"Un Ti Morceau"

"A Little Something," mini-lessons and reflections by our pastor, Father Paul Counce

Heads of Dioceses

Published October 19, 2014 by Fr. Paul Counce

I thought I had just finished a series of ti morceaux about the Sacrament of Holy Orders. In so doing I dealt with all three kinds of ordained leaders: deacons, priests and bishops. But as a follow-up I’ve been asked to expand a little more about the clergy who serve as diocesan leaders.

I know immediately you’re thinking “bishop”! Well, you’re right, but only partly so. The unique history of the Diocese of Baton Rouge has seen it be shepherded by several sorts of leadership: five bishops, two diocesan administrators (one elected twice!) and one apostolic administrator.

The Pope alone chooses someone to serve as the diocesan bishop, typically after a long, careful consultative process with other bishops, clergy, and laypersons who offer their advice as to his choice. Pope St. John XXIII appointed Bishop Robert Tracy to Baton Rouge in 1961; Blessed Pope Paul VI assigned Bishop Joseph Sullivan here in 1982; and Pope St. John Paul II assigned Bishops Stanley Joseph Ott, Alfred Hughes and Robert Muench, in 1983, 1993 and 2002 respectively. And we all know that a diocesan bishop serves until death, or until the Pope transfers him or accepts his resignation.

Usually a caretaker “diocesan administrator” is elected by a select group of priests to govern a diocese that is “in between” bishops. This more simple kind of administrator has more limited authority: basically he is supposed to supervise diocesan operations without introducing any “innovations.” Monsignor Cage Gordon was chosen for this role in 1982 after Bishop Sullivan’s death, and Father John Carville similarly was elected, both after Bishop Ott died in 1992 and after Bishop Hughes was transferred away in 2001. Yet in 1974, after Bishop Tracy’s resignation until Bishop Sullivan’s installation, Archbishop Phillip Hannan of New Orleans served as apostolic administrator here. This was a special appointment by the Pope: an “apostolic” administrator has the full authority of a diocesan bishop, even though his time of service is only temporary. “Apostolic” administrators are designated as such by the Pope, and only in unusual circumstances or for some other very good reason. (Although the passage of time and our ever-better understanding of the disease of alcoholism have healed much of the hurt, the awkwardness of Bishop Tracy’s resignation in 1974 for this reason more than anything else probably prompted the Holy Father to take this step.)

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