Pope Francis and his selection of bishops

Archbishop Paul D. Etienne of Anchorage, Alaska, center, smiles alongside New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, right, at the fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore Nov. 14, 2018. Pope Francis has named Archbishop Etienne to be coadjutor archbishop of the Archdiocese of Seattle, meaning he will assist and could succeed Archbishop J. Peter Sartain in leading the archdiocese.
CNS photo/Bob Roller

Given a series of factors including the sexual abuse crisis and the ongoing importance of the see in American (and thus global) political life, much of the attention about Pope Francis’s recent episcopal nominations has been focused on Wilton Gregory’s move from Atlanta to Washington, D.C. But a few days after Easter, the pope made another important choice, naming Archbishop Paul Etienne, currently “stationed” in Anchorage, Alaska as the coadjutor of the Seattle Archdiocese, one of the top 10 metropolitan sees in the country in terms of Catholic population.

Seattle has long been considered a particularly intriguing ecclesial post, since Raymond Hunthausen’s more progressive voice on things like nuclear disarmament, homosexuality, and feminism rankled some in Rome during the 1970s and 80s. The eyes of Vatican officials have often turned there to gauge the currents of American Catholic discourse.

The incoming archbishop has been widely viewed as an ecclesial “rising star,” and his time in the land of the Northern Lights did nothing to dim this reputation. With his role as coadjutor, he will likely succeed current Archbishop Peter Sartain, who will be retiring early due to physical limitations, probably within the year.

While our South Jersey diocese will probably have a different path of succession eventually, it’s important to keep in mind that all bishops — even currently beloved ones! — are required to submit their resignation to the pope at the age of 75, though they often stay on for a few months or years beyond that while the transition takes place, especially in oversized or especially complicated situations. Cardinals also follow this process, though they can remain electors in a potential conclave until the age of 80.

Both Camden and our neighboring “big sister” diocese across the Delaware River will be facing this reality in less than a year, and so changes in leadership and ministry are on the horizon in our area.

The local dean of Vatican coverage, Rocco Palmo, whose website Whispers in the Loggia is among the first things I read every morning with my coffee, has pointed out some interesting facts.  With Etienne’s nomination, Pope Francis has now named one-third (11 of 33) of the American Latin-rite archbishops in his six-year service in the Chair of Peter. Five more (including the aforementioned Philadelphia) will come open in 2019, and he’ll have the ability to name 30 more U.S. bishops overall by 2020. That’s in addition to another likely consistory creating new cardinals in the next 12-18 months, where he will have by then named close to the two-thirds of cardinals it takes to elect a successor in a potential conclave, depending on natural deaths, of course.

He has internationalized the body to a remarkable degree, so that Europe’s representation is at its lowest percentage ever, a trend likely to continue throughout his next batch(es), drawn from far-flung and non-traditional places, historically speaking (e.g., Tonga, Haiti, and Myanmar instead of Venice).

His insistence that bishops and cardinals serve as pastors is well-documented. He wants the People of God to find “fathers” and “shepherds” in their bishops, not “administrators concerned with ‘reviewing the troops,’” he said recently in Panama. His example was the Salvadoran bishop Oscar Romero, who literally gave his life for the poor people in his charge. Let’s pray that whether representing the home of Amazon Prime and Starbucks or boardwalks, blueberry farms, casinos and downtown Camden, our bishops continue to heed this call to walk with their people through their lives and our shared history more broadly.

Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.