Key moves of 2016’s ecclesiastical ‘chess game’

Leadership of the Church in the United States has shifted a great deal in the last several months. The variety of recent episcopal appointments among the U.S. hierarchy indicates that Archbishop Christophe Pierre has hit the ground running after his summer appointment as apostolic nuncio to the United States.

Eight priests have been elevated to episcopal office — five as auxiliary bishops assigned in the archdioceses of Baltimore, Denver and Detroit and the Diocese of Orange in California. Two auxiliaries have been promoted: Bishop Martin D. Holley, 62, from Washington, D.C., to the Diocese of Memphis, Tennessee, and Bishop David Talley, 66, from Atlanta to serve as coadjutor bishop of the Diocese of Alexandria, Louisiana.

But there’s more. Six ordinaries of smaller dioceses have been elevated in something of an ecclesiastical chess game, leaving vacancies to be filled in the Indianapolis archdiocese and the dioceses of Allentown, Pennsylvania; Cheyenne, Wyoming; Juneau, Alaska; Pensacola-Tallahassee, Florida; and Raleigh, North Carolina. Another diocese, Cleveland, saw its ordinary, Bishop Richard G. Lennon, 69, resign for health reasons Dec. 28. With these moves, Pope Francis and Archbishop Pierre, his top adviser in the United States, are leaving a significant impact on our shores. The new appointees bring to their new positions a breadth of pastoral and administrative experience.

A common thread among the new appointees’ résumés is vocations work. Bishop Michael F. Burbidge, 59, newly appointed head of the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, recently concluded his term as chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations. Bishop Edward J. Burns, 59, newly appointed to the Diocese of Dallas, once served as a vocations director, seminary rector and director of the USCCB’s vocations office. The new bishop for the Diocese of Lubbock, Texas, Robert M. Coerver, 62, directed spiritual formation at Dallas’ Holy Trinity seminary. And the new head of the Archdiocese of Anchorage, Alaska, Paul D. Etienne, 57, once served as vocations director in his native Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

Raleigh to Arlington

The appointment of Bishop Burbidge to Northern Virginia’s Arlington diocese brings him a state closer to his native Philadelphia, where he served in both high school and seminary educational ministry. He also served as administrative secretary to the late Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania. Ordained an auxiliary bishop for his home archdiocese in 2002, Bishop Burbidge spent the last 10 years as bishop of eastern North Carolina’s Raleigh diocese.

Before his transfer, Bishop Burbidge issued a pastoral letter on the veneration of the Holy Name of Jesus — the name of the diocese’s nearly completed new cathedral — and the history of the Catholic Church in eastern North Carolina.

Earlier in 2016, Catholics got a glimpse of how Bishop Burbidge tackles more controversial issues when he spoke out on HB2, North Carolina’s controversial “bathroom bill” that states that in government buildings, people must use the restroom of their gender at birth. This mandate, combined with other provisions in the law, led some to call HB2 the most discriminatory anti-LGBT law in the nation. In an effort to bring both sides together, Bishop Burbidge advocated for new legislation that, he said in a statement, would “defend human dignity; avoid any form of bigotry; respect religious liberty and the convictions of religious institutions; work for the common good; and be discussed in a peaceful and respectful manner.” He also reiterated the need for gender-based bathrooms in Catholic institutions, calling them “common sense” and offering “reasonable boundaries.”

Juneau to Dallas

In an enormous change in population, Bishop Burns, when he leaves behind the Diocese of Juneau for the Diocese of Dallas, will gain a new flock more than 100 times the size of his former diocese (from 10,000 to 1.2 million). While in Dallas, one of the most rapidly growing sees in the United States, Bishop Burns no doubt will tap into his vast experience in priestly formation even more so than in the past. In Juneau, he was known to join his presbyterate of 12 each week for prayer and conversation. Bishop Burns will now oversee Holy Trinity college seminary on the grounds of the University of Dallas. How he travels around his half of “The Metroplex” remains to be seen. In Alaska he flew by plane to visit the parishes under his care.

To a much larger suburb

Baptized by Venerable Fulton J. Sheen — his parents themselves converts to Catholicism — Bishop John O. Barres, 56, moves from Allentown, Pennsylvania, to one of the 10 largest dioceses in the United States: New York’s own suburbicarian see of Rockville Centre.

Bishop Barres holds a doctorate in theology from the University of the Holy Cross in Rome and was active in administrative work in his home diocese of Wilmington, Delaware. Since 2013, Bishop Barres has served as episcopal liaison between the USCCB and the Pontifical Mission Societies, another connection with Archbishop Sheen. And, in the Diocese of Rockville Centre, he will oversee the Telecare television network operated by the diocese.

Florida ‘see change’

Ordained a priest of the Diocese of Orlando in 1999, Bishop Gregory L. Parkes, 52, has not only the distinction of being the youngest of the recently transferred ordinaries, but also, at 6 feet 8 inches, the tallest among U.S. hierarchs. Called to shepherd his state’s capital diocese in 2012, Bishop Parkes leaves the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee for the five-times-larger Diocese of St. Petersburg. Bishop Parkes holds a licentiate in canon law from Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University.

Circle City to Brick City

The Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey, will have its first ever cardinal-archbishop, the newly elevated Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, C.Ss.R., 64. Cardinal Tobin’s transfer from Indianapolis to Newark also marks the first time a cardinal has been transferred from one U.S. diocese to another.

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Cardinal Tobin is arguably the closest of the new appointees to Pope Francis, owing to their time together in a Spanish-language working group at the 2005 Synod of Bishops.

Widely regarded as an “American Francis,” Cardinal Tobin’s ministry is marked by many of the characteristics of the pope’s. In 2015, he bucked the wishes of then-Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who asked him not to settle a refugee family from Syria in the Hoosier-capital see — a move that puts Cardinal Tobin potentially at odds with the new Trump administration in terms of policy, though both the new cardinal and the vice president-elect have said they remain friends. And given Newark’s growing immigration population in the shadow of New York City, Cardinal Tobin will now be a shepherd to the peripheries.

Michael R. Heinlein is editor of OSV’s The Catholic Answer. Email him at Follow him on Twitter @HeinleinMichael.