Give Detroit a cardinal, Pope Francis

Nicholas G. Hahn III
The Detroit News

Pope Francis is expected to soon announce the creation of new cardinals, and some in the Vatican anticipate certain archdioceses will receive red hats.

But the pope hasn’t elevated any U.S. prelates to the college of cardinals, and a favorable September 2015 visit stateside might translate into more American leaders of the church.

When the pope considers American churchmen for the rank of cardinal, watch for Francis to “head for the periphery.” That catchphrase of this papacy is reflected in the pontiff’s choices at consistories. The pope has refused to make cardinals out of bishops who expect it, as dioceses with large amount of Catholics might or ones that have historically had a cardinal. Instead, he has awarded red hats to places like Les Cayes, Haiti, or Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.

That might be good news for Detroit, an American archdiocese on the periphery. Once among the largest dioceses in the country, the Motor City has lost nearly 300,000 Catholics and 91 parishes since 2000. Detroit was the poorest major U.S. city in 2014 with about 40 percent of its population unable to make ends meet and still over half of the city’s children living in poverty.

But Detroit’s spiritual leader isn’t in outer space. “We live in this world, not on planet Mars,” Archbishop Allen Vigneron told a Jesuit magazine after Detroit declared bankruptcy in 2013, “so we have to figure out how we find a new way to be the Catholic Church within the city of Detroit.”

The city’s Catholics have been led by a cardinal since 1946, and Detroit’s retired cardinal, who after turning 80 has been too old to help elect the past two popes, intimated Vigneron merits a promotion. “When I think about the challenges that face the Church, among them the secularization of our society,” Cardinal Adam Maida said, “I think he’s been a magnificent leader and will continue to be a wonderful leader here.”

The Mount Clemens native with an advanced theology degree and a doctorate in philosophy served as rector of Detroit’s seminary before being sent to shepherd Oakland’s Catholics.

There Vigneron led some culture battles over gay marriage and stem-cell research, but didn’t have his finger wagging. Vigneron, who has been nominated more than once to lead the country’s bishops, developed a respected reputation of being a gentle warrior for the church’s teachings.

But don’t confuse the good archbishop’s mild manner for mushy theology.

He doesn’t ignore his flock’s financial plight and even ramped up church services for the needy, yet Vigneron insists poverty has more to do with the “disintegration of the family” than a lack of aid from Washington, D.C.

Vigneron frequently prays with leaders of other faiths, including the populous Islamic community in Dearborn. But his interfaith work isn’t meant to “level out or bleach away our differences,” Vigneron said at a recent lunch with local imams.

And when it comes to the controversial issue of gay marriage, the archbishop points to a certain harmony: his pastors are “being faithful to and open about the truth, and being loving and compassionate to fellow Catholics in their personal and family lives.”

That seems to fit the Francis model.

The pope has said he wants the church to be like a “field hospital after battle.” To heal the faithful’s wounds, pastors “have to start from the ground up.”

If Detroit’s archbishop were to be made a cardinal, Pope Francis would be getting in on the ground floor of the American church.

Twitter: @NGHahn3