As Cardinal Francis George battles cancer and prepares to step down as archbishop of Chicago, Roman Catholics are turning to the question of who will take his place.
A great deal is at stake with this appointment. The next archbishop of Chicago will direct the third largest diocese in America — one that for decades has set a course for the American church — and Pope Francis' decision will send a powerful message to the entire church in the U.S. about the pontiff's priorities.
"For a place like Chicago, obviously the eyes of the world are upon it, especially given the fact that this is the first cardinal-level diocese in the country to be named by Francis," said Rocco Palmo, a Philadelphia writer who covers the Catholic church hierarchy. And while the process typically takes months, this pope has proved he is full of surprises. "He can just wake up tomorrow morning and say, 'OK, here's the next archbishop of Chicago,' " Palmo said.
Could it be Archbishop Joseph Tobin of Indianapolis who, like George, impressed many with the way he guided his religious order in Rome years ago and has already received a key appointment from Pope Francis?
Does Archbishop Dennis Schnurr of Cincinnati have a chance? After all, the road from southwest Ohio has been traveled before when Cardinal Joseph Bernardin was dispatched to Chicago.
Or could Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller of San Antonio return to the city where he first became an auxiliary bishop in 2003, just as Latinos became a majority of the local church?
When it comes to speculation on church appointments such as this, it's sometimes said that those who say don't know and those who know don't say.
But Pope Francis has revealed some clues about how he might try to reshape America's Catholic hierarchy. Earlier this year he overhauled the Congregation for Bishops, the Vatican body that advises him on the selection of most new prelates, by replacing a high-ranking American conservative with Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., a bishop less concerned with defending doctrine.
Francis later presented those advisers with an ideal job description for new bishops, emphasizing pastoral qualities in church leadership.
"He wants a pastor, not a manager or an airport pilot," said Miguel Diaz a former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican. "He wants someone connected to the people. … He does not want apologists or crusaders of the faith, but he wants faithful sowers of truth."
For some, speculation on the replacement for a man who is battling cancer might seem tactless. But George, whose health forced him to miss this weekend's canonizations of Popes John Paul II and John XXIII, recently joked that the informal process, or "parlor game," already has begun. He also confirmed that he has urged the apostolic nuncio, or papal ambassador, to start searching for his successor. For years, George has said he wants to be the first cardinal to step down from the helm of the Chicago church, rather than die in office like his predecessors.
"I don't get a sense in Chicago that there's alarm and crisis surrounding this transition," said the Rev. Robert Schreiter, a theology professor at Chicago's Catholic Theological Union. "Cardinal George has tried to help with that with some of his comments. The conversations that are going to lead to an outcome are now underway. He's trying to help that process."
The selection process is always closely guarded and traditionally set in motion when the retiring prelate receives a letter from the apostolic nuncio soliciting his input. George will draft a report of what he believes to be the concerns and challenges of the archdiocese.
"It's like a conclave," Palmo said. "It doesn't begin with consideration of people. The process begins with consideration of issues, strengths and weaknesses. What is the situation of the moment, at this moment?"
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.
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 Francis.
"There is a process of negotiation," said Diaz. "There's probably going to be some of that give-and-take behind the scenes until a candidate emerges."
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.
"With a place like Chicago, you don't want to have people coming in and out," said Susan Ross, a theology professor at Loyola University Chicago and president of the Catholic Theological Society of America. "Because it's big, it takes a lot of time to get to learn an archdiocese, especially if you're not from it."
George has said the process could take six to nine months. But that's not always the case. Pope John Paul II appointed Bernardin to Chicago just 11 weeks after Cardinal John Cody died. Pope Francis named his successor in the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires just 15 days after he became the Bishop of Rome.
The process could be further accelerated as a show of respect for George, who has made it clear that he wants to meet his successor. He has said he hopes to use his retirement to return to a spiritual practice that shaped him as a young priest, hearing confessions.
Pope Francis also may want to make his intentions known before he makes his first trip to the U.S. in September 2015.
"This is going to be his example of the kind of person he wants leading the Catholic Church in the United States," said the Rev. Tom Reese, a senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter. "Once he's appointed, everyone is going to know he is Francis' man. People are going to listen to him."
The pope sent a powerful message about his intentions this year when he replaced Cardinal Raymond Burke, the former archbishop of St. Louis and head of the Vatican's highest court, as an adviser on new bishops and tapped Wuerl instead.
"Cardinal Wuerl is the pre-eminent catechist in this country," said Schnurr of Cincinnati. "It has something to do with the Holy Father reaching out to Catholics and non-Catholics alike with the message of Jesus Christ. As Pope Francis has said, 'We speak the truth, but we speak it in love.' "
Francis also outlined his priorities in speeches to the new congregation of bishops and papal ambassadors, enumerating the qualities they should seek in new bishops. The Chicago appointment will put those words to the test in the U.S., said Diaz, a University of Dayton professor who will start teaching at Loyola University Chicago later this year.
"His favorite image of the church is that of the field hospital," Diaz said. "In a hospital you need doctors and nurses connected to people who understand and identify with the suffering, the needs, the yearning, the hopes, all those things that make us human and that are important."
In addition to pastoral shepherds, the pope indicated he wants men distinguished by professionalism, holiness and service, not ambition. He said he wants men open to dialogue, who are prayerful and compassionate.
"Where can we find such men?" the pope asked the bishops in February.
"It is not easy. … I am sure that they are there, since the Lord does not abandon his church," he continued. "Perhaps we are not seeking well enough in the fields."
Church observers point to a roster of at least 10 men who might fit the pope's mold for Chicago's next archbishop. While these experts look to history for guidance — new archbishops tend to be in their 50s or 60s, have ties to Rome and experience leading an archdiocese — they also note the unconventional style of Francis as pope and previously as an archbishop.
"The pope was invested in being in his diocese with his people," Palmo said. "He never went (to Rome) to showboat and really didn't care for the scene over there. He's still getting a crash course in the global church."
While already serving as the head of a metropolitan see, or archdiocese, is not a prerequisite, it's been 97 years since the bishop of a smaller diocese rose to Chicago's helm. Reese said Francis could "look deeper into the bench," opening the door for a prelate who hasn't played a significant role in shaping the American church's agenda.
"The joke used to be, the main criteria for being a bishop was whether they could manage a real estate portfolio," said Michael Budde, the chair of Catholic studies at DePaul University. "That does tend to crowd out everything else, including the evangelical commitment to the poor. … I think Cardinal George has felt those tensions. Unless there's someone like Pope Francis who really doesn't seem to care as much. If there are going to be exceptions to the rules, now would be the time to keep an eye open for it."
An unofficial short list of contenders includes New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond, 64; San Antonio Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller, 57; Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory, 66; Louisville, Ky., Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, 67; Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki, 65; Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain, 61; Cincinnati Archbishop Dennis Schnurr, 65; Portland, Ore., Archbishop Alexander King Sample, 53; Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski, 63; and Indianapolis Archbishop Joseph Tobin, 61.
These men possess the kind of pastoral qualities that might put a church leader on the pope's radar, experts say.
"Somebody who's got experience working in the inner city with poor people — Catholic Charities, the immigrant community — all of those people are going to get points in this process whereas that wouldn't have been so important in the past," said Reese, who in response to Vatican pressure resigned as editor of the Jesuit magazine America shortly after Pope Benedict XVI's election. "They were looking for people to lead the culture wars, people who were going to do that kind of good, fight the good fight against the relativism and all the other -isms that affect American society. This pope talks about being a reconciler."
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