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Fifigate and the bishops, on the waterfront

Fifigate and the bishops, on the waterfront

Hey everybody,

Greetings from the Inner Harbor of Baltimore, where more than 250 U.S. bishops are gathered for the annual fall meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The Inner Harbor was an industrial and freighting area until the 1950s, when the rise of the container ship dramatically changed America’s working waterfronts — and at the same time changed the global economy, trade, agriculture, and a great deal more about human society.

Indeed, it’s my contention that the invention of the intermodal shipping container will eventually be understood as a world-shaping moment, which was in part responsible even for the sunny optimism of the Second Vatican Council’s Gaudium et spes.

But for the Inner Harbor, containerization meant that warehouses and piers fell vacant, rotted alongside the water, and were eventually torn down, giving way to one of the first and biggest tourist/residential/dining/leisure waterfront redevelopments in the United States.

It is the sort of place in which one is keenly aware that a bottle of water should not cost nearly so much — and yet it does!

For the bishops, it’s a familiar place, as the USCCB has met here at least once annually for years, and will continue meeting here for the foreseeable future. And as I’ve been coming to USCCB meetings for quite a while myself, it’s also become a familiar place to me — though I never get over how much they charge around here for a bottle of water!

The harbor view from the fall meeting of the U.S. bishops' conference. Credit: JD Flynn/The Pillar

Non-conference news

Heating and utility costs in the U.K. have climbed enough in recent months that energy bills are expected to account for more than 10% of household income in three-quarters of British homes this winter — putting a lot of people in a very bad spot, experiencing the chilling effects of “fuel poverty.”

Well, the Archdiocese of Liverpool is aiming to help with that, by opening spots where people can stay warm if they can’t afford to heat their homes, and provide wifi, coffee, cookies, and tea, of course.

Priests and lay leaders in the archdiocese told The Pillar they hope the initiative keeps people warm, and at the same time is a witness to the faith, and an antidote to loneliness.

Read all about it.

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By long-standing custom - enshrined in a 1924 concordat with the German government - a group of priests in the Archdiocese of Bamberg, Germany, has the right to present to the pope candidates for the appointment of a diocesan bishop, from which the pontiff usually appoints a shepherd. A number of German dioceses are in similar situations.

In Bamberg, the last bishop of the diocese retired in November, and it's time for the cathedral chapter of canons - the group of priests - to send their lists.

The archdiocese announced last week that it won’t be able to comply with a resolution of the German synodal way, which calls for lay people to be invited into some deliberative democratic role in the list-making process.

The problem, according to an archdiocesan spokesman, is that the concordat doesn’t allow for lay people in the process — and the agreement is a legally binding treaty for the Holy See.

That represents a snag in the move among Germans for lay involvement in episcopal selection — and you can learn more about that, and why lay synodal leaders are pushing back against the archdiocese, right here.

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A new medical school is slated to open at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, in just a few years. The Padre Pio Institute, as it's expected to be called, will aim to form doctors to practice medicine from a deeply Catholic worldview.

The Pillar’s Charlie Camosy talked with anesthesiologist George Mychaskiw this week, about the institution’s aims, and the role it might play among American medical schools. Learn more.

Finally, in a bit of non-conference news, recall that The Pillar reported last week on a lawsuit filed by ousted Vatican auditor Libero Milone, who says he was wrongfully fired when he tried to get Vatican books in order, and accused of spying by Vatican national police officials and Pillar reader Angelo Cardinal Becciu, who says he was not involved in Milone’s ousting at all.

Milone, incidentally, says that before he was accused of spying, he discovered evidence of considerable financial corruption in the Vatican, including Becciu’s department, and in the upper ranks of the Vatican police force.

Well, Milone and his deputy, also a plaintiff in the suit, went to a meeting last night at the office of the Vatican City State’s promoter of justice - the public prosecutor of Vatican City State.

Milone told The Pillar that he was interrogated at that office, last night, for more than three hours. He said his deputy, Ferruccio Panicco, was also interrogated for hours, in a meeting that unexpectedly lasted until 1 in the morning.

Panicco, as The Pillar reported, has stage 4 prostate cancer.

The Pillar has not yet reached the promoter of justice’s office for comment, but - suffice it to say - the next chapter in Libero Milone’s story is certainly beginning.

And readers, you read it here first!

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At the conference

The U.S. bishops have on their agenda Tuesday and Wednesday discussions about “Faithful Citizenship,” their guiding document on voting; along with votes on ICEL translations of the anointing of the sick, and other texts, talk about the Eucharistic revival, and elect new leadership.

The conference will elect both a president and vice president, and I’ve got an explainer here with everything you’ve ever wanted to know about how the election process actually works.  

For the next two days, I’ll livetweet the meeting, and both Ed and contributing editor Brendan Hodge will join me on the ground, in Baltimore, for lots of reporting and analysis. Our newsroom team, headed by managing editor Michelle La Rosa, will add to the reporting from afar.

And on Wednesday night, at 7pm, at Todd Conner’s Bar in Baltimore, The Pillar will host a party at which we’ll record an episode of The Pillar Podcast and break down the meeting. If you live on the East Coast, really, you don’t want to miss this party, it’ll be fun.

Meanwhile, the voting on a president and VP will take place Tuesday afternoon, and on Wednesday the bishops will vote for the chairmen of several committees.

I’ve been asked frequently for my election predictions, and I’ll give them below.

