Celebrating a bishop-elect in San Francisco

I spent some time in San Francisco earlier this summer and wherever Catholics were gathered, the buzz was about bishop-elect Msgr. Robert W. McElroy, who will be ordained to the episcopacy Sept. 7. As auxiliary bishop in San Francisco, he is expected to be named Vicar for Pastoral Life.

It would be a fitting job, if everything that’s being said about him is true. In this age when a certain amount of healthy Catholic skepticism is often the norm, people on all parts of the ecclesiological/political spectrum just gushed about McElroy’s intellectual and pastoral genius.

“He’s always the brightest bulb in the room,” said one Jesuit, and we know members of the order don’t loosely confer intellectual superiority to someone outside “the Society.” And I heard that phrase more than once.

“Greatest pastor I’ve known,” said a long-time Catholic. Others emphasized that he seemed to have a talent for listening and giving a sense that he understood people’s concerns even if he didn’t agree with their solutions. No one defined him in terms of the usual conservative/liberal categories. If anyone applied a label, it was usually “he’s a moderate.” The only mildly derisive comments had to do with wondering how someone so highly regarded by the locals had made it this far up the hierarchical ladder.

He comes with outsized credentials – bachelor’s degree from Harvard and master’s in history and doctorate in political science from Stanford. I’m almost through reading what I presume is the book treatment of his thesis, an illuminating analysis of the work of the renowned Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray.

At the same time he has a reputation, as pastor at St. Gregory Parish since 1996, for building consensus and moving forward with patience.
Read more about him here. It’s a story from Catholic San Francisco. While it is reasonable to expect that a diocesan paper is going to write glowingly of a new bishop, one can’t make up the quotes from previous parishioners, and they go far in describing what sounds like a remarkable pastor: “kind, gentle, very caring”; “someone I can talk to about anything, and I have”; “the parish community… took on projects that require us to look out beyond our own local community”; “his ability to encourage me to go further in my faith was, I think, one of the most dramatic parts of his legacy for me.”

It was gratifying to see people truly excited about an episcopal appointment. Here was someone who has apparently proven himself as a pastor in the local community, not some unknown from half a country away. Those who knew him or knew of him by reputation, spoke of him as a priest of real integrity. I got the sense that he would have been named by popular acclamation had that been the process.

It seemed, for a moment at least, the way things ought to be and the way people ought to feel about their new bishop.

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