Noted Catholic blogger shares insights on Harrisburg Diocese bishop search

If I’ve learned one thing in recent months, it’s that midstate Catholics are very interested in the process to name the next bishop of the Harrisburg Diocese.

Rocco Palmo

Rocco Palmo

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to provide much information on the search, as it is an intensely guarded process.

It’s been seven months since Bishop Joseph McFadden died suddenly of a heart attack. I recently reached out to Rocco Palmo of the influential and well-regarded Whispers in the Loggia blog.

Rocco graciously agreed to answer a few questions about the church under Pope Francis and the Harrisburg bishop search.

A native of Philadelphia, Rocco has served as a church analyst for The New York Times, Associated Press, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, BBC, NBC, CNN, National Public Radio and many other mainstream print and broadcast outlets worldwide.

He began Whispers in 2004 and is credited with being one of the most knowledgeable and connected Catholic sources in the United States.

Rocco provides a tremendous amount of insight with his answers below. My favorite concerning how the Pope’s choice of bishop is relayed to the diocese and the candidate:

“The name is sent in a code that only the Nuncio and his top deputy are trained at figuring out. (Not even Dan Brown could make that one up.) Once it’s deciphered, the pope’s ambassador calls the chosen cleric – who, 99% of the time, has no idea of what’s about to hit him – and after a couple pleasantries, he’ll say, ‘The Pope has named you bishop of Harrisburg. Do you accept?’”

Rocco includes many more fascinating insights in our exchange. Enjoy.

Question 1: Bishop McFadden died May 2. So the search process is nearing seven months. In your experience, what is the general timetable for a new bishop selection? Can we expect this search to take longer due to the sudden passing of McFadden?

Answer: There’s no cut-and-dried timetable for the length of a selection process – while it generally takes anywhere from 10 to 18 months, the goal isn’t so much to do things within a certain timeframe, but to find the right person for the place. The length of the search is generally affected by both the circumstances of the vacancy (both how it came about and the state of the diocese at hand) and more macro-level factors like how backed up the “docket” of places awaiting an appointment is at the moment, which impacts the pipeline both in the US and at the Vatican.

Along those lines, almost 20 American dioceses (a tenth of the 197 jurisdictions here) are awaiting a new bishop; the longest-vacant among them is Portland, Maine, which has been open since May 2012. That might sound long, but it’s fairly routine; several others have been vacant for over a year, each with its own situation to be discovered and considered. These days, meanwhile, there’s a new lengthening factor as the guy who makes the final call – Pope Francis – is still getting a crash course in the global church, and is especially in overdrive to get up to speed with the dynamics of US Catholicism. (Francis has never visited the US, but that’ll likely be changing soon enough – Philadelphia is slated to host a Vatican-organized global conference in September 2015, and the operative assumption is that he’ll be coming for it.)

That said, sometimes the process can be expedited for a place if there’s a particular urgency to filling the top post; without a bishop, a diocese essentially goes into a “holding pattern” where no major changes or new initiatives can be undertaken. For example, after the 2011 Philly grand jury report on clergy sex-abuse severely destabilized the archdiocese, the Vatican parachuted in a new archbishop within five months with a mandate to clean house.

In Harrisburg’s case, even for the trauma of Bishop McFadden’s sudden death, there’s no crisis that requires the appointment to be sped up. The precedent is worth noting: only three times in the last ten years have US diocesan bishops died in office as opposed to retiring, and the naming of their successors essentially took a whole year or just longer. In other words, we’re probably just around the midpoint of the search now.

2. Can you shed some light on the process for us? Is there a general hierarchy that is established within a diocese, so that the choice really comes down to a few individuals who are known within the diocese? Or is it similar to the open nomination process employed by the ELCA, which elected a pastor from a far-flung congregation this year as its next bishop of the Lower Susquehanna Synod?

A: The process tends to be anything but “open nomination” – in reality, the search takes place under a heavy veil of secrecy so that the participants can be fully honest without damaging someone’s reputation or risking repercussions for the input they give. At least in theory, anyone is welcome to submit impressions to the Vatican on the state of the diocese, but few folks normally take the initiative to offer input on their own.

