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Chicago native Thomas J. Paprocki named new bishop of Springfield archdiocese

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 20, 2010 - Catholics in Springfield, Ill., have a new bishop -- Chicago native Thomas J. Paprocki. Until this morning's 5 a.m. appointment by Pope Benedict, Paprocki was an auxiliary bishop in the Chicago archdiocese. He has been a Chicago bishop since 2003.

The Chicago native is 57 years old and was ordained a priest 32 years ago this spring. He's a civil lawyer, a canon lawyer, a huge ice hockey fan and sometimes goalie in an over-30 league. Like a series of excellent bishops, including Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, formerly of Belleville, Paprocki was first chosen for leadership posts by the late Chicago archbishop Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.

Despite its name, the most densely Catholic areas of the Springfield diocese's 28 counties are in the St. Louis area: Madison, Jersey, Calhoun and Bond counties. The diocese has 131 parishes The 146,692 Catholics across the diocese's 15,139 square miles comprise just 13 percent of the entire population. Its cathedral and offices were in Alton until the 1920s.

Paprocki is in Springfield this morning and will meet its leadership teams, many students and lay people. He succeeds Bishop George J. Lucas, who left in July to become archbishop of the Omaha archdiocese. Lucas, a St. Louis native, had been president and rector of Kenrick Seminary in Shrewsbury in 1999 when Pope John Paul II named him Springfield's bishop.

On June 22, on the feast of the famous Catholic lawyer St. Thomas More, Paprocki will be installed as Springfield's new bishop in a Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, according to Rocco Palmo, author of the daily church blog "Whispers in the Loggia." Lucas restored and rededicated the cathedral last December.

The Associated Press is reporting that SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, has criticized Paprocki's appointment. According to the AP, SNAP claims that Paprocki once said the lawsuits charging sexual abuse in the Catholic church were the work of the devil.

Paprocki, like Lucas, eventually may move to a larger archdiocese. He's considered a 24/7 energetic shepherd and a brilliant administrator with a big heart for the poor. Last week, Paproki celebrated a Memorial Mass in his family's ancestral tongue of Polish at Chicago's Holy Name Cathedral for the Polish leaders killed in the airplane crash in Russia. Until today, he served the diocese as the vicar for Polish-Americans, the largest community of Poles outside of Poland.

Much of Paprocki's priestly career has been in administration and civil and church law work. In his three decades in the priesthood he has served just two years as a pastor -- at St. Constance Parish in Chicago.

In Chicago he was a right-hand man to Cardinal Francis George. Among his assignments, he was the cardinal's liaison for health and hospital affairs. He served as the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin's Chicago archdiocesan chancellor for eight years and as vice chancellor in the seven prior years.

Paprocki currently is serving his second term as the unpaid president of the non-sectarian, Chicago Legal Clinic South, which he helped found to provide community-based, direct legal services and legal educational seminars to "underserved and disadvantaged" Chicagoans.

As a civil lawyer, he spoke out against Gov. Rod Blagojevich's 2005 emergency regulation requiring that all Illinois pharmacies and pharmacists had to fill prescriptions for morning-after contraceptives without delay.

"As a lawyer myself, I believe that this executive order violates the First Amendment religious rights of the pharmacist under the United States Constitution and the Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act. As a bishop, I am dismayed that our secular society has reached the point that individuals are being required by law to violate their personal religious beliefs in order to accommodate the selfish demands of special interest groups," he told the governor.

Perhaps there's another reason for this strong statement. Springfield's new bishop was born in Chicago to what he has described in 2005 as "a family of pharmacists."

"My grandfather and his brother were pharmacists. My father and his brother were pharmacists with their own drug stores. Two of my brothers currently work in pharmacies, and I have a niece just beginning pharmacy school -- four generations of pharmacists in the Paprocki family. In fact, if I had not become a priest, I probably would have become a pharmacist myself."

While still at his parish grade school, Paprocki decided to become a priest. He enrolled in the archdiocese's high school seminary, Quigley Preparatory Seminary South. His college years at Niles College of Loyola University in Chicago began his marathon academic career. He has two theology degrees from the Chicago archdiocesan seminary St. Mary of the Lake, in Mundelein, Ill. The double "ticketed" lawyer -- with a civil law "ticket," or degree, from DePaul University College of Law, and canon (church) law degree from Rome's Pontifical Gregorian University. He also has a theological doctorate from the Gregorian.

He won recognition for his solid legal cred from fellow American bishops. In 2007 as a young bishop and relatively new member of the U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops, Paprocki beat in a vote of 138-95 Archbishop Raymond Burke, then of St. Louis, for the bishops' top canon lawyer job -- chairman of the conference's busy Canonical Affairs Committee. That defeat reminded many of the earlier 1997 conference election when another of Bernardin's proteges, Wilton Gregory, outdistanced the other candidate, St. Louis Archbishop Justin F. Rigali., in what was dubbed "a Mississippi River boat race" for conference vice president. In Gregory's case, as in all but once in conference history, the vice president later was elected conference president.

Until Paprocki's June installation, Monsignor Carl A. Kemme will continue as the diocesan administrator.

In other news, the pope announced that another Polish-American bishop, Thomas G. Wenski, is the Miami archdiocese's new archbishop. Wenski is another linguist, speaking Polish, Spanish and Haitian Creole as well as English.

Also, Cardinal Justin Rigali's letter of resignation is required by canon law to be on the pope's desk. The former St. Louis archbishop, now Philadelphia's archbishop, turned 75 yesterday. This pope has been taking his time replacing healthy cardinals. Rigali is widely expected to retire, when the day comes, in his beloved Rome.

Patricia Rice, a freelance writer in St. Louis, has long covered religion.