... and, well, few stats better sum up the "why" behind it than that.

As ever, more to come.