For Cardinal William H. Keeler, replacing Bishop John H. Ricard is more than finding a capable administrator for the nation's oldest Roman Catholic diocese.
He will have to replace a man whose style and connection to the poor and disenfranchised make him nearly impossible to duplicate.
As Ricard prepares to leave in mid-March to become bishop of Pensacola, Fla., many people are counseling Keeler to do more than find a perfect prelate. The cardinal is being urged to find a black man for Baltimore's archdiocese -- where the first black congregation began.
Dr. Hilbert D. Stanley, executive director of the National Black Catholic Congress, described it as "essential" that a black man be found. "It's essential because of the concentration of African-Americans in Baltimore and especially as a church as we try to spread the good news of Jesus Christ, we need leaders who look like the people we're talking to, who understand the people we're talking to.
"The person [who succeeds Ricard] needs to know the history, the culture, the values of the people being served," Stanley said.
Possibly as challenging as finding a black successor is locating one with Ricard's qualities, especially his talent for dealing with the mundane problems of day-to-day parish life.
Many administrators of the city's aging parish churches and schools came to think of him during his 13 years as vicar of Baltimore as a trouble-shooter who rode to the rescue when no one else could or would.
When the roof sprang a leak at Sts. James and John Roman Catholic School in East Baltimore a couple of years ago, Principal La Uanah Cassell knew whom to call for help.
Corpus Christi Roman Catholic Church in Bolton Hill, which doesn't have a pastor, has turned to him whenever no other priest was available to celebrate Mass.
And St. Francis Xavier Roman Catholic Church in East Baltimore has counted on Ricard to ensure the delivery of hundreds of toys for its annual Christmas party for needy neighborhood youngsters.
While acknowledging they'll never truly replace the city's first African-American bishop, many area Catholics are hoping his successor will be at least as competent.
After receiving permission from Pope John Paul II to begin the search, Keeler will propose three names that will be forwarded to the papal nuncio (the pope's representative) in Washington, who will send them to the Congregation for Bishops.
That committee of cardinals in Rome then will review the names and all supporting documentation and make a recommendation to the pope, said the Rev. Thomas Reese, S.J., senior fellow at Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center and an expert on U.S. bishops.
"It's a very secretive process. And anybody who looks like they're campaigning for the job immediately gets axed," said Reese.
But the process does allow for a wide-ranging selection.
"Normally speaking, your auxiliary bishops would come from the local clergy. But because the local clergy doesn't have enough black priests, the Vatican looks beyond the local diocese for black priests," Reese said. "I'm sure there are a lot of dynamic, good ones. They're simply going to have to go out and find them."
Of Ricard, Reese said: "I think he's very well-liked and very well-respected by the other bishops in the country. They've chosen him to take on some very important assignments, such as chairman of the domestic policy committee [of the National Council of Catholic Bishops] -- an extremely important committee."
While Ricard has a laid-back leadership style, he takes very seriously his goal of guiding people in the right direction. That was evident during the recent restructuring of Catholic elementary schools in Southeast Baltimore, said Dr. Guy Alexander, a dentist and a member of the school restructuring committee.
"The committee wanted to close two schools but he basically drew a line in the sand and said the archdiocese would rather not close two schools right now when we have funding that could support them," Alexander said. Last week, Keeler announced that one school will be closed.
In 1989, fearing the fate of the two remaining black Catholic schools in East Baltimore -- Sts. James and John and St. Katherine's -- Ricard told the leaders of six area parishes to join forces to help maintain the schools financially, said the Rev. Richard Lawrence, pastor of St. Vincent de Paul.
"We did, and those two schools are now financially healthy. It wasn't my problem until he pointed it out to me -- then it became my problem," Lawrence said.
"That kind of vision and initiative will make him hard to replace as urban vicar."
Not so well-known is Ricard's involvement with ecumenical outreach.
Ricard says his most recent move on that front came in October, when he and Keeler escorted a delegation of five U.S. Muslims to an audience with the pope at the Vatican.