History of Philly ties, complexity

First Posted: 9/2/2009

How will the Diocese of ’s next bishop be selected? The short answer: The pope will decide, when he decides. But we are talking about a 2,000-year-old church with highly evolved hierarchy. The process can be complicated and the terms arcane, as candidates are selected and reviewed at several levels. But sift through it and one thing becomes clear: Archdiocese of Philadelphia Cardinal Justin Rigali is poised to have profound influence on the selection.


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It’s necessary to understand the hierarchy. Here’s a primer, courtesy of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

There are 195 American dioceses and archdioceses grouped into 33 “ecclesiastical provinces.” The Scranton Diocese is one of eight in the Philadelphia province, which covers all of Pennsylvania. That makes the head of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, currently Rigali, the “metropolitan,” or highest-ranking bishop, in the state. Above the province head – called the archbishop of the province – is the apostolic nuncio in Washington, D.C., who serves as the pope’s top governmental and religious representative in the United States.

Diocesan bishops may submit names of priests they feel would make good bishops to the head of their province. He may then circulate those names – along with each candidate’s training and experience – to all bishops of the province for discussion at a province meeting, usually held annually. They then vote to decide which names get sent to the apostolic nuncio.

The nuncio reviews recommendations from all provinces. If the intent is to replace a retiring diocesan bishop, the nuncio will conduct his own investigation into the candidates and request “from the current bishop or the administrator of a diocese on the conditions and needs of the diocese,” according to a USCCB fact sheet. Rigali is not only the head of the province containing Scranton, as of Monday he also is the current administrator of the diocese, having been appointed to the post until a new bishop is named. The nuncio also may consult previous bishops of that diocese, and bishops of other dioceses in the province.

The nuncio may narrow the list to a dozen or so and seek more input before selecting three to recommend to Rome, along with his preference. Those three names go to the Congregation for Bishops in Rome, which consists of about 35 cardinals and archbishops from around the world. That’s where Rigali comes in again. Along with his role as Diocese of Scranton apostolic administrator, and as head of the province containing this diocese, he is a member of the Congregation for Bishops.

If the appointment involves promoting or transferring a bishop, the next step can be handled by the Congregation prefect and staff. If a priest is being promoted to bishop, the full Congregation meets, reviews the report, and votes on the candidates to see which will be recommended to the pope, who makes the final decision. He is not obligated to pick from the submitted names. The process can easily take six months or more.

With a protocol so complex, speculating on who will replace Bishop Joseph Martino at this point is a little like betting at the horse track without knowing the horses, their records, or their condition that day. But if a gambler were looking for odds, he might do well, statistically, to look to Philadelphia. Not only is Rigali currently head of that archdiocese and involved in three of the five possible steps taken before a bishop is named, but four of the Scranton diocese’s nine bishops came from or through the city of brotherly love. No other city has provided more than one. Here’s a rundown of past bishops.

• Born in 1816 in Ireland, William O’Hara was ordained a priest in Philadelphia when he was 26, in 1842. He served there until being named first bishop of the newly formed Diocese of Scranton, carved from the Philadelphia diocese in 1868. O’Hara was just shy of his 52nd birthday, and remained bishop until his death in February 1899, just short of his 83rd birthday. He also served on the First Vatican Council, which met from December 1869 to October 1870, according to Catholic-hierarchy.org.

• His successor, Bishop Michael J. Hoban, is billed on the diocesan Web site as a native, but other records say that, while he grew up here, he was born in Waterloo, N.J., in 1853. He was ordained in Rome in 1880, and served as first pastor of St. Leo parish in Ashley. The pope made him “coadjutor” in the diocese at the age of 42 in March 1896. The title meant he shared responsibility and authority with O’Hara, and had right of succession when O’Hara died in 1899. Hoban became bishop at the age of 45, making him still the youngest person to be given that title. He served to his death at 73 in 1926.

• The Diocese of Scranton’s third bishop, Thomas C. O’Reilly, was born in Cleveland in 1873 and ordained there at the age of 25. He was appointed bishop of Scranton in December 1927, shortly before turning 55. Like his two predecessors, he died in office, though at the relatively young age of 65, in 1938.

• The next bishop, William J. Hafey, was born in Chicopee, Mass., in 1888 and ordained in Baltimore in 1914. He first served as a bishop in Raleigh, N.C., garnering that appointment at the age of 37 in 1925. Twelve years later, after turning 49, he became coadjutor of the Diocese of Scranton in October 1937, and succeeded O’Reilly six months later. Hafey also died in office, in 1954, at the age of 66.

• Appointments continued to come from outside the area when Jerome D. Hannan succeeded Hafey. Born in Pittsburgh in 1896 and ordained there at the age of 24, he was appointed bishop in Scranton in August 1954, three months after Hafey died. Hannan was 57 when he became bishop, and died in office at the age of 69 in 1965.

• The next local bishop, J. Carroll McCormick, was the second to come from Philadelphia, where he was born in 1907 and ordained in 1932. Like Martino, McCormick rose to be auxiliary bishop in Philadelphia (in 1947, at the age of 39), before becoming a bishop himself, heading the diocese of Altoona-Johnstown in 1960 at the age of 53. He was transferred to Scranton in 1966 when he was 59, and became the first bishop of the Diocese of Scranton to retire rather than die in office, leaving in 1983 at the age of 76. He lived another 13 years, dying in November 1996.

• His successor, John J. O’Connor, was the third Diocese of Scranton bishop to hail from Philadelphia, where he was born in 1920 and ordained in 1945. He took a less common path, becoming an auxiliary bishop at the age of 59 for the U.S. military, then being appointed in Scranton at the age of 63 in 1983. O’Connor served the shortest term of any Scranton bishop, being promoted to Archbishop of New York in January 1984. He became a cardinal in 1985 and died as Archbishop of New York at the age of 80 in 2000.

• James C. Timlin then became the first full-blooded, 100 percent native to rise to the top of the Diocese of Scranton, a fact he has enjoyed recounting when the opportunity arises. He was born in Scranton in 1927 and ordained here in 1951 at the age of 23. Timlin became auxiliary bishop in 1976, serving under McCormick and during O’Connor’s brief tenure before being appointed bishop in 1984 at the age of 56. In 2003, he became only the second bishop in diocesan history to leave office through retirement, at the age of 76. He remains active as bishop emeritus.

• Martino was born in Philadelphia in 1946, attended school there, and was ordained there in 1970. He became auxiliary bishop in Philadelphia in 1996 before being appointed to head the Diocese of Scranton in 2003. With his resignation Monday, he has the distinction of serving the second shortest term in the office, behind O’Connor, and of being the youngest of all bishops when leaving office, regardless of how they left.

If a gambler were looking for odds, he might do well, statistically, to look to Philadelphia. Not only is Cardinal Justin Rigali currently head of that archdiocese and involved in three of the five possible steps taken before a bishop is named, but four of the Scranton diocese’s nine bishops came from or through the city of brotherly love.

Mark Guydish is a Times Leader staff writer. Contact him at 829-7161.

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