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LI diocese facing critical moment as Bishop William Murphy nears retirement age

Bishop William Murphy leads Christmas mass at St.

Bishop William Murphy leads Christmas mass at St. Agnes Cathedral on Thursday, Dec. 25, 2014 in Rockville Centre. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Bishop William Murphy hits the mandatory church retirement age of 75 in mid-May, and although he may not depart immediately, it is setting the stage for a momentous shift in one of the largest Roman Catholic dioceses in the nation.

By church regulations, Murphy, like all bishops, must submit a letter of resignation to the Vatican on his birthday, May 14. It could be accepted immediately, or he could be permitted to remain in his post for months or even years, said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior analyst with the National Catholic Reporter who has written two books on the Vatican.

"We've had cases where the day after his birthday a bishop's been replaced," Reese said. "And we've had cases where it's been five years," though one or two is usually the limit. "It's so very unpredictable."

John Thavis, a longtime Vatican reporter and author of "The Vatican Diaries," said that if a bishop is in good health, things are running well in a diocese and the bishop himself would like to stay on, it's common for him to be permitted to do so for a few years.

"If there are no problems, if it is smooth sailing, it's probably something they can wait a year or two on," Thavis said. If things are not smooth, he said, "expect it sooner, I would say."

The process is confidential, highly secretive and not subject to hard and fast rules, so it is difficult to know when Murphy's departure will take place, who will replace him and how deeply the Vatican hierarchy has discussed it, Reese and Thavis said.

But they said the Vatican is well aware of the bishops who turn 75 this year, and that some discussion is probably underway at least at the level of the apostolic nuncio -- the pope's representative in Washington, D.C. -- and other key players in the United States.

Important time for diocese

The change in leadership will represent a major occasion for the diocese, the sixth-largest in the United States with an estimated 1.5 million Catholics. Murphy has served nearly 14 years as bishop and is the fourth bishop in the history of the diocese since it was founded in 1957.

That, combined with a new pope who has captivated millions of people around the world with his reformist approach to the papacy, is making for a critical juncture, observers say.

"At this historic moment with the leadership in Rome, I can't think of a moment that's been more important" for the diocese, said Richard Koubek, a former head of Catholic Charities, a large diocesan organization that provides social services.

"The leadership in Rome has been such a sea change. This is an opportunity for that new approach . . . to reach down here to Long Island," Koubek said.

Murphy said through a spokesman that he will do whatever the pope decides, and that he is preparing himself and the diocese for either outcome. "If the Holy Father asks that he retire and announces a replacement the day after, Bishop Murphy is fine with that," said diocesan spokesman Sean Dolan.

But he also said the bishop is in good health and there are things Murphy would still like to accomplish here. "If the Holy Father asks him to continue, he will do that," Dolan said. Typically, bishops can make their wishes known to the nuncio and Vatican through various channels, Thavis said.

One longtime parishioner, Patricia Walsh of St. John of God parish in Central Islip, said she hopes Murphy stays as long as possible. "I love Bishop Murphy," she said. "I think he has a great personality. Everybody just seems to be drawn to him."

Players in process

Some 23 priests in the diocese are trying to take part in the selection process. They have written a letter to the apostolic nuncio asking how the process works and how they and others can participate.

They declined to say what response, if any, they received from the nuncio, Archbishop Carlo M. Vigano.

Murphy -- as he and other bishops periodically do -- last summer wrote a letter to priests in the diocese asking for the names of fellow priests they think would make a good bishop or auxiliary bishop here or elsewhere.

Besides Pope Francis, who will make the ultimate decision, the nuncio is the key player in selecting the successor to Murphy and other bishops in the United States, church experts said.

The nuncio will gather information from the local diocese, including from Murphy, receive input from other sources such as other bishops and the heads of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and come up with a list of three nominees. There will be a first choice, a second and a third.

This list is then sent to the Vatican's all-important Congregation of Bishops, which will vote on it and, if approved, send it to the pope. The congregation along with the pope can return the list and have the nuncio start over.

One person who will likely have some influence on the nuncio's list is Cardinal Timothy Dolan of the Archdiocese of New York, since Rockville Centre falls partially under his responsibility and New York is traditionally a major Catholic center in the United States, Reese said.

"If Dolan has somebody he really wants in there right away and pushed for it, that would make a big difference," Reese said.

Pope's imprint

Another key player is Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who is head of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., and one of the approximately 30 members of the Congregation of Bishops who oversee the vetting process for bishops' nominations. Considered a moderate, Wuerl was appointed to the congregation in December 2013 by Francis to replace Cardinal Raymond Burke, a prominent conservative.

"He's going to be in the room in the Vatican when this replacement is discussed and he's going to have a vote," Reese said. He added that members of the congregation, who come from around the world, "tend to defer to one another for their own country."

Francis certainly wants to put his imprint on newly appointed bishops around the world, Thavis said.

Still, it is not clear that has happened in every case so far. Some church experts say there is already a long-standing "pipeline" or list of potential bishop appointees that predates Francis.

In the end, Reese believes the pope most likely will appoint either a bishop of a smaller diocese or an auxiliary bishop from a large diocese or archdiocese to take over Rockville Centre. "It's not going to be a raving liberal," he said, but simply someone the pope thinks "would do a good job."

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