In a nutshell, the process has three phases. First, there’s the “local consultation” – the person responsible for running the diocese in the interim (in Harrisburg’s case, Fr Robert Gillelan – McFadden’s second-in-command, who was elected as administrator after the bishop’s death) prepares a report sketching out a profile of the diocese: what kind of situations the Midstate encompasses; the strengths, needs and challenges of the church there, and the qualities an ideal next bishop would have. That document goes to the Apostolic Nunciature – the Vatican embassy – in Washington, where the Pope’s ambassador (known in church terms as the Nuncio), Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, will reach out to some 20 to 40 people in the trenches of the diocese, clergy and laity alike, to get a fuller picture. Other figures outside the diocese are likewise consulted, especially the bishops of Pennsylvania, as well as anyone else on Viganò’s radar who has experience with the diocese – in all likelihood, Bishop Kevin Rhoades will be sounded out, being both a former bishop of Harrisburg and a native son.

Viganò pulls all this input together to compile his own report – usually 100-120 pages – the centerpiece of which is a list called the “ternus”; from the Latin for “three,” it’s a trio of names (either current bishops or priests yet to be elevated) who he deems a good fit for the post. These names are usually culled both from a Nuncio’s firsthand knowledge of current bishops alongside an internal database of priests who’ve passed a separate vetting process and are found suitable to become bishops whenever their particular skill-sets match up with a particular post.

Together with the diocesan report, the Nuncio’s take goes to the Vatican, to an office called the Congregation for Bishops. With a staff of around 20, Bishops is responsible for recommending appointees to the Pope for most of the developed world. The work is divided up by language, so one of the three priests who man the congregation’s English Desk will pore through the documentation to make sure it’s complete and might add his own impressions along the way.

If the dossier is found to be lacking, it’s sent back to the Nuncio for further information. If it’s cleared to move forward, the whole package goes to the cardinals of the congregation – around 25 from around the world, including three Americans. (Like Congressional committees, every cardinal is named to the membership of a few Vatican offices beyond his full-time post.) The cardinals meet every other Thursday morning to propose picks for several open dioceses; given the extent of the paperwork each file entails, a different cardinal is designated to present a summary for each appointment on-deck. For Harrisburg, I wouldn’t be surprised if the pitch was made by Cardinal Justin Rigali, the now-retired archbishop of Philadelphia, yet still a member of Bishops, who would be very familiar with the diocese from his time here. Once the case is presented, the cardinals vote to recommend one name – usually, but not always from the terna – to the Pope, which Francis will then receive that following Saturday morning, during his weekly meeting with the congregation’s head, Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet.

At least in theory, the Pope is free to do whatever he chooses – he can name any priest from anywhere. In practice, while Pope John Paul II immediately accepted the name given to him in almost every case, Pope Benedict took days to scour every file before making his decisions – having been a Vatican official for 23 years before his election, he was intimately familiar with the lay of the land practically everywhere across the Catholic world and took those experiences into account. By contrast, so far Francis – a homebody who, until now, has never spent more than six months outside his native Argentina – seems to have been leaning heavily on the advice he’s been given.

Whatever the case, once the Pope has decided, the choice is communicated to the Nunciature of the country involved… and this is the part local reporters covering their hometown process always love: the name is sent in a code that only the Nuncio and his top deputy are trained at figuring out. (Not even Dan Brown could make that one up.) Once it’s deciphered, the pope’s ambassador calls the chosen cleric – who, 99% of the time, has no idea of what’s about to hit him – and after a couple pleasantries, he’ll say, “The Pope has named you bishop of Harrisburg. Do you accept?”

There are some great stories about how and when bishops received word of their appointments – one then-priest was pouring coffee for his parishioners after weekday Mass when he found out; another was working a chainsaw, cutting trees on his day off. Whatever the circumstances, the nominee may either accept or decline immediately, or he can ask for 24 hours to pray about it. Either way, except for his regular priest-confessor, he can’t tell anyone until the news is made public by the Vatican (if a nominee is found to have spilled the beans, the whole thing is short-circuited and it’s back to the drawing board). Most end up saying “yes,” but should the choice refuse the post, the Vatican phase of the process then has to be repeated, and a new three-man list prepared.

