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Each weekday over the course of a week, a member of the NCR staff offers a commentary on one or more topics in the news.  It's our way of introducing you to some of the people carrying out the NCR mission of faith and justice based journalism.

July 17, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 71




global perspective A tale of two archbishops

By Tom Roberts, NCR editor

As soon as it was announced that Archbishop Justin Rigali of St. Louis had been appointed to the Philadelphia archdiocese, the calls began coming in from other media outlets. What did we know about Rigali? What change would his appointment mean to Philadelphia? What did it mean to the wider church?

They were difficult to answer beyond a few widely reported details. We don't know much about Rigali because most of his career was spent in the bureaucracy in Rome. In St. Louis, there have been a few high profile moments -- a tangle with the Jesuit president of St. Louis University, which he lost, and a visit from his good friend, Pope John Paul II, which trained the spotlight on the archdiocese for a few days.

Otherwise he is known as an able administrator and, as NCR Washington correspondent Joe Feuerherd reported (Breaking News July 16), a very good fundraiser and a stickler for Vatican rules. He made a point of admonishing Catholics in his diocese to limit the kiss of peace "to a few around us."

Rigali simply hasn't left many tracks to follow. News accounts from St. Louis point out that he rarely speaks in public, except from prepared texts, and that he still has a lot of highly placed friends in the Vatican and spends a fair amount of time traveling to and from Rome.

This month's appointments of Rigali to Philadelphia and Archbishop Sean O'Malley to Boston provide an interesting contrast in episcopal styles and raise intriguing questions about who gets appointed to lead the Catholic community.

When O'Malley was named, the near-universal reaction of relief and optimism was based on his reputation as a proven pastor, compassionate and deeply connected in his experience and disposition to people. He had lived with the poor, advocated their causes and reportedly cut a distinctly different path from most other prelates in handling the sex abuse scandal earlier when he was bishop of Fall River, Mass.

Philadelphia is not Boston; it is not the epicenter of a ruinous church scandal, so the reaction to Rigali is understandably different. Media scrutiny was muted by comparison. Rigali is expected to bring little difference in style and approach from his predecessor, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, who had a reputation for taking a rather princely approach to his duties. What effect Rigali will have on the wider church will depend, in part, on how much influence he now has in the appointment of new bishops.

If most news accounts are correct, O'Malley and Rigali would have few disagreements on matters doctrinal or in their devotion and obedience to the pope. But the differences in the way they understand their ministry to this point seem deep and fundamental. O'Malley comes with a rich history of lived experience with a wide swath of humanity. On the other hand, it is difficult to gather inspiring pastoral anecdotes navigating the intrigues of Roman bureaucracy.

My intent here is not to disparage bureaucrats; they are essential to the working of any institution. But I have to wonder from which path would most Catholics prefer their bishops arrive. Can communities expect leaders with strong pastoral experience only when their diocese becomes troubled to the point of breakdown?

Not all ecclesiastical career paths are equal preparation for becoming a community's chief pastor. The frustration for many Catholics, of course, is that the selection process remains secret; there are no public criteria given and while the candidates are finally approved by the pope, no one is held accountable for the appointments.

With a process so wrapped in secrecy, Catholics awaiting a new bishop are left with two choices: to hope the diocese gets lucky or to hope the appointee is old enough that he won't have a lot of time left before mandatory retirement.

It must seem, to outsiders at least, an odd way to choose the head of a local Christian community.

Tom Roberts e-mail address is

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