"I've heard more speculation than you can imagine," says Monsignor Terrence Fitzgerald, interim administrator of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City. "Some of it is outlandish."
Fitzgerald swears he knows nothing, and neither does Niederauer. They are waiting, like everyone else, to hear from the Vatican.
When asked his preference, Fitzgerald says Utah Catholics need a bishop who is ecumenical and can deal well with the LDS Church and other faiths, is physically able to travel the 85,000 square miles that encompass the diocese, and can be pastoral and present with people as Niederauer was. Given that 66 percent of Utah's 200,000 Catholics are Latinos, it also might be nice if the new man spoke Spanish.
If patterns hold - and there's no telling they will - the candidate is likely to come from the West and not be a full bishop already. That suggests Niederauer's replacement may be one of the church's Latino auxiliary bishops.
The strongest buzz surrounds the Rev. Jaime Soto, auxiliary bishop of Orange, Calif. Soto is reputed to be a strong leader among the general Catholic community, but especially good with Latinos, one church watcher says. He also is well-known to Niederauer and Cardinal William Levada, Niederauer's predecessor in San Francisco and one of his closest friends. As head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Levada is the most powerful American in the Vatican, a key player in terms of shaping the pope's thinking.
Two other names that have popped up are the Rev. Alexander Salazar and the Rev. Gabino Zavala, both auxiliary bishops of Los Angeles, serving with Cardinal Roger Mahony, another Niederauer friend. Zavala is much-loved in Los Angeles, says one Utah priest, and would be a good fit here. In fact, Zavala will be in Salt Lake City on Saturday to give a keynote address for Spanish-speakers at the annual Pastoral Congress.
But the future bishop need not be Latino or speak Spanish to meet the needs of Utah Catholics, says the Rev. Robert Bussen of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Park City: "I just want him to love the people."
There is some talk of bringing the Rev. John Wester, auxiliary bishop of San Francisco, to Utah. Levada ordained Wester to his current position as Niederauer's right-hand man and certainly would want to help him get his own diocese soon.
In the end, the decision may depend less on ethnicity or experience than on "who the kingmaker is," says another church watcher. Niederauer, Levada and the pope's ambassador (nuncio) in Washington, D.C., Archbishop Pietro Sambi, all will have input.
"Sometimes if you have a weak nuncio, then cardinals in the hierarchy hold sway and name their guy. If you have a strong nuncio, cardinals are beholden to him," the watcher says. "If you get a pope with an agenda, you could get somebody coming out of left field."
Here's how the process works:
Every few years, the archbishop of a province invites his bishops and sometimes priests to nominate men they think would make a good bishop. He compiles a list of nominees, which is vetted among all the bishops of the province. As explained in the Rev. Thomas Reese's book about the Catholic power structure, the church's policy is to consider nominees' "intellectual qualities, studies completed, social sense, spirit of dialogue and cooperation, openness to the signs of the times, praiseworthy impartiality, family background, health, age and inherited characteristics."
After a secret vote, the bishops eliminate some names. That list is then sent to the nuncio, who keeps it in a big green binder on his desk, organized by region and ethnicity, says Reese, a senior fellow at Woodstock Theological Center of Georgetown University.
When a bishop's office is vacated, the interim diocesan administrator writes a report, laying out his community's needs, strengths, statistics, history and hopes. That goes to the nuncio, who prepares his own report for the Vatican. He matches the needs of the diocese with available candidates from all the lists. He can also ignore the lists and come up with a name of his own, Reese says.
The nuncio then sends forward eight to 10 names to officers of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for possible comments. He can also consult with the cardinals and other bishops individually, especially the archbishop of the province where the vacancy is. In Utah's case, that archbishop would be Niederauer.
The nuncio - the key player in the process - then sends a terna, which is a list of the top three candidates in order of preference, to the Vatican.
The list and all its documentation goes to the Congregation of Bishops in Rome, made up of 25 cardinals. The congregation selects one of the three as its first choice and recommends him to the pope, while including the other names in their submission. If the congregation does not like any of the terna, it tells the nuncio to submit a new list.
The pope can either approve or appoint his own candidate. Pope John Paul II almost always approved them.
During his last decade, the Vatican seemed to have a particular bishop profile in mind, says Richard R. Gaillardetz, professor of Catholic studies at the University of Toledo in Ohio.
The profile had five characteristics:
* Did graduate work at a Roman university.
* Was a seminary rector or professor.
* Was a protégé of an influential ecclesiastic.
* Had done a tour of duty in the Vatican.
* Never said or wrote anything critical of church doctrine or policy.
"Not every candidate had all five characteristics," Gaillardetz says, "but most candidates today fit three or four of those criteria."
What's missing from the list is an established record of pastoral experience, he says. "That's a shift from the past, where a lot of our bishops were successful pastors."
It's too early to determine Pope Benedict XVI's style, but Reese says "anecdotal evidence supports the view that he is appointing men who are less confrontational than John Paul II's appointees, but more pastoral and theologically trained."
Priests in Utah's diocese have an informal poll on when the announcement of Niederauer's successor might be made. Fitzgerald bet it would be Sept. 19 because he has been predicting the new man would take his place by Thanksgiving. That's not likely now.
No matter. Fitzgerald has the diocese running so smoothly that the Vatican may not be in a hurry. There are no major issues, lawsuits or fights to be solved.
"There is a sense of contentment in the diocese right now," Bussen says. "If there were fires to put out, they'd have a bishop here in an instant."
* PEGGY FLETCHER STACK can be contacted at 801-257-8725 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To comment on this story, write to email@example.com.
* BORN: Nov. 28, 1949, in San Jose, Costa Rica
* EDUCATION: St. Thomas the Apostle School, Daniel Murphy High School, East Los Angeles College.
* ORDINATIONS: Priest (1984), bishop (Nov. 4, 2004)
* ACCOMPLISHMENTS: Has served on the Council of Priests, College of Consultors, Clergy Pension Board and Archdiocesan Personnel Board. In 2003, he was appointed vice chancellor and served on the Archdiocesan Leadership Team.
The Rev. Jaime Soto
Auxiliary Bishop of Orange (Calif.)
* BORN: Dec. 31, 1955 in Inglewood, Calif.
* EDUCATION: St. John's Seminary College in Camarillo, Calif., with a bachelor of arts degree in philosophy and a master's in divinity. Master of arts in social work from Columbia University.
* ORDINATIONS: Priest (1982), bishop (March 23, 2000)
* ACCOMPLISHMENTS: Has been associate director of Catholic Charities of Orange, director of the Immigration and Citizenship at Catholic Charities, Episcopal vicar for the Hispanic Community. On March 1, 1999, Soto was appointed by the Rev. Tod D. Brown, bishop of Orange, as vicar for charities.
The Rev. Gabino Zavala
Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles
* BORN: Sept. 6, 1951, in Guerrero, Mexico
* EDUCATION: St. John's Seminary in Camarillo, Calif.; Catholic University of America with a degree in canon law.
* ORDINATIONS: Priest (1977), bishop (1994)
* ACCOMPLISHMENTS: Worked in the Tribunal and then rector of St. John's in 1992.
Most Rev. John Wester
Auxiliary Bishop of San Francisco
* BORN: Nov. 5, 1950, in San Francisco
* EDUCATION: St. Patrick Seminary in Menlo Park, Calif.; master of arts from University of San Francisco, master of arts from Holy Names College.
* ORDINATIONS: Priest (1976), bishop (June 30, 1998)
* ACCOMPLISHMENTS: A member of several committees of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, including Migration and Vocations.