Once the appointee accepts, the Nuncio will then inform Gillelan so the administrator and the bishop-elect can plan the formal announcement in Harrisburg, which takes place ten to 15 days later, usually but not always on a Tuesday. Only after everything’s set are other top officials in Harrisburg and the bishops of Pennsylvania quietly given notice that an appointment is imminent.

The first public word of a move comes from Rome at Noon there, 6am Eastern time; the bishop-elect is traditionally snuck into his new diocese the night before to be present for a low-key public Mass, a press conference and some first meetings with staff that follow the news. The installation – or ordination, in the case of a priest who’s being elevated to bishop – will then occur within roughly two months; even for his appointment, an incoming bishop can’t exercise the powers of office until then.

Clearly, it’s a very intense way of doing things, but the goal is always to get it right. As for the outcome, though, it must be noted that Harrisburg is a fairly rare scenario in that two of the Midstate’s last four bishops – Rhoades and his mentor, the future Cardinal William Keeler – were natives of the diocese; more typical is a place like New Orleans, one of the US’ most Catholic cities, which only recently got its first home-grown archbishop after 14 tries. (The archdiocese there dates its founding to 1793, seventy-five years before the Harrisburg diocese was established.)

Accordingly, I wouldn’t bank on another native being named – and for a place of Harrisburg’s size and prominence as the state capital, I’d tend to think that the choice will fall to someone who’s already a bishop elsewhere and has enough familiarity with both the role and the place to hit the ground running to a fair extent. Then again, with Rome naming fewer and fewer auxiliary (assistant) bishops in larger dioceses – the traditional crop from which Harrisburg’s bishops have been chosen – that could just as easily not be the case.

As local history goes, two of the Midstate’s last four bishops were priests on their appointments. But on the broader front, the most recent US appointment was to Fort Worth, Texas – a diocese whose Catholic population (750,000) is now three times that of Harrisburg’s, covering a land-area the size of the Republic of Ireland – and in a first, the nod went to a priest. Earlier this year, the same thing happened in Oakland, California – another diocese that’s larger than many archdioceses. Bottom line: on this beat, these are interesting days no matter where you look.

3. Pope Francis is shaking things up right down to the diocesan level with his survey, for example. In your opinion, will the pope’s seemingly liberal tenor have any influence over the next bishop of the Harrisburg Diocese? If not, what qualities do you think church officials are looking for in the next leader?

A: Before anything else, it seems important to underscore that a change of “tenor” doesn’t signify a change of substance – to his credit, Francis keenly recognizes something that many in the church still have yet to grasp: the supposed “difficulty” of communicating with the wider world never comes from what the church says, but how the church expresses it. Judging by the progressive ecstasy and conservative apoplexy in Catholic chattering-circles these days, you’d think that the pope’s taken to performing same-sex weddings of women priests in St Peter’s or something. Back in reality, of course, that ain’t happening – and don’t hold your breath for it, either.

That said, two things: first, many of the appointees coming through the pipeline reflect less the identikit of the new Pope than of his predecessor. Given the timeline of the process, however, it’s simply the case that moves just being made now were decided from lists and paperwork prepared for Benedict, not Jorge Bergoglio. Along these lines, even as the now-retired pontiff was a master of the Vatican engine room, it still took Benedict about two years after his election before appointments and their handling were fine-tuned to meet his specifications. Again, with the number of moving parts involved, changing the gears isn’t something that can be done with a wave of the cross-topped papal staff. (On a relevant side-note, just getting a priest successfully vetted for possible appointment as a bishop takes years; when a name deemed worthy comes to the Nuncio’s attention, somewhere between 100 and 150 people who know the candidate are contacted and – confidentially, of course – asked to fill out an extensive questionnaire with their impressions on the cleric’s fitness for higher office. For every man who clears the scrutiny, many others don’t.)

