Chicago Needs a Chicago Archbishop

(National Catholic Reporter, March 7, 1997)



Is it too much to ask that the next archbishop of Chicago be from Chicago?

Presumably this question doesn't touch on doctrine, much less dogma or infallibility. So the heresy hunters can turn off their antennae and give their anxieties a rest. No women's ordination agenda or anything like that here. The magisterium is safe.

Actually the really sharp heresy hunter will turn his antenna up. This scribbler just might be talking about the way the system really works --- about power --- and that's much more dangerous stuff. That's what the heresy hunters in their heart of hearts are always really touchy about.

And the canonists too can take some time off to smell the flowers. We're not proposing new methods for selecting bishops. Not calling for elections, that sort of thing. Not trying to get the laity's noses into the tent. This is a pretty conservative question, when you think of it. Minimalist stuff.

We're talking about a custom, a practice, for Peter's sake. Something that could easily be changed.

For some time now (the historian can tell us when this all started) it's been customary for Rome to pick a man from, say, Boise, Idaho, and tell him he's just been appointed bishop of Biloxi, Miss. Nothing wrong with that, is there?

Well, there just may be if we compare the practice with some fairly important things we say our church believes. It begins to look like the practice does some serious violence to a few important principles about the people of God.

There is plenty of official documentation, ranging from conciliar decrees to papal allocutions, to the effect that each local church is just that --- local. Not merely an administrative unit of the multinational corporation called the Roman Catholic Church but an individual church.

Now, whatever else that powerful statement might mean, it surely is pointing to a distinct identity, dignity and integrity belonging to a particular body of the faithful, something that should be respected within the communion of local churches. A local gathering of God's holy people has its own unique heritage. It has been through its own deserts and crossed its own Jordans, been seduced by its own golden calves and had its own moments of transfiguration, hallelujah and thank you, Jesus.

The gospel has taken on flesh here in subtle ways that are different from any of its other incarnations around the globe. That big and venerable concept of incarnation translates into many, many tiny bits of practice, little ways we do things here. People in Boise (or Boston or Buffalo) may pray that way or dress that way or emote that way, but we down here in Biloxi do it a bit differently. That's our badge, our particular reflection of the glory on the face of the Christ.

Which gets us into another principle that holds a high place in official pronouncements of recent years: inculturation. It's an idea that began to take shape during Vatican II and under the leadership of three successive pontiffs has slowly taken root in our consciousness. We're still working out its implications, but at its core the idea of inculturation is quite clear: There's no such thing as a generic church existing in some splendid supernatural isolation from the only way we humans can express ourselves, which is through cultures.

If the gospel is alive at all it is in each diocese, each local church that lives out of a different mix of local civic cultures. In this way, the local church gradually becomes a unique culture itself.

The reality of Latinos is different for the local church of Trenton, N.J., than it is for the church at Fort Worth, Texas. And African-Americans or Native Americans or women for that matter would sense different levels of inclusion or marginalization in each local church across this country. The physical setting of the local church plays its profound role regardless of differences in ritual practice or church organizational structure.

I remember talking with some priests in the archdiocese of Halifax, Canada, about what makes the church there tick, expecting them to talk about things like collegiality or the ministerial priesthood, and hearing them say, "You'll never understand this place until you understand the power of the sea! We earn our living from the sea, and that makes all the difference in the world. It defines us and subtly colors our approach to everything."

If we take the dignity and importance of the local church seriously as we have been instructed to do, it would seem a modest question to ask: Why does such a significant gathering of Christ's body need someone --- appointed to be the successor of the apostles for that people --- from outside? What does that say about the work the Spirit has already accomplished in birthing this community? If a new bishop is appointed who has never lived or served in the diocese, are we to assume that this portion of the communion of churches has failed to produce anyone qualified to lead it? Would it not seem more likely that a man who has lived and served in that particular church culture for years would have a better sensitivity to the nature of this place and its ethos?

In the apostolic era, Paul would evangelize a new area and then leave behind one of his close companions to oversee the local church's development. And of course that man was not from the area. Isn't the present practice a contemporary version of that older one?

Not exactly. The reason someone from another geographic area would be put in charge of those fledgling Christian communities was precisely because they were in the process of being gathered, of achieving churchhood. They had no Christian heritage or history. In such a phase of tender beginnings, it was only to be expected that there would not yet be leaders prepared to guide the transition from being a movement to becoming a viable institution.

In the case of the contemporary practice of episcopal appointments, however, we are rarely talking about recently gathered Christian communities. Many already have a tradition spanning more than a century.

There could, of course, be one other organizationally sound reason for higher authority to bring in a new leader from outside. That would be the situation in which the place, for whatever reason, has fallen into serious disrepair. Sometimes things are so bad that an institution needs a new broom to clean house and almost start over. If that were the assessment higher authority was operating from every time an outsider was appointed bishop in these churches of long standing, it would represent a grim picture indeed. We can hardly imagine that to be the rationale behind the customary approach.

It takes a long time to really come to understand and appreciate a culture that is not one's own. Even after many long years, some missionaries to foreign cultures just never get it. And anyone who has observed the church scene in this country can easily document local churches in which, after long years of having an expatriate ordinary, the people of the local church are still wondering when he's finally going to move in. Jokes about his bags being always packed for the next plum that might become available are told more in wry sadness than malice.

When a bishop who has been the ordinary in one place is transferred and becomes the ordinary in another city, we need to reflect on the effect on the see he is leaving behind. Where does that local church stand? Presumably this ordinary has been good at his job because he's being tapped for more significant things. But what about the directions he supported and the initiatives he set in motion in the local church he is leaving?

Developing an effective relationship with the complex reality of a local church takes time and effort. Are parishioners to be considered foster children, now to be put in the care of yet another foster parent? There are instances of local churches that have experienced changes of ordinaries almost every two or three years for some time, with no continuity of vision from one to the other. Hardly the kind of respect due a church.

Finally, there is a venerable image with much longer standing in church tradition than our relatively recently developed appreciation of the demands of inculturation. It is the image of the bishop as being married to the local church, his spouse. From that perspective, when a bishop who is already the ordinary in one diocese is moved and appointed to another one, are we to understand that a divorce from the first wife is being officially sanctioned and even blessed? Or is this one of those annulments based on the party's psychological inability to enter into a permanent commitment? Maybe those bishops who have spoken out on one or another touchy issue and have burned their bridges to any farther advancement have the better part after all. They know where their home is and will be.

As for Chicago, may we hope that someone will be lifted up out of the local church to serve a people whose warts he doubtless knows but whom he may deeply understand and love? I wouldn't bet on it. But let's at least be clear that the practice of making appointments from outside represents an impoverished ecclesiology. And it could be easily changed.

And then let's pray strenuously for the people of this great local church and for the man who will soon get a crash course in how it really runs.