It's not too soon to think about a successor to the fourth bishop of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, William F. Murphy.
That's the reality behind a letter, signed by 23 priests of the diocese, sent to Pope Francis -- with a copy to Murphy. They chose to mail it on May 14, Murphy's birthday, exactly a year before he reaches the retirement age of 75 and submits his retirement letter to the pope.
In mild, polite tones, the priests asked the pope for some "concrete guidance about how we and others here can meaningfully participate" in choosing Murphy's successor. They want the church "not only to ask the faithful for prayers and obedience, but also to restore significant popular input into the selection process itself."
If the pope does lead the way to broadening the process for the 1.5 million Catholics of America's sixth-largest diocese, it would underline his consistent preaching on inclusiveness and set a powerful example for leaders of other faiths as well.
The letter does not discuss Murphy's stewardship as bishop since 2001, or offer prescriptions. It seeks information. "We're looking to understand how the process works and how, not just us priests, how other groups in the diocese, like sisters and lay people, can insert themselves in the process," said the Rev. Ron Richardson, who signed the letter.
Here's how it works: The apostolic nuncio, the pope's representative, sends a terna, a list of three names of potential bishops for a diocese, to the Vatican's Congregation for Bishops. They deliberate, then report to the pope. But where does the nuncio get the names?
"One of the groups he would probably be looking at is people who are already auxiliary bishops," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit scholar and columnist who wrote about the bishops in two of his books. The nuncio could also get names from Murphy and from Cardinal Timothy Dolan, leader of the ecclesiastical province of New York, which includes Rockville Centre.
But where do lay people fit in? Or priests? Well, the retiring bishop can draw up a report on the state of the diocese, with lay participation, and submit it to the nuncio, to be sent to Rome. "He can also have a public discussion of the type of person who is needed for the diocese," Reese said. But he added: "It hasn't been encouraged by nuncios in recent times."
This letter, and an earlier call by a national priests' group for more of a role for priests and laity in bishop selection, are directed to a pope who has made it clear he wants a grittier kind of bishop. Francis wants priests who stay close to the poor, "shepherds living with the smell of the sheep."
For Long Island Catholics who want to follow the pope's lead, the identity of Murphy's successor is important. There's no guarantee that Francis will accept Murphy's retirement immediately. But for a 77-year-old pope with impaired lungs, a limited life span and a desire to appoint a new breed of bishops, it's hard to imagine that he'd wait very long to name one for a diocese this significant.
It would be wonderful if Murphy himself were to give a parting gift to the diocese by leading an open process -- consulting with priests and lay people, including nuns. Whether he does or not, every Long Island Catholic has the right to send suggestions to the nuncio, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, at 3339 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20008.
If you want a bishop who smells like his sheep, a letter to Viganò would be an excellent investment of time and postage. And don't worry about bothering him. "Pester your priests," Pope Francis said recently. "Bother them, all of us priests."
So pester the nuncio about your next bishop. The pope won't mind.
Bob Keeler is a former religion reporter and editorial writer for Newsday.