Shake-ups at the Vatican will reverberate this year within the Archdiocese of Chicago, where the next leader will play a major role in helping Pope Francis shape the future direction of the U.S. Catholic church, home to more than 75 million followers.
The stage is set for Francis to make what will be the first major U.S. appointment of his papacy.
And Francis’ choice to lead the third-largest diocese in the country will signal his plans for the U.S. Catholic church, which could be on the verge of significant changes.
“There are very few major appointments coming open in the immediate future in the U.S., [but] Chicago is the most important one,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter. “It’s a very large archdiocese. It’s one that’s historically played a leadership role in the church, and it’s one where everyone expects the archbishop to eventually become a cardinal.”
As required by church law, George submitted his resignation when he turned 75, just over two years ago. Experts expect Francis to accept it this year.
“Francis’ Chicago appointment is going to be the most important of this decade, probably,” in the U.S. said Massimo Faggioli, assistant professor of the history of modern Christianity at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.
Among candidates likely to be considered to succeed George is Gregory Michael Aymond, archbishop of New Orleans, said Catholic church and Vatican experts, who did not want to be identified.
Aymond “is quiet,” one expert said. “He’s not a publicity guy. He listens to people. He’s very pastoral. When he goes somewhere, he won’t leave the room until everybody who wants to talk to him has a chance to talk to him. He understands the importance of that personal contact with people.”
Aymond also has experience dealing with issues of priest sexual abuse, which have resulted in continuing challenges at the Chicago archdiocese. He is a past chairman of the U.S. bishop’s Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People.
“Because of the recent events in Chicago, having somebody who knows what to do in that area, who is experienced and won’t fumble the ball would be extremely important,” a church expert said.
Other possible successors’ names that may be put forth are Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, recently elected president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; and archbishop J. Peter Sartain, archbishop of Seattle, who served as bishop of Joliet, church watchers say.
Bishops in the ilk of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin also are potential candidates, they noted. Francis’ views mirror those of Bernardin, who preached about a “consistent ethic of life,” a philosophy that calls for the protection of all human life and promotes human dignity. It calls on the church to be involved in a range of social and economic justice issue. Bernardin also created the Catholic Common Ground Initiative, designed to lessen divisions that weaken the church.
Among candidates who fit the Bernardin mold are bishop Bob Lynch of Florida and archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, who was an auxiliary bishop in Chicago, the experts noted.
Gregory is “very smart,” one Catholic church observer said. “He was very close to Cardinal Bernardin. Appointing him would be a very clear message that the pope wants to return to appointing bishops in the Bernardin tradition, people who aren’t obsessed about gay marriage and abortion, but also talk about other things.”
Gregory also played a major role in helping the church address the priest sexual abuse scandal. When he served as president of the U.S. bishops he advocated zero tolerance and removing from ministry any priest involved in sexual abuse.
“I think what’s likely to happen is Pope Francis will use this appointment to promote his vision,” Faggioli said.
The vision articulated by Pope Francis in recent months is that bishops should be shepherds who smell like their sheep, don’t act like princes, who listen to their people, are pastoral, compassionate, focused on the poor and disenfranchised, and don’t obsess over such divisive issues as abortion and homosexuality.
Meanwhile U.S. Catholic church leaders for years have been engaged in culture wars over such issues.
Francis recently made key changes in the Congregation for Bishops, a group of cardinals in Rome that makes recommendations to the pope on who should be bishops around the world. The pope removed the former archbishop of St. Louis, Cardinal Raymond Burke, an outspoken conservative and critic of gay marriage who has supported denying communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians. Francis recently replaced Burke with the more moderate Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington.
Francis isn’t expected to appoint an ideologue.
He “really doesn’t think in ideological terms,” said the Rev. Mark Bosco, director of Loyola University’s Hank Center for the Catholic Intellectual Heritage. “Instead of words like ‘liberal moderate progressive’ I think it’s going to be pastoral … someone people can talk to, someone whose orthodox is not cerebral, but someone who’s really trying to engage and has a vision for the church.”
Francis has spoken out against bishops being focused on a career track and signaled a shift in his naming of 19 cardinals earlier this year, notes Bosco.
“It’s not business as usual,” he said. “It’s not this assumption that because you get to be at a certain diocese or the assumption that just because you’re friends with somebody at a consistory in Rome,” you’re going to be named a bishop or cardinal.
“Now it’s more if you have proven yourself as a shepherd,” Bosco said.
“Francis, who does not speak English, is expected to rely heavily on counsel from Wuerl and Cardinal Sean O’Malley, archbishop of Boston, whom he has known for years, Reese said.
The pope’s choice in Chicago will have an impact on the U.S. conference of bishops.
“These kind of signals matter,” Reese said. “I think it will be very significant because everybody’s going to know this is somebody that the pope likes, so we better pay attention to what he says, and this is somebody who’s going to become cardinal … who’s going to be listened to in Rome. Then I better listen to what he has to say.”