Is the pope signaling a new age of openness?
Some say new bishop is the latest appointment to favor competent men over those on a crusade
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By all accounts, Bishop John C. Wester, the newly appointed leader of Utah's 200,000 Catholics, is fair-minded, pragmatic, nurturing and - here's the key fact - not overly ideological.

Archbishop George H. Niederauer of San Francisco, Wester's boss, called him "one of the kindest-hearted persons I have ever met. He's solicitous of people's welfare. He has a good sense of humor and sees the inherent silliness in things."

"Oh, and I think he likes fishing," says Niederauer, well-known to Utahns as the head of the Diocese of Salt Lake City from 1995 to 2006.

Observers say Wester, who assumes his new position March 14 after serving as an auxiliary bishop in San Francisco, will not likely threaten to excommunicate Catholic politicians who support abortion rights, or attack gay activists or academics who challenge doctrinal interpretations. They do not think he will be rigid or authoritarian, and certainly not impervious to the needs of abuse victims.

"Some bishops come with their own or someone else's agenda," says Monsignor Francis Mannion, pastor at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Millcreek. "I don't think [Wester] is coming with any heavy agenda."

That's apparently what Pope Benedict XVI wants.

Since becoming pope in April 2005, Benedict has appointed about 30 U.S. bishops, and some see a pattern emerging that is distinctively different from John Paul II's, particularly in his later years. Benedict is more involved in the process, poring over dossiers and case files. He also has Cardinal William Levada, former archbishop of San Francisco and Wester's mentor, pushing him in this direction.

Benedict's bishops tend to be "unflinchingly positive [men] who avoid conflict at all costs," says Rocco Palmo, a Philadelphia-based Vatican watcher who writes for The Tablet in London.

Such leaders show by example that the essence of the church is to uplift, not condemn. They are "open not only within the church but in public," Palmo says. "They are working for the good of all, Catholics and non."

It is clear that Pope Benedict doesn't want "showboats as much as good, convincing men of integrity," adds David Gibson, author of The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle With the Modern Mind. "It is part of a campaign for competency, especially after the sexual abuse crisis . . . [to find men] who can preach the Gospel and mind the store."

Benedict has "actually disappointed people on the right who wanted a purge and eased fears on the left," Gibson says. "He has not appointed crusaders, just good, strong orthodox bishops who can engage the culture without being flamboyant, without stirring divisions."

Niederauer is one such man.

He is gregarious, urbane, warm and witty. While he supports the church's positions, he is open-minded on such issues as gays in the seminary. Everyone, he argues, takes a vow of celibacy whatever his attractions.

Niederauer "has been a hit," says the Rev. Thomas Reese, senior fellow at Georgetown's Woodstock Theological Center. "That was a great appointment."

He is "comfortable in his own skin," adds Palmo.

Others see further evidence of Benedict's priorities in the choice of Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl, who took his place in June, for the Washington, D.C., diocese.

The Washington Post described the 65-year-old Wuerl as a "poised, teacherly Pittsburgher . . . known as a behind-the-scenes bridge-builder, someone who preferred pressing quietly in private to making demands in public."

Wuerl is "thoughtful and well-educated," says Gibson, who lives in Brooklyn.

The rising influence of Levada in the Vatican and Niederauer in San Francisco suggests a shift away from traditional Catholic centers in the Northeast to the West Coast, Mountain West and South, he says. "Here it's all closing churches, there it's how do you deal with growth?"

What does that say about where the pope will find his future bishops?

After all, up to 25 U.S. bishops, including five cardinals, could retire because of age this year, according to Catholic News Service.

There are 14 still-active U.S. bishops, including three cardinals, who have already turned 75, the age bishops are expected to submit their resignations. Eleven more, including two cardinals, will observe their 75th birthday in 2007.

For his part, Mannion doesn't yet see a trend under this pope.

"There doesn't strike me as a Benedict-type bishop," he says. "The church is too large for any such thing to exist."

Besides, he says, choosing men for their ideological leanings doesn't work in the long run.

Men often change when they get into a particular diocese with its unique challenges.

"Liberals become conservatives, while conservatives become liberals," Mannion says. "Those with one agenda take on another agenda born of the circumstances."

In a fast-moving world and church, the task of being bishop is tough enough.

"Just keeping their heads above water," he says, "is the first thing they've got to do."

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* PEGGY FLETCHER STACK can be contacted at 801-257-8725 or pstack@sltrib.com.