Rumors are raging among Northwest Catholics.
Both Portland and Seattle are without an archbishop, and priests and laypeople everywhere are predicting a shuffle among Catholic leaders in the region.
Many say Spokane Bishop William Skylstad is destined for a promotion.
Others speculate that Idaho Bishop Tod Brown will be right behind him.
But in reality, nobody - not even the pope - knows what will happen just yet.
“You have to be very careful about rumors and speculation, especially at this early stage,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest, Georgetown University professor and author of several books on Catholic power structures.
“There is absolutely no way anyone could know what is going to happen. You can’t even say for sure the appointments will be kept within the region.”
The pattern in the Northwest has been for archbishops - the spiritual leaders of Catholic archdioceses - to come from the ranks of other regional bishops, including those in Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Alaska. Seattle Archbishop Thomas Murphy, who died last week, had been a Montana bishop. Archbishop Francis George was in charge of the Yakima Diocese before he was appointed to Portland. George was recently transferred to Chicago, where he will likely become a cardinal.
“We are sure that everybody in the Northwest is on the (long) list,” said a priest in the Boise Diocese. “By nature of being an active bishop in the region who is not in trouble, they will be considered.”
While regional appointments used to be the norm throughout the country, that has changed, Reese said. In fact, many recent archbishops were appointed from dioceses hundreds of miles away.
Church workers know that, he said. Rather than discussing well-founded rumors, they are really discussing their hopes and fears about a new boss, he said.
“I don’t think anyone knows Skylstad is headed to the West Coast,” said one Seattle Jesuit. “But a lot of people are praying for that to happen.”
Donna Hanson, director of social services for the Spokane Diocese, said she was meeting with colleagues from Seattle recently when they told her they had heard Skylstad would get the Portland job.
“They said they were disappointed, because they wanted him in Seattle,” she said. “I just thought, ‘Keep your grubby hands off.”’ The fact that Skylstad is well-liked throughout the region, as well as by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, will work in his favor, Reese said.
“The Vatican knows that if they put someone in Seattle who is to the right of Attila the Hun, they would be in danger of lighting a fuse that would blow Seattle up again,” Reese said. “But it’s not exactly a democratic process either.”
He is referring to the controversy over former Seattle Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, a liberal religious leader who was stripped of his authority for deviating from church doctrine.
Murphy, also fairly liberal, was named archbishop after Hunthausen retired. His first task was to settle the unrest.
Although both Skylstad and Brown would be good matches for either Seattle or Portland, Rome may already have another bishop in mind for the next archbishop job, Reese said.
It typically takes six months to a year for the Vatican to appoint new bishops.
“Rome does not work very quickly at all in the summer,” he said. “They shut down for the whole month of August.”
Skylstad and Brown have been diplomatically silent on the possibilities.
“It puts me in an uncomfortable position,” Skylstad said of the constant questions. “There’s a very high probability that I will continue to serve here in the Inland Northwest. And I’m really pleased and happy to be here.”
Brown, whose name is more frequently mentioned in connection with the Portland vacancy, has made jokes about the Amtrak train service that was recently canceled between Boise and Portland.
“The last train to Portland left and I wasn’t on it,” he said.
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MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Candidates for archbishop Here’s how a new archbishop is chosen: The administration in the diocese with a vacancy develops a profile of the strengths it hopes to find in its new bishop. The apostolic pro-nuncio, or papal representative in Washington, D.C., investigates potential candidates by interviewing their associates. He narrows down the list to eight or 10. The pro-nuncio consults with officers of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and sometimes other prominent archbishops, who narrow the list to three names. Powerful archbishops have been known to add names and remove them from the list at this point. The pro-nuncio writes a report, in Italian, which typically runs 20 single-spaced pages. No one in the United States sees the report or list of three finalists. In Rome, the Congregation for Bishops, 36 cardinals and archbishops responsible for oversight of the world’s bishops, meets and votes on the finalists. The pope makes the final decision.
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