Auxiliary bishop feels bond with city

St. Paul Cathedral to be ordination site

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The new auxiliary bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh is from Harrisburg, but his answer to a question of local interest brought cheers at his first news conference.

Asked Friday whether he was a Philadelphia Eagles fan, Bishop-elect William Waltersheid said, "Who are they? I have been and remain a Steelers fan."

He will be ordained at 2 p.m. April 25 in St. Paul Cathedral, Oakland. The bishop-elect, 54, is a former nurse, with a reputation for compassion, prayer, wit and deep devotion to the Virgin Mary.

Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh, hobbled by two back surgeries since April, beamed Friday as he towered over the diminutive bishop-elect.

"For me this is like Merry Christmas," said Bishop Zubik, who has had no auxiliary bishop since the pope sent Bishop Paul Bradley to Kalamazoo, Mich., in 2009. Retired auxiliary Bishop William Winter, 80, has been assisting him.

Auxiliary bishops have no intrinsic authority, but can confer the sacrament of confirmation. In Pittsburgh they have usually had key roles in administration.

Bishop-elect Waltersheid said he felt a "tremendous bond" with the people of Pittsburgh and knows many priests from his studies and years as vice-rector at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.

"I feel that our Holy Father has given me a wonderful new family," he said.

It's unusual for the pope to appoint an auxiliary from another diocese. Normally the diocesan bishop sends a list of local priests to Rome and the pope chooses one.

Exceptions are made for various reasons, particularly if someone who is seen as a future leader can't be an auxiliary in his own diocese.

"Sometimes there are some hard feelings [among local priests], but if the guy appointed is a good guy, within a year or two people forget about it and deal with him on the basis of his merits and personality," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center in Washington, D.C, who studies the hierarchy.

Outside appointments require powerful backers, whose identities are rarely known.

The bishop-elect is well known to at least two American "kingmakers." He was vice rector of the North American College -- where U.S. seminarians live and study in Rome -- when Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York was rector.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., the former bishop of Pittsburgh, was chairman of the seminary's board of governors when the bishop-elect was invited to join the faculty in 1999.

Bishop Zubik cited another connection, the late Bishop Nicholas Dattilo of Harrisburg, who was sent there from Pittsburgh in 1990 and ordained the bishop-elect in 1992. This brings the exchange full circle, he said.

The bishop-elect returned to Harrisburg in 2003. He has been a pastor and diocesan secretary for clergy and consecrated life.

He grew up in a coal mining family in Northumberland and Schuykill counties, where he began to acquire two of his six languages, Polish and Croatian. He is fluent in Italian, Spanish and French.

He was a registered nurse before entering seminary.

Nursing "trains a person to be attentive to others. Not just to deliver health care in a functionary manner but to ... hear them bare their heart in sometimes very difficult situations," he said.

As vice-rector in Rome he gave compelling talks on confession and anointing of the sick that drew on his hospital experience, said the Rev James Farnan, pastor of Divine Mercy and St. Philomena in Beaver Falls.

When seminarians who didn't speak Italian well were hospitalized, he made sure they got proper care, Father Farnan said.

"He stayed up all night with them in the Italian hospital. He's that kind of guy," he said.

Another of his students, the Rev. Daniel Straughn, pastor of St. Mark parish, Port Vue, was "overjoyed" at the appointment.

"He is a man of prayer, a man of deep insight and intelligence and even more so of compassion and wisdom," he said.

Rocco Palmo, a Philadelphian who blogs on the hierarchy at Whispers in the Loggia, said the bishop-elect never showed any sign of ambition. In Rome, he avoided events where others sought notice from the hierarchy.

"He would be off, quietly praying somewhere," he said.

Ann Rodgers can be reached at or 412-263-1416.


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