The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago could have a new leader before the end of the year, according to an unusually candid announcement Thursday that the search for the area’s next archbishop is under way.
That could make Cardinal Francis George the first leader of Chicago Catholics to meet the man taking his place.
Church officials’ announcement that the pope's representative in the United States has launched the search shined a light on a traditionally discreet process.
Church observers also point to the news as a continuation of George’s candor with Chicago’s Catholics since his first cancer diagnosis nearly a decade ago and the openness being established by Pope Francis.
Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the papal nuncio to the United States, informed George that he has started the consulting process, which is expected to be complete in late fall, the archdiocese said.
George, who is battling cancer for the third time, confirmed in April that he had urged Vigano to launch the search, shortly after his doctors advised George not to travel to Rome for the canonization of Popes John XXIII and Pope John Paul II.
“It’s just not fair to the archdiocese to have someone who may not be able to do the job the way it should be done,” George said at the time.
The fall timetable presented by the archdiocese could make George the first archbishop to meet his successor. All previous Chicago archbishops have died before the age of 75, when they and other bishops must submit a mandatory letter of resignation. George took that step on his 75th birthday, Jan. 16, 2012. Even then, he said, it would be several years before the next in line would be named.
Church watchers say not only have George’s health problems accelerated and called attention to that closely guarded process, the transition from Pope Benedict to Pope Francis has hastened it as well.
Massimo Faggioli, an assistant professor at the University of St. Thomas, sees the timing of the Chicago Archdiocese announcement as a reflection of Pope Francis’ break from practices under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. During their tenures, bishops in key dioceses often were allowed to stay as long as they liked, Faggioli said, in contrast with Vatican II reforms and canon law, which say the search should start as soon as the Vatican receives a bishop’s resignation letter.
“The fact is that the Catholic Church worldwide has gone through a transition in the last 18 months,” he said. “We had Pope Benedict’s resignation and that stopped everything. … Now the whole process is back on a normal, regular time line.”
The process also has become more transparent than in years gone by, Faggioli said. Typically, parishioners are kept in the dark until a successor is introduced.
“Keeping the diocese informed is a very healthy practice,” Faggioli said. “Because between the bishop and the people there is a human relationship. … Appointing (George’s successor) is not just important for the next archbishop of Chicago, but for a few million Catholics and for the U.S. Catholic Church in general.”
Though rumors and names have been swirling for quite some time, George has said the process would begin officially when he received a letter from the nuncio soliciting his input. The archdiocese couldn’t confirm Thursday whether he had received that letter or a telephone call from Vigano.
George now will submit a report of what he believes to be the concerns and challenges of the archdiocese. Church figures, including clergy and parishioners, also are surveyed about the needs of the local church. In fact, canon law states that it's the right and obligation of the faithful to make their needs known.
Susan Ross, theology professor at Loyola University Chicago, said the archdiocese pastoral council, a group of parishioners who advise the cardinal, would be an obvious place to start. She pointed to the Vatican’s recent questionnaire about the church's handling of issues like divorce, birth control and same-sex marriage as a sign that the perspective from the pews will count.
“The survey that came out is an indication that at least some people in Rome want to know what people think,” Ross said. “Consultation would be nice.”
Ranking bishops, including the cardinal, also nominate potential successors. Portfolios about the prospects are weighed by the nuncio and bishops in Rome, who present a dossier of three finalists to the pope. But the choice is solely up to Pope Francis.
The only objective requirements in canon law are that the new archbishop must have been a priest for at least five years and, just like the U.S. president, be at least 35 years of age. Experts say someone younger than 65 is preferred for a diocese the size of Chicago.
Though the archdiocese stated the process would be complete by late fall, a successor could be named sooner. Pope John Paul II appointed Joseph Bernardin to Chicago just 11 weeks after Cardinal John Cody died. Pope Francis named his own successor in the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires just 15 days after he became the Bishop of Rome.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun