Who will be the next bishop?
What history tells us about the appointment of bishops in Wisconsin
Editor's note: This is the first in an occasional series of articles relating to the appointment of a new bishop for the Diocese of Green Bay.
By Fr. Steven M. Avella
Special to The Compass
"History is the great teacher of life," wrote Blessed John XXIII. But those looking to historical precedents to predict the next bishop of Green Bay may find the lesson a bit confusing.
Green Bay's 11 bishops have hailed from so many different locations it is hard to discern a trend. Its four foreign-born prelates include two from Austria, Joseph Melcher (1868-73) and Frederick X. Katzer (1886-91), one from Bavaria, Franz Xavier Krautbauer (1875-1885), one from Switzerland, Sebastian G. Messmer (1891-1903) and one from what would later become part of Poland, Peter Paul Rhode (1915-45).
Chicago has given two of its priests to Green Bay - Stanislaus V. Bona, via Grand Island, Neb., (1945-67) and Aloysius Wycislo (1968-83); Boston, Robert Banks (1990-2003) and Pittsburgh, two, Adam Maida (1983-90), and David Zubik (2003-07). Only one, John Joseph Fox (1904-14), was born in Green Bay.
Local priests as bishops
Have native sons ever headed Wisconsin dioceses? Sometimes, but not often. Bishop Fox was the first to do so in Wisconsin. Of the nine bishops of La Crosse, only two, John Paul and Raymond Burke were priests of the La Crosse Diocese. Six of 10 Superior diocesan bishops were Wisconsin natives, but only one of its diocesan priests headed the diocese - Joseph J. Annabring, a beloved rector of the cathedral.
Archbishop Albert G. Meyer (the only hometown boy among the 10 men who have led the Milwaukee Archdiocese) had been Bishop Annabring's predecessor in Superior. He lobbied for the popular priest's appointment - sidelining the hopes of his close friend and Green Bay Auxiliary John B. Grellinger, who also wanted the post. Madison, the youngest of the state's five dioceses, has had only one Wisconsin native as its head, Bishop William Patrick O'Connor.
Green Bay has also occasionally been the episcopal "novitiate" for bishops who have eventually moved to larger jurisdictions: Katzer and Messmer to Milwaukee; Maida to Detroit and Zubik back to Pittsburgh.
Could a native priest head Green Bay again for the first time since Bishop Fox? As Bishop Zubik's return to his native Pittsburgh Diocese demonstrated, it is certainly possible. To be
sure, there are some worthy candidates in the current Green Bay presbyterate. Priests, religious and lay persons no doubt have favorite candidates. Likely, some of their names have been pondered by the bishops of the state when they have gathered for provincial meetings.
Qualities of a bishop
The bishop's recommendations will (or have been) forwarded to the apostolic nuncio, whose staff will vet candidates for personal and professional suitability for episcopal orders. Is he a man of prayer and integrity? Can the candidate serve the church well in the distinct social and cultural conditions of the Green Bay Diocese? The nuncio's list will be forwarded to the Congregation for Bishops in Rome, who will make a selection and then pass it on to the pope for approval. The search is already on for a candidate to fill the "widowed" Green Bay Diocese.
Nominees to the episcopate often bring proven track records of service in some critical area of church life. Many, though not all, have been schooled in Roman seminaries. Bella
figura - an Italian phrase which denotes the bearing and appearance of an episcopal candidate - may play some role. Behind the scenes, informal patronage networks and association among bishops will also be at work. Candidates for the episcopate often have patrons - higher ranking ecclesiastics - who will promote them to the apostolic nuncio or the Congregation of Bishops in Rome.
He may come from the "farm team" for diocesan bishops, i.e. auxiliary bishops. Many of these men have been groomed for eventual promotion to their own dioceses. Green Bay has a history of this. Bishops Rhode and Wycislo were Chicago auxiliaries, Bishop Banks was auxiliary in Boston and Bishop Zubik in Pittsburgh. The bishop of another diocese may be transferred to Green Bay. Bishop Stanislaus V. Bona had been bishop of Grand Island, Neb., when he was called to serve as coadjutor to an ailing Bishop Rhode in 1945.
No one should bet the family farm on a "likely" nominee, but episcopal handicappers might survey the current auxiliary bishops of Chicago. Possibly Cardinal Francis George, allegedly held in high esteem by Pope Benedict, may have some influence on the selection. Former Green Bay bishop, Cardinal Adam Maida, now in his twilight years in Detroit, might also have some thoughts on the succession. He too has a crop of auxiliary bishops who might be ready for a move.
Archbishop Dolan's role
As metropolitan of the Wisconsin Province and apostolic administrator, Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan will have some voice in the decision. His extensive contacts with many bishops via his term as rector of the North American College and his years at the Apostolic Nunciature might add something to the mix.
But, as the recent appointment of Superior Bishop Peter F. Christensen (a parish pastor and former seminary spiritual director) suggests, it might not be an auxiliary at all, but some "worthy priest" toiling away in a chancery, tribunal, seminary or large parish. All we really know is that after an appropriate time someone will receive a phone call from the apostolic nuncio with news that will change his life forever.
Green Bay's 12th successor to the apostles will appear at a local press conference with Archbishop Dolan at his side, to express his gratitude for the honor bestowed on him by the Holy Father and his desire to serve the people of the diocese. A new chapter in the history of Catholic life in northeastern Wisconsin will begin.
(Fr. Avella, a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and professor of church history at Marquette University, is author of "In the Richness of the Earth: A History of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee - 1843-1958," published in 2002.)