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Barron to be appointed Minnesota bishop

Los Angeles auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron will be appointed to lead the Diocese of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota on Thursday, sources close to the process confirmed to The Pillar on Wednesday.

The appointment comes in the wake of several high-profile employee departures from Barron’s Word on Fire apostolate, where the bishop and other senior leaders have been accused of mishandling allegations of sexual misconduct on the part of a former employee.

Bishop Robert Barron. Credit: Word on Fire.

Barron’s pending appointment to the southern Minnesota diocese was first reported Wednesday by “Whispers in the Loggia” writer Rocco Palmo, and was confirmed to The Pillar by several sources close to the process.

Barron has served as auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles since 2015. He was before that rector/president of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Mundelein Seminary and University of St. Mary of the Lake.

The prelate is best known as the founder of Word on Fire, the independent Catholic media apostolate he started before he was a seminary rector. Word on Fire has grown to produce popular video series, as well as publishing books, a YouTube channel, and a considerable presence on social media.

As a result, Barron has often taken a lead among the US bishops’ discussions on media and evangelization, previously chairing the USCCB’s committee on evangelization and catechesis, before his election to chair the committee on laity, family life, and youth last November.

Word on Fire began when Barron was a Chicago priest broadcasting homilies on a local radio station. With the support of Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George, the priest began a ministry of engagement and apologetics on the internet, which gradually grew to include a small staff.

In 2011, the organization - an Illinois non-profit - published “Catholicism,” a documentary miniseries on the faith, which was broadcast on PBS stations. The popular series is credited with encouraging or engaging many Catholics in the faith, and Word on Fire developed other catechetical and evangelical media projects, which were generally well-received by other U.S. bishops.

Barron became an auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles in 2015, and has continued to be the face of Word on Fire.

The Winona-Rochester diocese, which runs along the southern border of Minnesota, is led by Bishop John Quinn, who submitted his resignation in December 2020, when he turned 75 years old. It is home to more than 130,000 Catholics, and roughly 60 active diocesan priests.

The diocese filed for bankruptcy in 2018, in response to financial obligations stemming from sexual abuse lawsuits.

Also in 2018, the Congregation for Bishops announced that the diocese, which had previously been called the Diocese of Winona, would become the Diocese of Winona-Rochester, as the city of Rochester is more than 4 times the size of Winona, and closer to the diocesan population centers.

Barron’s appointment comes amid a growing challenge to fill diocesan see in the United States, with Church officials reporting that priests are in recent years more frequently turning down the offer of episcopal appointment.

Two Latin Catholic dioceses in the U.S. are presently vacant; another nine are led by bishops past the formal retirement age of 75.

The appointment of a new bishop for Winona-Rochester on Thursday would come one day after Pope Francis announced the merger of the Canadian dioceses of Saint-Jérôme and Mont-Laurier, which had previously been united in the person of the bishop.

The pope has in recent months announced the mergers in persona of several dioceses in Canada, Ireland, and the UK, fueling expectations that formal diocesan mergers could become more common among smaller and more rural dioceses.

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