Martin Luther King Jr. Day, January 18, brought with it a bishop's appointment, in this case, that of Msgr. W. Michael Mulvey as the new bishop of Corpus Christi, Texas. As with any bishop's appointments, this one brought with it its fair share of statistical breakdowns and fascinating factoids.
First, in terms of appointments nationwide, this appointment brought the total of dioceses awaiting a new bishop down to 10, that is, six vacant dioceses and four bishops serving past the retirement age of 75.
For reference, U.S. dioceses with a bishop serving past age 75 are: Lafayette in Indiana, Seattle, Spokane and Oklahoma City.
Currently vacant (i.e. without a bishop) U.S. dioceses are: Springfield in Illinois, Scranton, Ogdensburg, La Crosse, Harrisburg and Austin. (Hat tip to David Cheney.)
An interesting aspect of yesterday's appointment was that Bishop-elect Mulvey was, in effect, already in charge of one of these vacant dioceses. He'd been serving as administrator of Austin since some time after its previous bishop, Gregory Aymond, was appointed archbishop of New Orleans last June.
This raises the important point that even "vacant" dioceses aren't truly vacant in that, if a bishop retires or is reassigned without an immediate successor being named, an administrator is named to temporarily oversee the diocese, but without the canonical rights and authority that a bishop possesses. (For instance, an administrator doesn't have the authority to ordain priests, etc.)
Administrators are also needed in the short term. When a pope accepts a bishop's retirement or appoints a new bishop, the appointment takes effect automatically. But in practice, a diocese usually has to wait several weeks to a few months for a newly-appointed bishop to be installed. An administrator must serve in the gap between the time of the announced retirement/appointment and the installation.
In many cases, that administrator turns out to be the newly-retired bishop, in effect, filling in for himself after he's retired. This was recently seen when Bishop John D'Arcy of Fort Wayne-South Bend served as administrator of his diocese following the November 14 annoucement of his retirement/the appointment of his successor and the January 13 installation of that successor, Bishop Kevin Rhoades.
When an administrator isn't a retiring bishop, and serves an indefinite period of time till the appointment of a new bishop, the job is frequently given to a priest or auxiliary bishop of the vacant diocese. When the new bishop is appointed, this priest may quietly return to his previous work for the diocese, or he may find out that he is the new bishop, as was the case of David Choby of Nashville in 2005.
The twist with Bishop-elect Mulvey is that he was appointed bishop, not of his own diocese, but of Corpus Christi, whose bishop was serving past retirement age. This is one of a number of factors that can make following bishops' appointments nationwide sometimes feel like a carnival shell game.
Another scenario sometimes seen in diocesan administration is that the administrator of one vacant diocese is also the bishop of another diocese. For example, Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia is also the administrator of the Diocese of Scranton until a new bishop is appointed.
The appointment of Bishop-elect Mulvey creates a similar scenario since, as Church scribe Rocco Palmo has pointed out, even as he becomes bishop of Corpus Christi, Mulvey will also remain administrator of Austin. Palmo implies that this means Austin will be getting a new bishop soon. As with any bishops' appointment, however, we won't know about this one way or another until the pope actually announces his pick.