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Many vacant dioceses wait, wonder when Rome will appoint new bishops

NCR Staff

For those who keep tabs on church affairs, all eyes now are on Chicago to see who is named to succeed the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in that major U.S. see.

Few, though, are paying much attention to North Dakota, where Bismarck has not had a bishop for more than a year and a half, since Bishop John F. Kinney went to St. Cloud, Minn. Equally out of sight and out of mind has been Juneau, Alaska, bishop-less for 21 months since the death of Bishop Michael H. Kenny in February 1995. Only on Nov. 19 was Anchorage pastor Fr. Michael Warfel, 48, named to the Juneau diocese, where only three percent of the population is Catholic.

It used to be said, when the U.S. Catholic Conference was called the National Catholic Welfare Conference, that the organization's initials, NCWC, stood for, "Nothing Counts West of Chicago." Currently, four of the five recent vacancies exist west of Chicago, including the Yakima, Wash., diocese, which has been open since May, when Bishop Francis George, OMI, went to Portland, Ore., and the Denver archdiocese open since August, when Archbishop Francis Stafford was appointed to Rome.

East of Chicago, but not by much, the Pensacola-Tallahassee diocese has been vacant since Bishop John Smith, a former Newark, N.J., auxiliary, was named bishop of Trenton, N.J., a year ago.

Not empty, but anticipating change are the major sees of New York and Washington where Cardinals John O'Connor and James Hickey, respectively, are each in the second year beyond normal episcopal retirement age.

But for Bismarck and Juneau, what was the hold-up? The locals don't know, and the apostolic nuncio isn't saying.

To Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese, author of books on the workings of the U.S. episcopacy and the papacy, 18 months does seem rather a long time for a diocese to be vacant. He said that under the previous apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Pio Laghi, dioceses were rarely vacant for more than nine months.

The current nuncio, Archbishop Agostino Cacciavillan, will not comment, said a Vatican Embassy spokesperson. So there is no clue from official sources. Certainly neither Juneau nor Bismarck was likely to be creating divisions in Rome during deliberation by the decision-making Congregation of Bishops.

Juneau may be a special case, suggests diocesan communications director, Louise S. Miller, in that it takes a special kind of person to live there. "Right after Bishop Kenny died, (the administrator) Fr. Michael Nash sent over (to Rome) a background of the diocese," said Miller, "what it's like up here and what we've done in the past so that whoever would replace him, the new bishop, would know the hardships -- transportation difficulties, and the weather can be very oppressive to some people." Warfel, who has been in Alaska since 1980, can handle it.

"We Alaskans are a different bunch," said Miller of the lengthy episcopal vacancy. "We accept our weather. We accept our hardship. It's just another fact of life we accept."

The weather isn't so hot currently in North Dakota, either. In Bismarck (the diocese on the western side of the state, next to the Fargo diocese on the east), communications director Fr. John Owens, took a reporter's call on his car phone as he navigated through snow and drizzle along icy roads on the final leg of a 400-mile drive from Minneapolis.

"People are wondering who and when," he said cheerfully. "But we've a fine man, Msgr. Gerald Walsh, the administrator, keeping everything going. We've really had no problems," said Owens.

Meanwhile, a diocesan committee has done its homework and is "prepared at the ring of a telephone to welcome a new bishop," said Owens, whether he is a priest being ordained bishop, an existing bishop or an auxiliary bishop being promoted. "We're ready for all three eventualities."

Western North Dakota Catholics don't feel slighted or uncertain, he said. For 18 months they've been praying to the Holy Spirit that "whoever they send is going to be worthy and a holy man and a leader. We lost all that when we lost Bishop Kinney."

NCR asked Walsh if the diocese feels a little forgotten. "There are times," he said with a chuckle, "although it really hasn't been all that bad. We've kept chins up and moving ahead -- trying to be as patient as we can."

Does it make any difference not having a bishop? Walsh said an administrator's powers are limited by canon law. He can do nothing innovative. A bishop is essential for decisions concerned with planning for the future.

On hold are some closings of small missions. "Otherwise," he said, "it's business as usual and we do survive."

National Catholic Reporter, December 6, 1996