PORTLAND — When Pope Benedict XVI steps down as pontiff on Feb. 28 – the first papal resignation in nearly 600 years – he’ll leave 1.2 billion Roman Catholics around the world in search of a new leader.
That’s a familiar predicament for Catholics in Portland and throughout Maine.
For more than six months, the Diocese of Portland, which serves the state’s Catholic population of 187,000, has been without a bishop, the traditional leader of a diocese.
The vacancy was created last August, when Bishop Richard Malone was transferred by the pope to a diocese in Buffalo, N.Y., with more than three times the Catholic population of Maine.
Since then, Malone has also been serving as apostolic administrator of the Portland diocese, a position that allows him to carry out some, but not all, of his previous local duties.
For example, under church law an administrator cannot approve diocesan real estate transactions until he has served in that role for a year. The restriction wouldn’t apply to the pending sale of St. Patrick Church on outer Congress Street, because that transaction was approved in a deal proposed five years ago, according to diocese spokesman Dave Guthro.
But before purchasing its first-ever investment property last December – a $2.75 million shopping center at 290 Congress St. – the diocese had to obtain approval directly from the Vatican, Guthro said.
The choice of a new bishop also rests with the Vatican. And like the selection of the pope, the naming of a bishop is shrouded in secrecy.
The process involves consultation with other bishops, background checks and a final recommendation of three candidates by the Vatican’s diplomatic representative to the United States. The final decision is the pope’s alone.
“I have no clue who the person appointed to Portland will be, but I know the process is going forward,” Malone told a group of reporters in Buffalo last week.
Although time is running out, Pope Benedict could name a new bishop before his papacy ends next week. After that, any selection would have to wait until a new pope is elected by a secret meeting of the church’s College of Cardinals.
It’s widely expected that meeting will take place next month, and that a pope will be chosen in time for the church’s celebration of Easter on March 31.
Malone declined to speculate on who the successor to Benedict might be, but said it probably wouldn’t be an American.
“I can’t see (an American pope) in my lifetime,” he said in a recording of last week’s comments, provided by the Diocese of Portland. “The U.S. is too much of a superpower.”
While the world waits, Portland and seven other dioceses across the country are also awaiting the appointment of new bishops. Those dioceses include one in Bridgeport, Conn., which has been without a bishop for nearly a year, and the diocese of El Paso, Texas, which has been waiting 14 months.
Ed Flynn, a Portland resident who attended Mass Sunday at St. Joseph Church on Stevens Avenue, said he wasn’t surprised by the slow pace.
“After all, this is the Catholic church,” he said. “It’s been around 2,000 years. Things move slowly. I guess we can wait a little longer.”
In 2011, Pope Benedict XVI met the bishop of Portland, Richard Malone. Last August, Malone was reassigned to a diocese in Buffalo, N.Y., and his successor has not yet been named.