San Salvador's Episcopabli:
Five Men Who Might Be The Next Archbishop
By Carlos X. Colorado *
Special to Tim's El Salvador Blog
If San Salvador Archbishop Fernando Saenz Lacalle retires, as every Roman Catholic bishop must, when he turns 75 on November 16, 2007 (on the 18th anniversary of the UCA Massacre!), then the Vatican has less than a year from now to decide his successor. Before a pope is elected, the Vatican press corps buzzes for years hand-picking the clerics they deem to be papabile (lit., “pope-able”). Nowhere near the same cottage industry exists to predict who is episcopabile, but it’s worth noting that the San Salvador archbishopric is associated with one of the most celebrated surprise turns in the recent history of clerical succession. When Oscar A. Romero was named to succeed Archbishop Luis Chavez, who had held the post for 38 years, the entire San Salvador clergy was famously gobsmacked by the announcement. Even more surprising would be the historical outcome: a caretaker archbishop who turned out to be more outspoken than the progressive cleric the Vatican had sought to keep in line in that succession.
A similar situation is cued up to play out next year. Like Archbishop Chavez in 1977, the current archbishop will face retirement because he will turn the mandatory retirement age, as Chavez did thirty years earlier. Also similarly, the home town favorite would be successor is someone who has been the retiring archbishop’s second in command. In 1977, that man was Msgr. Arturo Rivera, the auxiliary bishop of San Salvador. In 2007, the leading contender will be Msgr. Gregorio Rosa Chavez, who has held the number two spot ever since Msgr. Rivera was eventually bumped up to the top job. Msgr. Rosa is highly qualified to be archbishop. He has been the auxiliary for twenty five years. In this position, he has become highly adept at dealing with national crises and high level pastoral concerns. In fact, when there is a crisis to mediate, the parties typically call for the auxiliary bishop of San Salvador more often than they call for the archbishop himself. In a September 2006 survey by La Prensa Gráfica, Rosa polled even with Archbishop Saenz among current Salvadoran leaders who inspire the population; no other bishops turned up in the results. Rosa is a polyglot, as he speaks French, English and Italian as well as Spanish and Portuguese. In fact, he is about the same age as Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez, who was considered a papal contender in the conclave to replace John Paul. Additionally, Bishop Rosa has made an imprint among other Latin American bishops, being active in the Latin American Bishops’ Conference, and visiting Salvadoran communities in numerous continents.
But, similar credentials failed Msgr. Rivera in 1977, when he was the preferred candidate, and make it necessary to consider alternatives to Bishop Rosa today. Of the ten other Salvadoran bishops, only four are not disqualified by factors such as age (Chalatenango’s Bishop Alas Alfaro should have already retired at 76, while the pastoral administrator of El Salvador’s military Mojica Morales is not even yet a bishop at 42). Upon a serious inspection, three other men stand out as potential rivals of bishop Rosa. They are: Bishop Bolanos Avelar of Zacatecoluca, Bishop Moran Aquino of San Miguel, and Bishop Escobar Alas of San Vicente. Let’s take each one in turn.
Msgr. Elias Samuel Bolanos Avelar is 55 years-old. The average age at which men have become Archbishop of San Salvador is about 57 years old. Luis Chavez, who became archbishop at the tender age of 37 was an aberration; the oldest archbishop was the incumbent Saenz Lacalle, who assumed the post at 62. Additionally, Msgr. Bolanos is a Salesian priest, a member of the same order as the late Arturo Rivera, who may be seen as an apt, uncontroversial affiliation, after the over a decade of Opus Dei’s Archbishop Saenz. Msgr. Bolanos has worked in Nicaragua, where he befriended the influential Cardinal Obando, and has directed and taught in seminaries, which would make him a pastoral figure to many of his priests.
At 51, Msgr. Miguel Angel Moran Aquino, is on the younger side of the spectrum of contenders. But, as the sitting Bishop of San Miguel, he has a sentimental advantage for many San Salvador Archdiocese watchers: he is the bishop of the province where Oscar Romero was born. This same province also has spiritual significance for the country, as it is the province where the Patroness of El Salvador, Our Lady of Peace, resides. Msgr. Moran’s profile is somewhat skimpy on substantive experience, but he also has the formidable credential of priestly formation in his cap, as he is the prefect of seminary studies in San Miguel.
The youngest of the contenders, the Bishop of San Vicente, Msgr. Jose Luis Escobar Alas, is only 47 years-old. He has had numerous administrative roles and was vicar general of the diocese of San Vicente before being bishop, and has experience as a seminary rector, which also has gained him points for priestly formation. He has studied in Mexico and at Rome’s Gregorian University, where Oscar Romero studied decades before. These last two candidates, Moran and Escobar, are undercut by their age. Aside from the exceptional Luis Chavez who became archbishop at 37, only one other Archbishop of San Salvador has been younger than 55. Alfonso Belloso, who was appointed in 1927, though, was older than both Bishops Moran (51) and Escobar (47) at 54.
Finally, it is worth looking quickly at complete outsiders for another candidate. One name that comes to mind is someone who is neither Salvadoran, nor a bishop. However, Msgr. Richard Antall, an American, a priest of the Cleveland Diocese, has served as a missionary in the Archdiocese of San Salvador, and has become a confidante of Archbishop Saenz. He is an author of spiritual books, touted as a “Long a favorite for his spellbinding stories and his profound knowledge of Scripture.” He is currently the head of an episcopal vicareate for his boss, Archbishop Saenz, for whom he also has been a secretary. He has quickly gained the stature of long-time, Romero-era clerics such as Jesus Delgado (who was Romero’s vicar general) and Rafael Urrutia (who heads Romero’s canonization cause in San Salvador). A non-bishop has been chosen before -- namely, Luis Chavez, when he was named archbishop in 1937, and he was not yet a bishop. One used to think foreign bishops were unlikely, but then Karol Wojtyla and Josef Ratzinger were elected bishops of Rome. And Spanish-born Fernando Saenz Lacalle has been San Salvador’s bishop since 1995. And, if an American seems like an unlikely choice, consider that: sending a conservative Spaniard after 50 years of homegrown populist bishops might have seemed like a bit of a a reconquista just fifteen years ago.
* Carlos X. Colorado is moderator of the “San Romero” Yahoo! Discussion Group and correspondent for All Things Catholic for Tim’s El Salvador Blog.
Thursday, November 30, 2006
San Salvador's Episcopabli: