PORTLAND, Maine — An auxiliary bishop and canon lawyer in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston has been named by Pope Francis to lead Maine’s Catholics, the Diocese of Portland announced Wednesday.
Bishop Robert Peter Deeley, 67, told reporters at a news conference in Portland on Wednesday morning he plans to bring Pope Francis’ “joyful” approach to evangelism to Maine.
Deeley’s appointment was long-awaited by Maine Catholics, who have been without a bishop for more than a year. Deeley replaces Bishop Richard J. Malone, who has continued to serve as the apostolic administrator of the diocese since he took over as bishop of the Diocese of Buffalo, N.Y., in August of 2012.
Pope Francis, who began his papacy in March, has attracted attention for seeking a simpler living than his predecessors, choosing to live in the nearby guest house instead of the Apostolic Palace, for instance. He also has vocally emphasized the church’s role in helping the poor and hungry, arguing that in the past the institution focused disproportionately on social issues, such as condemning same-sex marriage and abortion.
Deeley, who was ordained a priest in 1973 and consecrated a bishop in January, stopped short of saying the Portland diocese will step back from its past advocacy stances on social issues. But he said he plans to follow Pope Francis’ lead in playing up the positive message of hope and personal connections with Jesus.
“What [Pope Francis] is saying is nothing new. … We want to bring the needs of those who are needy [to the forefront],” Deeley said. “How we go about doing that may be a political issue. There’s a gospel issue and there’s a political issue. I’m not going to tell the government how to do its business, and I don’t expect the government to tell me how to do mine.
“I think if there’s a moral issue that needs to be confronted, the diocese will confront it,” he added. “I think the care of the poor is a moral issue.”
Aileen Morrissey of Kennebunk was among several southern Maine residents to attend a 12:15 p.m. Mass on Wednesday at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland.
“I hope that [Deeley] has the same attitude and aspirations as the new pope and that he can bring unity to the Christian communities,” Morrissey said. “[Pope Francis] embraces humanity and all people. He’s not judging. He advocates for love for all people.”
According to the most recent U.S. Census figures, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland continues to have the most members of any denomination in the state, with more than 190,000. But that total still represents a significant dropoff from decades past — just 10 years earlier, more than 283,000 Mainers identified themselves as Catholics.
Deeley said Pope Francis’ approach to the religion may provide guidance for how to re-energize the flock.
“Pope Francis tells us an evangelizer must not look like someone who has just come back from a funeral,” Deeley told reporters Wednesday. “Jesus is a person. … I think what the Holy Father is trying to connect us to is a person. That happens through relationships — that happens when people who have already met Jesus share that relationship with others.
“No matter what happens, there’s less population, there are less people than when we built the churches originally,” he continued. “But that’s still a lot of people. How do we get them to take the message they come to hear back out to others?”
The new bishop will be installed on Feb. 14, the feast day of St. Cyril and St. Methodius, at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland.
A native of Cambridge, Mass., Deeley was born in 1946 to Irish immigrant parents. Deeley served as a parish priest, then, in various capacities in the Metropolitan Tribunal, the ecclesiastical court in the archdiocese of Boston, for 20 years. In 2000, he assumed the presidency of the Canon Law Society of America.
Deeley went to Rome in September 2004 to assist as an official at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under the cardinal who became Pope Benedict XVI. Then, he served at the Congregation until being named vicar general and moderator of the Curia of the Archdiocese of Boston in the summer of 2011.
As vicar general, Deeley was responsible for the oversight of nearly 2 million Catholics in approximately 290 parishes across 144 communities in the archdiocese, according to information on its website, www.bostoncatholic.org. As moderator of the curia, his primary duties were to care for and to provide coordination of the personnel and efforts of the central ministries of the archdiocese.
Malone, who was auxiliary bishop for education in Boston in 2004 when appointed bishop in the Pine Tree State, has continued to oversee diocesan operations in Maine from Buffalo as apostolic administrator. He is expected to step away from that role once the new bishop is installed.
Malone, who served as Maine’s bishop for eight years, and Deeley have known each other since their seminary days.
“While our educational journeys and ministerial assignments took us in different directions, our paths have intersected many times in these nearly 40 years we have known each other,” Malone said in a statement. “And so it is that I can promise the people of our great Diocese of Portland that they will be pastored by a man who is, in St. Timothy’s words, truly ‘strong, loving and wise.’
“I know that our faithful people will welcome and collaborate with Bishop Deeley in the same spirit of warmth and openness that they showed to me in 2004 when Blessed John Paul II entrusted me with the pastoral leadership of the Diocese of Portland,” Maine’s former bishop said.
Deeley’s tenure in Maine most likely will last as long as Malone’s. The mandatory retirement age for bishops in the Catholic church is 75.