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Bishop Fabre to succeed Abp. Kurtz in Louisville

Bishop Shelton Fabre will soon be announced as the new Archbishop of Louisville, Kentucky, Church officials in Rome and the archdiocese have told The Pillar.

The announcement of Fabre’s appointment is expected as soon as this week, and will see the bishop succeed Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, who has led the Kentucky archdiocese since 2007.

Bishop Shelton Fabre. Image Credit: USCCB via YouTube

Fabre has been since 2013  the Bishop of Houma-Thibodaux in his native state of Louisiana. He was previously an auxiliary bishop of New Orleans.

Fabre, 58, was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Baton Rouge in 1989, having completed his seminary studies in Belgium.

In addition to leading the Houma-Thibodaux diocese, Fabre also chairs the U.S. bishops’ ad hoc committee against racism, and oversaw the release of the USCCB’s 2018 pastoral letter “Open Wide our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love,” which addressed the enduring problems of racism in the United States, and the Catholic response to them.

Sources close to the Congregation for Bishops in Rome told The Pillar that the process for selecting a new archbishop for Louisville had been underway since before Christmas, and that several candidates had been considered for the appointment.

Archbishop Kurtz submitted his resignation, in line with the provisions of canon law, when he turned 75 in August 2021, having already contended with serious health issues during his time in office. In 2019, Kurtz announced he would undergo treatment for bladder cancer and be away from the archdiocese for a period of weeks.

Kurtz is a widely respected figure among the U.S. bishops. He was in 2013 elected as president of the USCCB, and in 2014 elected as a delegate of the U.S. bishops to participate in the meeting of the Synod of Bishops on the family in Rome.

In November 2021, Kurtz was chosen to lead a day of prayer and retreat for the U.S. bishops’ conference, at the opening of the annual USCCB Fall Assembly in Baltimore. Kurtz was tapped as a unifying figure, after months of public division among the bishops over a proposed document on the Eucharist.

Also in 2021, Kurtz was tapped by the Congregation for Bishops to conduct an investigation into the leadership of Bishop Rick Stika of Knoxville, Tennessee, after several priests in the Knoxville diocese raised concerns about Stika's management. Kurtz, who was previously Knoxville's bishop, sent an assessment of the situation to the Vatican, where next steps concerning Stika are reportedly under discussion.

The Archdiocese of Louisville, home to more than 180,000 Catholics, is also the metropolitan see of the province of Louisville, which includes the Kentucky dioceses of Owensboro, Lexington, and Covington, as well as the Tennessee dioceses of Nashville, Knoxville, and Memphis.

One official close to the congregation told The Pillar that Louisville was considered in Rome a “sensitive” appointment, adding that there had been considerable debate about a slate of candidates before Fabre was finally proposed to the Holy Father for approval.

Louisville became the locus of widespread demonstrations for racial justice following the killing of Breonna Taylor in her own apartment by local police in March 2020. Demonstrations after Taylor’s killing were intensified following the murder of George Floyd two months later in Minneapolis.

As chairman of the USCCB committee against racism, Fabre has been a leading voice among the bishops in acknowledging and combating the problem of racism in American society.

In March last year, Fabre was invited by Kurtz to address the Louisville archdiocese’s online Archdiocesan Leadership Institute, during which he spoke of the need to “recognize and respond to racism as a life issue.”

“Racism attacks the human life and dignity of its victims,” Fabre told priests and lay leaders of the archdiocese. “To truly and authentically be pro-life, we must strive to dismantle in our own hearts as well as in society all attacks against the sanctity of life and one such attack is racism.”

For months, speculation has circulated amongst the clergy of the archdiocese about who the next archbishop would be, with Bishop John Stowe of Lexington and Bishop Joseph Bambera of Scranton, Pa., two names commonly mentioned among priests in the region.

Stowe’s name was also floated by progressive-leaning Catholic commentators as a likely choice to succeed Kurtz. The bishop has become well-known for weighing in on national ecclesial affairs in recent months. In November, shortly before the U.S. bishops met in Baltimore for their annual assembly, Stowe said that expecting his brother bishops to show “real discernment, serious discussion, and prayerful listening” before publishing such a document was “probably unrealistic.”

Bambera, who chairs the bishops’ committee on ecumenism and inter-religious affairs, has been floated in the past as a candidate for a metropolitan see, and was discussed seriously as a possibility for Louisville, while a Vatican official close to the Congregation for Bishops told The Pillar that Stowe was not considered in Rome a plausible candidate for the job.

“The focus was on candidates who could foster communion in the archdiocese and the province from the beginning,” the official said. “That was the first concern.”

While Fabre is well-regarded for his work leading the Church in the United States’ engagement on racial justice issues, the bishop has not immersed himself in the minutiae of conference politics, and shown himself willing to work on priority issues with broad coalitions.

While Stowe and Bambera were signatories, Fabre did not sign a controversial letter last year calling for discussion of a document on Eucharistic coherence to be dropped from the agenda of the bishops’ June meeting.

In 2020, Stowe raised concerns about whether the outside funding of USCCB committees, including the ad hoc committee on racism, might impact the bishops’ work or indicate that the issue was not a priority for the USCCB.  The committee’s budget is funded through the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the Black and Indian Missions Office, and the Knights of Columbus.

For his part, Fabre pushed back on the suggestion that the committee’s outside funding meant it was not a priority for the bishops.

The bishop emphasized that “the important thing is that the work is being done…I don’t share, necessarily, all of Bishop Stowe’s concerns, I do know that the bishops have given attention to this, and are dealing with the issue of racism.”

In recent months, Fabre has placed a pastoral emphasis on hurricane relief, in the wake of Louisiana’s recovery from the devastating September 20201 Hurricane Ida. Fabre urged judges at a recent Red Mass to be merciful to those facing criminal charges amid the elevated stress of hurricane recovery, and urged the Knights of St. Peter Claver, a Black Catholic fraternal society, to coordinate hurricane relief drives around the country.

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