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Look West, Young Church!

For the last several decades, the US Catholic Church has been demographically shifting from the 19th century bulwarks of New England and the upper Midwest, to the South and the West.

That does not mean that fact is quickly grasped by individuals or institutions. At one national conference I attended annually for nearly a decade, it was clear that the organizers thought of it as a nation-wide event. Yet, in its 45+ year history, only two had been held in the Northwest, both in the ‘80s; fewer than ¼ of the meetings had been held in the western half of the U.S.

Or consider that of nine cardinalatial sees in the U.S., seven are east of the Mississippi. And one of those that is west of the mighty river, Galveston-Houston, is so close as to still be part of the eastern half of the mainland U.S.

This is not as bad as the need to redraw diocesan boundaries in Ireland, which have been unchanged for just over 900 years, yet it is still slow… But, I digress…

Recent moves indicate that Seattle is making its mark felt again on the national, and international, ecclesiastical scene. Not since the days of Archbishop Hunthausen has the Church in Western Washington captured attention much beyond its own boundaries.

Fast-forward a quarter of a century, and for the most part Seattle had dropped off the radar, but not gone silent. Just in the years since Archbishop Murphy took over from Archbishop Hunthausen, the Catholic population has nearly tripled due to immigration – now there are as many Spanish-speaking Catholics in western Washington as there were total Catholics 15 years ago.  Bishop George of Helena, Bishop Joseph of Yakima, and Auxiliary Bishop Eusebio have all been ordained from the local presbyterate, the first such ordinations in nearly half a century.

The reputation of being on the cutting edge of lay involvement and creative pastoral ministry solutions, social justice and ecumenical commitment has slipped in recent decades, both among those who cheer the change and those who lament it. My age-peers in the presbyterate are as likely to be interested in the traditionalist movement and the extraordinary form as their peers anywhere else in the country, and some of the most well known Catholic voices to have come out of the Seattle milieu – author George Weigel and blogger Mark Shea – are not known for their particularly progressive mien.

Consider, though a few highlights of the last few years that suggest that there is attention shifting back towards the Emerald City and her local Church – both Catholic and Ecumenical. Some of these are newsworthy enough to get attention here, across the atlantic, so they certainly say something is happening. Significantly, you cannot pigeonhole all of these into “progressive” or “conservative” success stories, but nevertheless indicate that, perhaps, Seattle is on the radar again.

Very Rev. Michael G. Ryan

By now virtually everyone knows some part of the liturgy wars saga. Most people do not know it all; I certainly make no claim to such comprehensive view of the last fifty years of liturgical reform, renewal, development, reform of the reform and rejection of reform.

To recap the most recent, let us say that the updated translation everyone was waiting on was ready and fully approved by episcopal conferences around the globe in 1999. It then got delayed as a new Prefect of the congregation for divine worship rewrote the guidelines for liturgical translation, and the entire process was started anew with new rules and much controversy – and it was done quickly. After only a decade, the implementation was looming.

Enter the Very Reverend Michael G. Ryan, pastor of the Cathedral parish of St. James, where he has served as quite possibly the city’s most popular Catholic pastor since 1988. In December 2009 he penned an article for America asking the question, “What if we just said, ‘wait’?” , and launched a website gathering signatures and comments. In short order over 23,000 people signed – and a counter movement was launched. “We’ve waited long enough!”  collected just over 5,000 signatures and practically launched the blogging notoriety of “Fr. Z” and his (proudly) rubricist blog, What Does the Prayer Really Say?… and it all started with the quintessential Seattle presbyter, Fr. Michael.

Just the other day I was at the retirement party for the superior general of one of the religious orders, and conversation turned to Fr. Ryan’s stand and his recent article, “What’s Next?” Naturally, the group included supporters and critics alike, but several who were neither from the west coast or the U.S. at all – this is news throughout the Anglophone world.

In the three years since, coterminous with my time in Rome, there have been other indicators. Some smaller – like the meeting of the National Catholic Melkite Convention there in summer 2010 and the scheduling of the upcoming conference of the Society for Pentecostal Studies. Some have a bigger profile, like the June 2011 meeting of the USCCB in Bellevue.

Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon

In terms of ecumenism and lay ministry, there have been some exciting personnel moves:

In Summer 2011, Dr. Michael Reid Trice was hired at Seattle University as the associate dean of the School of Theology and Ministry. Michael and I have known each other for several years, and he is one of the most active young ecumenists in the country, having served since the age of 35 as the associate director of the ELCA’s ecumenical and interreligious office.

Shortly thereafter, it was announced that Dr. Rick McChord was retiring after 25 years in the USCCB office for laity, marriage and family – and picking up a consulting contract with Seattle-based (and Domer-founded) Reid Group, which specializes in leadership development, strategic planning and mediation for religious groups.

The latest came in April while i was in Assisi, with the retirement of Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon as General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, and his own move to a three-year contract at Seattle University, starting this fall.

Finally, the biggest spotlight to hit Seattle in recent years, ecclesially speaking, is the appointment of the relatively new metropolitan, Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, to lead the five-year overhaul of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Striking every note of consultation, careful listening, and collaboration a person in his position possibly could during the press conference and interviews later with John Allen  in Rome, it seems like the best has been made of an unpleasant situation.

These are exciting times to be in the church-world in Seattle. Almost a pity I am in Rome!

Most Rev. J. Peter Sartain

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