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The Bishop's Exit

Walter F. Sullivan’s successor is likely to serve the diocese with a more conservative philosophy.


John Paul II is considered more conservative than Paul VI, who appointed Sullivan in 1974. The current pope has chosen bishops who reflect his views.

When asked about how the Richmond Catholic community might respond to a new bishop, Father Pat Apuzzo, a spokesman for Sullivan, says it’s not a simple matter of semantics, particularly whether Sullivan’s likely replacement would be conservative or liberal. Such political terms have been flexed and applied so frequently that they’ve become devoid of meaning, he says, and they only work to limit the contributions that Sullivan or his predecessor may be capable of. “It’s our job to work for the bishop,” Apuzzo says. “We don’t walk around saying we work for a conservative bishop or we work for a liberal bishop.”

A turn to the right would please Virginia Catholics such as John Gossner, a retired Navy man. “I don’t agree with the bishop on a lot of stands,” says Gossner, of Virginia Beach.

Echoing a complaint common among some Catholics, especially those with military ties, Gossner said he was especially irked by Sullivan’s repeated denunciation of American involvement in war.

Sullivan’s bias for nonviolence is reflected in his presidency of Pax Christi USA, a national Catholic peace group. An office of his diocesan administration distributed black ribbons this spring to protest the invasion of Iraq.

“No one’s for war,” Gossner says, “but why couldn’t the diocese also promote ribbons of red, white and blue?”

He adds, “I’d like to see the church get back to the basics of serving the people.”

Other Catholics, however, credit Sullivan’s liberalism for opening up parishes to deep participation by lay people and hope his successor won’t halt that trend.

Women found new opportunities to be lectors and eucharistic ministers during worship services, and seven run parishes as pastoral coordinators.

Wayne Koch, who served on the lay-dominated pastoral council that Sullivan consults periodically, worries that the next bishop won’t listen to parishioners in the diocese who’ve grown used to being heard.

“I, personally, believe we’re unlike the church the Holy Father envisions,” Koch says. “It seems the Catholic Church is going backwards.”

There’s also trepidation that the new bishop won’t share Sullivan’s concerns for disenfranchised groups such as migrant workers and economically struggling Appalachian Virginians.

In March, a local chapter of a lay-based Catholic reform movement asked the Vatican’s ambassador to the United States to form a committee of clergy and lay Catholics from the diocese to advise him on who should succeed Sullivan.

The request was not granted, which means prayer will be the only say parishioners of the 213,000-member diocese have in who becomes the first new bishop in 29 years.

The machinery of succession started turning Tuesday, June 10 — Sullivan’s 75th birthday.

Church regulations require all bishops to submit their resignation on that anniversary.

The selection of a new bishop begins with existing bishops, who periodically submit to their provincial archbishop the names of priests they think would be worthy candidates.

Bishops in the Baltimore province, which includes the Richmond diocese, will vote on whom to recommend to the apostolic nuncio in Washington, D.C., who is the Vatican’s ambassador to the United States. The nuncio will next recommend three candidates to the Vatican.

In Rome, the Congregation for Bishops can pass on to the pope the nuncio’s preferred candidate, propose another nominee or ask the nuncio for a new list.

Finally, the decision will be laid before John Paul II. The pope can confirm the congregation’s choice or name someone of his own choosing.

Every step of the process is secret.

Complicating the scenario in this case is a proposal to divide the Richmond diocese, which would allow the creation of a new diocese centered on Hampton Roads.

Sullivan has endorsed the idea, and it is under review at the Vatican. If a new diocese is approved, it would need its own bishop, who would be appointed by the pope.

It’s not clear if the proposal would affect whether John Paul II approves Sullivan’s resignation. One possibility is that the pope would ask Sullivan to delay his retirement, pending a decision on the new diocese.

Fogarty predicted the resignation won’t be accepted immediately.

But the Rev. Thomas Shelley, a Fordham University expert on historical theology, disagrees.

Given the conservatism of the Vatican and Sullivan’s liberalism, Shelley says, “I’m sure his resignation will be accepted the day after it’s received.” S

Brandon Walters contributed to this story.

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