But please understand, these are my predictions of what I think will happen, based upon my conversations in Baltimore, and my experience covering the conference. These are not my choices, endorsements, or anything other than my expectations about what will happen. And I’ll probably be wrong.

So who do I think will win? (not my endorsements) Here are my predictions (not my endorsements):

USCCB president
My prediction: Archbishop Timothy Broglio, first or second ballot.


USCCB vice-president
My prediction:Archbishop Paul Coakley, on the second or third ballot.

I also predict that Bishop Kevin Rhoades, Bishop Daniel Flores, and Archbishop Paul Etienne will be among the high vote-getters on early ballots.

Ed’s prediction (not endorsement), for what it's worth, is Bishop Kevin Rhoades for VP after a third ballot runoff with Archbishop William Lori.


Chairman elections

For each committee, both candidates are listed, followed by my prediction (not my endorsement), and my confidence level about that prediction

Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance

Bishop Thomas Paprocki, Diocese of Springfield in Illinois
Bishop Alfred Schlert, Diocese of Allentown

My prediction? Paprocki.

How confident am I about this prediction? Very.

Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs

Bishop Joseph Bambera, Diocese of Scranton
Bishop Peter Smith, auxiliary bishop, Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon

My prediction? Smith.

How confident am I about this prediction? Not especially.

Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis

Archbishop Charles Thompson, Archdiocese of Indianapolis
Bishop William Byrne, Diocese of Springfield in Massachusetts

My prediction? Thompson.

How confident am I about this prediction? Fairly.

Committee on International Justice and Peace

Archbishop Nelson J. Pérez, Archdiocese of Philadelphia
Bishop Abdallah Elias Zaidan, MLM, Maronite Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon

My prediction? Pérez

How confident am I about this prediction? Pretty sure.

Committee on Protection of Children and Young People

Bishop Barry Knestout, Diocese of Richmond
Bishop Elias Lorenzo, OSB, auxiliary bishop, Archdiocese of Newark

My prediction? It’s a toss-up.

How confident am I about this prediction? The prediction where I hedge my bets and said it could be either guy? Very. I am very confident it will be one of those guys.

Committee for Religious Liberty

Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone, Archdiocese of San Francisco
Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades, Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend

My prediction? Rhoades.

How confident am I about this prediction? Very.



Finally, you saw above a photograph of “Fifi,” a kind of large pink fluffy poodle sculpture in the lobby of the meeting hotel, which is just a coincidence, but which will doubtlessly be cast by some as a metaphor for … Lord knows what?

As it happens, Fifi was removed from the lobby Monday morning, much to my chagrin, but probably to relief of whatever conference staffer was responsible for trying to ensure that bishops were not photographed with a giant pink fluffy poodle.

But why was she removed? It's a mystery. Welcome to #fifigate.

Well, here’s Ed Condon, contributing editor Brendan Hodge, and me, doing some shoe leather investigative reporting last night on #Fifigate:

#fifigate. You heard it here first.

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In case you’re interested, a few more notes about the Inner Harbor itself.

Or at least about the water.

I’ve been told, for as long as I’ve been coming here, that if one falls into the harbor waters, a tetanus booster is in order, in addition to some other decontamination measures. I have a vague memory of watching someone fall into the water a few years ago - not affiliated with the conference - and needing to be fished out and then decontaminated.

No one else I talk to recalls that, so I’m not going to report it as fact.

But the Baltimore Sun reported last year that the silt at the bottom of the Inner Harbor contains decades of industrial run-off: heavy metals and serious contaminants and toxins. Those contaminants include nitrogen and phosphorus, which contribute to algae blooms in the harbor, depleting its water’s oxygens, and leaving the area mostly deprived of fish.

That water itself has enough contamination, including bacteria of various kinds, that one scientist who works in the harbor said in 2019 that she wouldn’t even touch the water without hand sanitizer.

A few years ago, port authorities set the ambitious goal of cleaning up the harbor enough for it to be swimmable and fishable by 2020. They didn’t make it — pointing out eventually that, among other things, the area would need a false bottom, since bare feet in the muck on the harbor’s floor would stir up poisons.

They’ve now set their sights on 2030.

If I am still covering the bishops' meeting in 2030, and the goal of a swimmable harbor has been reached, I will take the plunge, dear readers. And I’ll tell you all about it in a future Pillar Post.

In the meantime, solar powered automatic garbage collectors - one of which is known as “Mr. Trash Wheel” - collect litter from the water’s surface, making it look much more beautiful than it once did.

"Mr. Trash Wheel," a solar-powered anthropomorphic litter collector located very close to the bishops' fall meeting. Photo courtesy of Mr. Trash Wheel.
Mr. Trash Wheel at work. Photo courtesy of Mr. Trash Wheel.

Consider the old days:

Trash floats in the Inner Harbor in 1973. Credit: Baltimore Sun.

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Finally, the bishops will discuss this week the prospective canonization of three American Catholic women: Cora Evans, who converted to Catholicism from the LDS;  Mother Margaret Mary Healy Murphy, who founded a Texas institute of women religious, and Michelle Duppong, who worked as a missionary and diocesan staffer before her death in 2015.

We talked last year with a couple who were close to Michelle Duppong. Read about her life here.

We’ll keep bringing you from Baltimore all the news that’s fit to — well, to publish on our internet website at least. And we’ll see you Wednesday night.

Be assured of our prayers. And please pray for us. We need it.


In Christ,

JD Flynn
2030 harbor swimmer
The Pillar