L.A. priest to become Baltimore bishop Calif. Jesuit to fill post of city associate left vacant by Ricard

December 24, 1997|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Calling the news "a Christmas gift from the Holy Father," Cardinal William H. Keeler announced yesterday that a Jesuit priest from California will become Baltimore's newest bishop.

The Rev. Gordon D. Bennett, 51, president of Loyola High School Los Angeles, has been appointed auxiliary bishop by Pope John Paul II. Bennett, who will be one of three assistants to Keeler, was selected to fill the vacancy created when charismatic Bishop John H. Ricard left Baltimore in March to lead the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee in Florida. Bennett will be installed at a March 3 ceremony at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. He will direct the Urban Vicariate, which includes more than 50 city parishes, 40 schools and 85,000 Roman Catholics.

"I don't believe anyone who is asked to serve in this capacity would feel up to the task," said Bennett, who started his ministry in 1970 teaching English, French and music and has spent most of his priesthood in Catholic education, as a teacher and administrator.

"But I take great comfort in the response Mary gave the angel Gabriel, which makes our celebration of this Christmas season possible: 'Be it done unto me according to your word,' " he said during a news conference at the Catholic Center.

Bennett mused briefly on his degree of surprise when he received word that he was to be appointed a bishop: "On a scale of one to 10 11."

"I thought of myself as finishing my term as president [of Loyola High School] and retiring to teach freshman English for the rest of my life," he said.

Cardinal Roger Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles, noted a parallel in sending Bennett to Baltimore. "As the Archdiocese of Los Angeles sends one of its priests from this coast to serve as an auxiliary bishop in Baltimore on the East Coast, it is striking that in God's Providence it was exactly 11 years ago today [Dec. 23] that our Holy Father announced the appointment of the Most Rev. Carl Fisher, S.S.J., a pastor in Baltimore, to serve as auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles," Mahony said in a statement.

Fisher, who was pastor of St. Francis Xavier parish in East Baltimore, served as bishop in Los Angeles until his death from cancer in 1993.

"One cannot help but see God's special hand in the linking of the See of Baltimore and the See of Los Angeles through this marvelous exchange of bishops," Mahony said.

Typically, bishops are drawn from the ranks of diocesan clergy, and the appointment of a member of a religious order is unusual. But with the departure of Ricard, who was Baltimore's first African-American bishop, there was considerable sentiment in the African-American Catholic community that his successor also black. There was speculation that because there are so few African-American diocesan clergy that the Vatican would look to a religious order to find Ricard's successor.

In replacing Ricard, Bennett will have a hard act to follow. Ricard was extremely popular in the black community, was an outspoken advocate for the poor and formed significant ties with many groups in the city, particularly Hispanics and Muslims.

Baltimoreans liked the fact that he lived in a rectory in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods. And his influence was felt beyond the city: He established the National Black Catholic Congress, was named president of Catholic Relief Services and served as chairman of the domestic policy committee of the National Council of Catholic Bishops.

Keeler, who had important input into the selection process, said that it is significant that John Paul would select an African-American priest to serve as bishop in Baltimore. Bennett becomes one of 12 active African-American bishops in the United States.

"I think it's a sign that the Holy Father recognizes that in this city, we have the longest, most historic ministry to Catholics of African descent," Keeler said, pointing out that it was in Baltimore that the first black parish was started and the first religious community of women of African descent was founded.

"And today, there are 16 parishes whose membership is constituted almost entirely by African- Americans," he said. "There's no other diocese in the country that has that kind of substantial history."

Bennett acknowledged his African-American heritage was an important consideration in his appointment. "I would say that's one of the reasons I was appointed, because of the need to present a diverse face [on the church's leadership]. Obviously, in terms of what I reflect and who I represent, it's an important consideration," he said. "It's not the only consideration, though. I think it's very important that the African-American bishops are also builders of bridges to other cultures, so that we can draw everyone together."

Hilbert Stanley, executive director of the Baltimore-based National Black Catholic Congress, which had called for an African-American priest to be appointed bishop, said yesterday he was pleased to see Bennett chosen.

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