Letter from Rome

Why the pope is moving bishops close to retirement age to new and important posts
Letter from Rome

A 2003 file image of Wilton Gregory, the new archbishop of Washington. (Photo by Stephen Jaffe/AFP)

One of the biggest stories to come out of Rome these past days has been Pope Francis' decision to name Wilton Gregory as the new archbishop of Washington.

The pope transferred him from Atlanta, where the 71-year-old African-American has overseen a rapidly growing local Church since 2004, to the smaller, but much more high-profile archdiocese in the U.S. capital.

It is understood that the archbishop had to think long and hard about accepting his new post — and for some very good reasons.

Wedded to the diocese?

First of all, as someone well grounded in theology and church history, Wilton (as he is commonly called) is aware that it is generally not healthy, from an ecclesiological point of view, for the pope to move bishops from one place to another.

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This will be the archbishop's third diocese. Cardinal Sean O'Malley has now led four.

As the medieval historian Joseph O'Callaghan pointed out in an article a few years ago, Rome's appointment of bishops around the world runs contrary to the Church's centuries-long tradition of episcopal election by the clergy and people of the diocese.

He lamented that "bishops are seldom chosen to govern a diocese where they served as priests and thus are strangers to the priests and people committed to their care." He noted that "smaller dioceses are often viewed as stepping-stones to more important prizes.

"In the case of Washington, the "prize" is likely to be a cardinal's red hat.

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