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Leibrecht, ending rumor, says it just isn't so

NCR Staff

Bishop John J. Leibrecht of the Missouri diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau -- rumored for weeks to be the chosen successor to the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago -- says it just isn't so.

In a brief telephone interview April 1, Leibrecht, 66, said of the rumor, "It sure seems to have a life, but there just isn't any truth to it. None at all."

Ironically, Leibrecht himself fed a new round of rumors recently, even as he intended to squelch them.

At a dinner for his priests the week before Palm Sunday, Leibrecht referred to rumors linking him to Chicago and followed with a joke. According to priests who heard it, Leibrecht said something like this:

"I had a call from the Holy Father a few weeks ago asking me if I'd go to Chicago. I told him I was truly honored to be considered, but I've been a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals so long -- all my life -- that I couldn't possibly transfer my loyalty at this stage to the Cubs."

According to reports, Leibrecht, a native of St. Louis, went on to say he was happy in Springfield and wanted to stay.

Sr. Lorraine Biebel, founder of a social service network in Springfield known as The Kitchen, said of the bishop's remarks, "He has a wonderful sense of humor. It was his way of saying, 'Get on with it, folks. I'm not going to Chicago.' "

For others, though, Leibrecht's phrasing served to confirm their growing suspicions that he'd been offered Chicago but had turned it down. True, he wasn't going -- but by his own choice.

Leibrecht said Tuesday that if he had fed yet another rumor by his joke, it was inadvertent. He has not been asked to take Chicago, he said, and he had not intended to be coy.

"One of the priests asked me if I would categorically deny having been asked," he said. "I told him categorically is not a strong enough word."

Leibrecht, often described as gracious and fair, a good listener and, like Bernardin, a conciliatory peacemaker, is held in high regard by many in the church. It's possible, some say, that the strength of the rumors linking him to Chicago reflect wishful thinking.

"There's hope for the church if a guy like Bishop Leibrecht is being considered," said Claretian Fr. Joseph Peplansky, who recently moved to Springfield from Chicago. "I know a lot of priests in Chicago, and John is right up there with them. I told him, 'You certainly would do well there but you'd have ulcers in two months.' "

Leibrecht, appointed to Springfield in 1984, earned the respect of both liberals and conservatives in a recent, highly public role. He served as chairman of a bishops' committee formed to implement a Vatican document on higher education, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, in the United States. "I can't say enough good things about him," said Sr. Alice Gallin, former head of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities and now in residence at St. Louis University. "The way he held that committee together" -- a very diverse committee, she said -- "was extraordinary."

Leibrecht's two immediate predecessors in his 40-year-old diocese were transferred to prominent sees that assured them red hats. Cardinal William Baum went from Springfield to Washington and then to Rome. Cardinal Bernard Law went from Springfield to Boston.

Still, the jump to Chicago from Springfield is huge. As one priest quipped, "Chicago has more auxiliary bishops than Springfield has priests."

So for the present, the name of the new archbishop of Chicago remains a tantalizing mystery, and Leibrecht remains in the Missouri Ozarks, where he regularly drives the highways and byways linking the 39 counties of his sprawling diocese.

That 25,719-square-mile region is such a Baptist and Pentecostal mecca that the international headquarters of the Assemblies of God in Springfield is sometimes dubbed "the Vatican." Catholics are a rare species -- a mere 54,000 compared to Chicago's 2.3 million; 150-some diocesan and religious priests, compared to Chicago's 1,800 (and six active auxiliary bishops).

As for the likelihood of a bishop refusing a transfer, Jesuit Fr. Tom Reese of Washington, an expert in such matters, said it happens, though rarely.

"I've heard that one in 20 refuse transfers but I think that number is too high," he said. "There's tremendous pressure to say yes." Officials "have gone through the long, complicated process to make a choice. They've generated tons of paper. The nuncio is expected to come back with a yes.

"The whole mentality and spirituality of a priest is geared toward hearing the voice of God through his legitimate superior," Reese said. "It's very hard to say no."

National Catholic Reporter, April 11, 1997