The Vatican announced appointment of two Northwest archbishops Tuesday, and many Catholics in Eastern Washington were relieved Spokane Bishop William Skylstad wasn’t one of them.
“You bloom where you’re planted,” Skylstad said.
He said he had paid scant attention to speculation that he was in line for one of the jobs. “I’m committed to being in Spokane,” he said.
Bishop Alexander Brunnett, 63, of Helena, is the new archbishop in Seattle. Bishop John Vlazny, 60, Winona, Minn., assumes similar duties in Portland.
“We love Bishop Skylstad, and I think he loves Spokane,” said Mike Ryan, director of Catholic Charities in Eastern Washington.
“I thought it was a possibility (he would leave). And when you have somebody you love and respect that much, you tend to hope that the person stays with you,” Ryan said.
While many observers are wondering why Skylstad was passed over, with some concluding that the Vatican sees him as too liberal, one expert said it’s a mistake to draw quick conclusions about the bishop’s standing.
“There are over 100 bishops who could have been considered qualified for those jobs, and Bishop Skylstad is one who happened to be in close proximity, geographically,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest, Georgetown University professor and author of several books on Catholic power structure.
“This is no indication of any kind of negative thing about Bishop Skylstad - not at all,” Reese said.
Brunnett’s appointment continues a short trend of Seattle archbishops coming from Montana. Archbishop Thomas Murphy, who died of leukemia June 26, had been bishop of the Great Falls-Billings diocese. Murphy’s predecessor, Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, had been bishop of Helena.
While priests and laypeople in Seattle said they had prayed for Skylstad’s appointment to their archdiocese, Brunnett might fit in well with the region’s liberal Catholics.
In a press conference Tuesday, Brunnett said he supports expanded poverty-fighting efforts and Initiative 677, a measure on Tuesday’s state ballot to ban workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Comfortable on the front lines, Brunnett is chairman of the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical Affairs. In that role, he has been the Roman Catholic point man in America for dialogues with leaders of other faiths - both Christian and non-Christian.
“The fact that he was elected to that position by the other bishops indicates they hold him in high regard,” Reese said.
As a group, U.S. bishops are socially liberal. Brunnett fits that description, but like most recent archbishop appointees, he toes the line when it comes to Catholic teachings on sexuality, individual morality and women in the priesthood.
“That’s no surprise there,” Reese said. You can’t become an archbishop if you deviate from the hierarchy’s teachings, he said.
Hunthausen was stripped of most of his authority in the 1980s because a Vatican investigation found he was lax in his teachings about annulments and homosexuality, said Reese.
Meanwhile, Vlazny’s stance on most social issues isn’t known.
With other U.S. bishops, he sits on committees dealing with priestly formation, religious life and ministry and North American College Rome.
Skylstad said Tuesday he’s excited to be working with both men soon.
The Seattle archbishop will become the regional Catholic authority in the Northwest, technically making him Skylstad’s boss.
“He’s got a lot of ecumenical experience,” Skylstad said. “He’s been the pastor of a large metropolitan parish (Detroit). And he has (two years’) experience as bishop of a rural diocese. All that adds up to a good mix.”
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