Toledo’s next bishop

The diocese could use a local shepherd who is accessible to his people, rather than a cleric from somewhere else


Pope Francis says Roman Catholic leaders should stop being obsessed with contraception, same-sex marriage, and abortion, and concentrate instead on healing wounds and warming the hearts of the faithful. Whoever sends the Pontiff candidates to become the next bishop of the Diocese of Toledo would do well to take that advice.

After 10 years in Toledo, Bishop Leonard Blair will become archbishop of Hartford, Conn., next month. Some local Catholics viewed Bishop Blair as an orthodox servant of Rome first and a Toledo leader second.

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The diocese and community could use a shepherd who is accessible to his people, rather than a cleric from elsewhere whose focus is on hierarchical obedience. They need a leader who knows Toledo and has an open and inviting, rather than formal, style. It needs a local Francis.

Laypeople will have little part in the selection of the new bishop, but can offer suggestions to American bishops and the Vatican representative in Washington. The Congregation of Bishops in Rome will send recommendations to the Pope for his selection. The process can take as long as a year.

Toledo’s next bishop faces hard decisions about keeping parishes, assigning a dwindling number of priests, preserving Catholic schools and social services, and serving a community that still hurts from the Great Recession. Dialogue with other religions will be vital.

The number of Catholics in the 19-county diocese has grown from 298,069 at the end of 2003 to 319,907 this year. Yet the number of priests has declined from 248 to 196, and the number of parishes has dropped from 159 to 124 because of closings and mergers.

The new bishop also will face broader challenges of helping to restore the church’s moral authority in the wake of its pedophile scandal and of dealing with Catholics’ widespread rejection of its birth-control ban.

Acquaintances describe Bishop Blair as hard-working, warm, caring, kind, and personable in private. When he arrived, he faced priest scandals and difficult choices about closing churches. He is credited with choosing candidates of high quality for the seminary.

But he also is criticized for having a polarizing effect on local Catholics and for absenteeism. He became a leader in American bishops’ “culture wars” over the issues cited by Pope Francis.

He criticized the University of Notre Dame’s decision to invite President Obama to speak on campus. Under Pope Francis’ predecessor, the Vatican assigned him to investigate Catholic nuns’ Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

Peter Feldmeier, an expert in Catholic studies at the University of Toledo, laments that the Catholic Church’s moral voice has been compromised in part by a concerted effort over the past two decades to make it more centrally controlled by the Vatican.

He recommends “a transparent, widely consulted [and this includes laity] process” for choosing bishops “that highly favors local priests who know the people and are trusted by them.” The selection of Toledo’s next bishop offers a good opportunity to invoke such a model.