On the flip-side, Francis has already made the qualities he wants in bishops starkly clear – and not just behind the scenes. At a Vatican meeting last June with the nuncios from around the world, the new pope said he wanted “candidates [who] are pastors close to the people: this is the first criterion. Pastors close to the people…. We need them! May they be fathers and brothers, may they be gentle, patient and merciful; may they love poverty, interior poverty, as freedom for the Lord, and exterior poverty, as well as simplicity and a modest lifestyle; may they not have the mindset of ‘princes’.” In the same vein, just last month at the US bishops’ annual meeting in Baltimore, Viganò dropped some jaws with a very strong speech in which he said that Francis “wants bishops in tune with their people,” adding that – during a private meeting the two had over the summer – the pope “made a special point of saying that he wants ‘pastoral’ bishops, not bishops who profess or follow a particular ideology.”

Again, even as Benedict already shifted the US episcopate toward more off-the-radar parish priests being named, it’ll be some time yet before Francis’ stamp is visible across the board. Still, the shape of things to come did make an early appearance in September with the pope’s most significant American nod to date – the promotion of Bernard Hebda, a Pittsburgh-born bishop serving in a small rural Michigan post, as the next archbishop of Newark, one of the country’s ten largest dioceses. While the new archbishop made his name as a top-notch church lawyer (with secular degrees from Harvard and Columbia, to boot), his friends testify that he’s never lost what Francis calls the “smell of the sheep,” having devoted years to assisting Mother Teresa’s order of nuns and their work with the poor while he was stationed in Rome as a senior Vatican official. Likewise keeping in the spirit of Francis, Hebda chose an undergrad dorm at the local Catholic university as his home in Jersey, joining a team of resident priests who minister to the students. (Even before his formal installation last month, he already took to leading the most popular Sunday Mass at Seton Hall – it begins at 10pm.)

4. Finally, I’ve been told that “Whispers” will know the next bishop before the name is released. Have you heard any news on the search? Also, how is the bishop post at Harrisburg viewed? An attractive posting?

A: Don’t believe the hype about Whispers – if it keeps up, I’ll have no choice but to quit!

The way the process has shaken out these last several years, all the buzz in the world means nothing until the final phases; as one Harrisburg priest put it recently, “There are as many names [of potential choices] going around as there are people talking about it.” This early in the search, there are always too many variables to have a credible sense of the result. Ask me at Easter – chances are we’ll still be waiting then – and we should have a much better picture of where things are headed.

As for the perception of the diocese, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in church circles who doesn’t have a tremendous impression of the Catholic community in the Midstate. It’s such a vibrant and warm place with a great feeling of family, and the diocese is saddled with few to none of the crushing challenges that’ve taken a brutal toll on its neighbors. You’d probably have a very easy time finding a bishop who would be more than happy to trade in his current job for Harrisburg – anyplace where Eagles, Steelers and Ravens fans coexist in peace is a rare find… Lord knows you won’t find anything of the kind on this side of the diocesan border.

There is, however, one unique aspect to the post that outsiders might find “prestigious,” but it tends to be rather challenging. As bishop of the capital city, whoever goes to Harrisburg essentially carries the water for the public policy work of the entire Pennsylvania church in state government. It helps some that significant numbers of office-holders in both parties are Catholic – something which, especially these days, gives the church a unique ability to bridge the partisan divide – but the task of keeping abreast of everything that comes up and, most of all, having to steer a major interest group’s advocacy on issues that can sometimes be divisive, unpopular or easily misunderstood can make for a minefield all its own. On top of this, it requires a sense of the state at-large.

Different as Bishops Keeler, Dattilo, Rhoades and McFadden were in many ways, it seems the one common thread binding the last four Harrisburg bishops was that each came to the post already being keenly familiar with the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference – the church’s lobbying arm, which the capital prelate oversees day-to-day.

Given that enduring history, I’d be very surprised to see a successor who didn’t follow that pattern. Then again, we’ve just seen a Pope resign for the first time since the 1400s and his successor be chosen from out of Europe for the first time in 1,200 years – it’s been a wild year… and even if it’s wrapping up, even more than usual, it remains the case that anything is possible.

About John Hilton

I grew up in Susquehanna County, Pa. and graduated Syracuse University with a dual degree in journalism/political science in 1998. After working for nearly three years for a weekly paper in upstate New York, I came to southcentral Pennsylvania. I spent 13 years as a reporter and editor for The Sentinel in Carlisle and joined the York Daily Record as religion reporter in September 2011.
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