Catching up on two pieces of Keystone Catholic news.
The National Catholic Reporter says Pope Francis is considering a visit to Philadelphia in September 2015. It’s still too early for anything official, but it would generate big news if it materialized.
There hasn’t been a papal visit to the United States since 2008, when Benedict XVI came to New York and Washington.
Now, of course, the holder of the keys of Peter is a rock star. A lot could change by late 2015, but there should be a massive amount of interest in seeing this pontiff in person. He enthralled the multitudes in Brazil during World Youth Day last year – something that tends to get forgotten due to the avalanche of coverage over his in-flight interview on the way home (the one with the iconic line, “who am I to judge?”). But his connection with the poor of Brazil was historic in its own right, and he might surprise some people in a visit here with the force of his disapproval of the income gap between rich and poor.
All that said, Francis would have to know he’d be running into a potential buzzsaw in Philly.
The occasion for his visit would be the World Meeting of Families there in September 2015. No matter what’s on the agenda, any Catholic gathering involving families is inevitably going to draw media scrutiny to the church’s resistance to same-sex marriage — despite its rapidly growing acceptance both in the U.S. and the pope’s native Latin America. Also, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia has a troublesome history on handling sexually abusive priests. The pope’s response to that will also dominate the narrative.
While the papal visit remains speculative, one concrete move the pope did make last week was to return Bishop Ronald Gainer to his native Pennsylvania. Bishop Gainer, who grew up in the coalfields of eastern Pennsylvania and rose through the ranks of the Diocese of Allentown, served as bishop of Lexington, Ky. – a mostly rural, mostly Protestant diocese that included the coalfields of eastern Kentucky. Now Bishop Gainer will be bishop over the Diocese of Harrisburg, which is five times as large as his previous assignment and has the political symbolism of being based in the capital.
Bishop Gainer was appointed to his Lexington post by John Paul II, arriving at a diocese traumatized by the resignation of its previous bishop, Kendrick Williams, who was accused in lawsuits of sexual abuse. Bishop Gainer worked to stabilize the diocese and increase the ranks of men entering the priesthood. The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests criticized his handling of some priests accused of abuse. Bishop Gainer spoke out on a broad range of policy issues, calling for such things as immigration reform and broader health care for the uninsured, but he put a priority on opposing abortion, writing shortly before an election that the "defense of the sacredness of human life" represents "THE paramount issue of our time." Bishop Gainer’s appointment to the larger and politically visible Harrisburg diocese certainly seems like a ratification of such priorities, whatever the shift in tone under Pope Francis.
Bishop Gainer, by the way, is one of two Allentown natives rising in prominence in the Catholic hierarchy by way of Kentucky. Louisville Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, long active in Catholic Charities in Allentown and with the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, now serves as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.