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Vatican's San Diego selections making waves in Roman Catholic Church

Pope Francis' decision to elevate two San Diego bishops to new leadership positions has some local Catholics saying the region is now "on the map" with the Vatican.

On May 29, Bishop Robert McElroy was appointed to become a cardinal, a member of an exclusive group that has a say in the future of the faith of more than 1.3 billion Roman Catholics around the globe.

McElroy said he never imagined this once-in-a-lifetime appointment. At a news conference shortly after the announcement, he said he had "not a clue that this was being contemplated or even possible."

It came as a surprise not only to him but also to many San Diegans.

"We announced it at church at all the masses. Everybody rejoiced and clapped so it was fantastic. It was good news," said Pastor Peter Navarra of St. Joseph Cathedral in downtown San Diego.

Navarra said for those who understand the hierarchy of the church, this selection is very out of the norm.

"(Pope Francis) broke the format ... the tradition (by) choosing Bishop McElroy, who is not an archbishop. He’s the bishop of San Diego," he said. "And that made it more special because San Diego is now on the map with the Vatican."

McElroy was chosen over more conservative archbishops in larger cities. Weeks after that selection, Pope Francis again turned to San Diego to elevate another church leader. Auxiliary Bishop John Dolan will leave San Diego in August to take over the Diocese of Phoenix, replacing a retiring bishop known for being conservative.

"These are exciting and unpredictable wild days for San Diego," said Michael Lovett-Colyer, the head of Mission Integration at the University of San Diego. He said two like-minded leaders being placed in high-ranking positions in the church has significant implications, but said that change started with Pope Francis.

"The earthquake was Pope Francis. The aftershocks are people like Bishop Dolan being elevated to bishop and Bishop McElroy becoming the cardinal," said Lovett-Colyer. "Ten, 15 years ago, people like Bishop Dolan most likely would not have been made the bishop of his own diocese ... . Pope Francis has really changed the expectations about who is worthy of that sort of role."

Just days before he was named bishop of Phoenix, Dolan said he was happy about McElroy’s selection as cardinal.

"(I'm) not surprised but overjoyed knowing that really it couldn’t happen to a better person," Dolan said.

He also addressed some of the criticism from hardliners about McElroy's more liberal stances, such as his refusal to deny communion to politicians who support abortion rights. Dolan said much like Pope Francis, McElroy will lead with his heart.

"It isn’t that he’s trying to be conservative or liberal," Dolan said. "He’s really trying to focus on being … a person who communicates at all times without drawing a line in the sand because that never really helps."

Dolan said leading in this way doesn't mean the teachings of the church are ignored or not followed. Instead, he said, people are treated with compassion and helped on their journey, rather than being shunned or seen as outcasts.

Dolan also noted that McElroy's pastoral sensibilities and heart are matched by his smarts and that McElroy has degrees from Harvard and Stanford to back it up.

Church insiders and McElroy say part of the reason he was selected was because of his work on three issues that are near to Pope Francis’ heart: immigration, inclusion and the environment.

Dolan said McElroy will be the only cardinal on the West Coast and in a border city.

"This is where he is with people who are migrating, he’s with people who are immigrants, he’s with people who are refugees," Dolan said, "and I think in many ways San Diego is a perfect place to speak to this reality to proclaim that portion of the gospel."

Across the border in Tijuana, Father Patrick Murphy of the migrant shelter Casa Del Migrante agrees. Murphy has worked with McElroy on migrant issues and said in meetings the cardinal-designate "was very open and he really wanted to listen."

"I think he realizes that he needs to listen to learn before he can talk on a subject," he said.

Murphy said the selection of McElroy is strong symbolism on the part of the pope "because he has this phrase, ‘reaching out to people on the periphery,’ and being at the border is being in the periphery."

Women have long been on the periphery of leadership in the Roman Catholic Church, but McElroy made changes in San Diego, including the appointment of Maria Olivia Galvan as the first woman chancellor and director for pastoral ministries in the diocese.

"To have a bishop (elevated to cardinal) in our diocese for the first time ever — this is a historical moment and it’s a momentous occasion for joy, not just for our diocese ... It’s a huge statement," Galvan said.

She said more women are being appointed to leadership positions, "but it’s far from being a reality in all of the dioceses and archdioceses."

"And so to see that and to have that vision, he’s a visionary," Galvan said.

The environment is another subject that greatly concerns the pope, and McElroy has worked on this issue for Pope Francis. McElroy has also denounced climate change deniers and worked in the Amazon; something unique for a bishop of the church.

"It’s great to have a voice for San Diego in that position," said Mitch Silverstein from the Surfrider Foundation. He said people of all faiths and creeds are welcome in the effort to protect the environment, and that having allies in positions of leadership matters.

"Having people in leadership positions in the Catholic faith in every faith and every sector in our society who are environmentalists," he said. "I think is just crucial to all of us uniting to save our planet."

More than a third of San Diegans are Roman Catholic. That includes San Diego City Councilmember Raul Campillo, who represents District 7, which stretches from Lake Murray to Linda Vista — home to USD, a catholic university. He said this selection is meaningful to him and the people he represents.

"It speaks a lot to what Pope Francis’ message has been from the very beginning of his papacy ... which is taking care of the vulnerable and finding the people who’ve been left out of the church and bringing them back to the center and back to the core," Campillo said.

Ultimately, USD's Lovette-Colyer said, this type of pastoral leadership will help usher in a new generation who have not seen themselves or their friends accepted in the church.

"People in those roles who operate in that way, who have those qualities, are often seen — especially by young people — as incredibly relevant and incredible and authentic witnesses," he said. "And therefore they’re very effective attracting either to pay attention to the church in a new way or maybe even to get involved in a deeper way."

McElroy will travel to Rome in August where he will be installed by Pope Francis. Then he will return to San Diego to continue his work, with the new title of Cardinal.