Sunday, February 26, 2017

Amid Prayers For "Teddy Bear," Nashville Is Impeded

Eleven years ago this week, at his ordination to the helm of his hometown church, these pages dubbed the Eleventh Bishop of Nashville a "mitred teddy bear."

On getting to know Bishop Dave Choby after the fact, the line just became more true – at his behest, it's admittedly the only thing this scribe has called him ever since. Yet now, the wonderfully sweet, soft-spoken prelate is in need of prayers far beyond Opryland.

After years of health struggles stemming from a septuple (read: 7-artery) heart bypass surgery in 2010, weeks following his 70th birthday, a major fall at home in early February has seen Choby invoke an extraordinary provision of canon law, declaring Central Tennessee's 80,000-member, 38-county diocese "impeded" and entrusting its governance to his lead vicar-general, Fr David Perkin.

According to the norms of law, a see is impeded when "by reason of captivity, banishment, exile, or incapacity a diocesan bishop is clearly prevented from fulfilling his pastoral function in the diocese, so that he is not able to communicate with those in his diocese even by letter." Given the bishop's ability to designate a caretaker – a task required of each ordinary at the outset of his tenure, lest an emergency arise – the canons stipulate that, once the arrangement is invoked, said delegate "is bound by the obligations and possesses the power in the exercise of the pastoral care of the diocese which a diocesan administrator has by law," creating the scenario of a de facto vacant see.

Announced in a letter read at this weekend's Masses, the declared impediment of a diocese is without any recent precedent in the US church. Himself a Rome-trained canonist – and Nashville's elected administrator at its last vacancy – while Choby's letter cited "more than a handful of occasions where this has happened" domestically, the two Stateside instances the bishop recalled to aides from his sickbed in preparing the note never actually took place.

In any case, the gravity of the situation – both canonically and in terms of Choby's health – was further underscored this week by a bedside visit from the metropolitan, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, and reported consultation with the Nuncio to Washington, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, before Choby moved to trigger the impeded see.

Though the Tennessee fold formally numbers some 80,000 Catholics in the state's middle third, its reality is considerably larger. According to local ops, a massive flood of Hispanic migration (and its lack of legal or ecclesial documentation) unofficially comprises a silent membership of some 200,000 more – a circumstance especially common to every diocese in the American South, and all the more pronounced given the region's relatively small numbers on the books.

That aspect helps explain the principal act of Choby's tenure: the Nashville church's recent acquisition of the compound of the onetime Two Rivers Evangelical mega-church as the diocesan pastoral center, anchored by the move-in of the Chancery and the dedication of its 3,500-seat sanctuary as Sagrado Corazon (Sacred Heart) the city's parish-hub for its booming Latino flock, with further space on the property to accommodate the anticipated future growth.

Along the way, despite his own rough health, the bishop trekked to San Antonio at the last minute in late 2014 to ordain one of his seminarians, William Carmona, to the priesthood on his deathbed (above) in the face of terminal cancer. A Colombia-born late vocation in studies at Assumption Seminary, Fr William passed two days later at age 50.

All that said, even for the reporting to be had in the moment, this scribe's first concern remains for a beloved brother and friend, and likewise for all the wonderful folks who've given their bishop such selfless care and support, thus making possible his wish to keep on, even for the considerable burden it's placed on him through these years.

In that light, again, please keep our "Teddy Bear" and all the Nashville crew in your prayers over these days ahead... and at this point, a special word is owed to Deacon Jim McKenzie, whose dual experience in nursing and ministry, and moving dedication of both to his pastor-boss at home and on the road, has been a priceless blessing all around.

With a difficult hint at a farewell in its close, here's Choby's letter announcing the handover of governance, dated Saturday, 25 February:
My Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

I write to share with you my current health condition and its impact on the governance of the diocese.

As many of you know, over the past four years I have sustained two falls. The first resulted in a broken arm from which I was able to recover while continuing my ministry and duties as your bishop. This second and most recent fall has caused damage to my spinal column including fractures of the vertebrae which are the supporting structures of the spinal cord. During the course of treatment, I developed an infection in the bloodstream. This complication has been the cause of my stay in the intensive care unit. The antibiotics have done their job in stabilizing my vital signs but recent tests have shown that bacteria has begun to grow in my heart. The next steps of my care are still being evaluated, and I continue to need your prayers and support.

My current health condition prevents me from fulfilling all of my pastoral functions within the diocese. Church law addresses and makes provision for such circumstances. There has been more than a handful of occasions where this has happened in other dioceses around the country. In fact, every bishop is required to designate in advance, the priest he wishes to exercise diocesan governance, should the need to invoke this provision arise.

By virtue of my incapacity, the Diocese of Nashville is impeded. I remain your bishop, but the governance of the diocese during this period of impediment is to be assumed by one of my vicars general, Very Reverend David R. Perkin, effective, February 25, 2017. He has graciously accepted this responsibility and I am sincerely grateful to him for his kind and generous willingness to serve. I am confident he will provide able leadership for the wellbeing of our diocese. In this position, as described in Church law, he is bound by the obligations and possesses the authority which belong to a diocesan administrator. I am comforted in knowing you will support him in this new role.

I express my thanks to all the people who have sent their prayers and words of support during this hospitalization. I want all of you to know it has been the happiest and most rewarding years of my life serving you, the Church, and almighty God as your bishop. You remain in my prayers and thoughts.

Wishing you every blessing, I am

Sincerely in Christ,

Most Reverend David R. Choby
Bishop of Nashville