For Allentown, The Hat Is Home – Longtime VG Gets Upstate Chair
For the last twenty years, Msgr Al Schlert has been the closest collaborator to the last three bishops of Allentown.
And now, he’s the Fifth Bishop of Allentown.
Deciding the next chapter of the 280,000-member upstate Pennsylvania fold in just over six months, at Roman Noon this Tuesday the Pope named the 55 year-old native son as successor to Bishop John Barres, who was transferred to Long Island’s 1.6 million-Catholic behemoth of Rockville Centre last December. (At left, Schlert’s seen at a 2016 event to support the horses of a local mounted police unit.)
With the move, the bishop-elect becomes the first Lehigh Valley product to head its local church since Allentown was spun off from the archdiocese of Philadelphia in 1961 (fittingly, the year of Schlert’s birth). Then again, that independence was fairly cosmetic for most of the last half-century – until Barres’ appointment in 2009, the diocese’s first three bishops had all been auxiliaries down the Northeast Extension of the Turnpike, a quirk which made the place seem less its own shop than a vicariate of the Pharaohs, even as Allentown priests came to be named bishops elsewhere.
Ordained in 1988, Schlert spent a decade in the trenches before becoming secretary to then-Bishop Thomas Welsh, quickly rising to vicar-general a year later (at 37) on the arrival of Bishop Edward Cullen and remaining in the #2 post ever since. Along the way, he’s become well-steeped in the church’s activity at state level thanks to a longtime involvement with the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference – the bishops’ joint lobbying arm in Harrisburg – of which he’s already vice-president.
During his early years in ministry, meanwhile, today’s pick notably echoes several of Francis’ other Stateside appointees in having served in college campus ministry, in Schlert’s case three years as chaplain at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, during which time he doubled up as a teacher at his high-school alma mater, Notre Dame in Easton.
While it’s indeed rare that an administrator is tapped to permanently fill the vacancy he’s managing, it seems almost as elusive of late that the lead deputy to a departing bishop is even elected to the temporary post. Just over recent months, the consultors of both Raleigh and Nashville each went beyond the respective officials already in place, in both cases choosing well-regarded retired pastors as diocesan administrator in the hope of keeping their Chanceries in check until the respective next bishops arrive.
To be clear, moves of the kind send a potent signal to the Hatmakers on the state of a place… even if it seems not everyone in North Carolina has gotten the memo. (Read: “Yep, still chaotic.”) In any case, that Schlert had obtained the local vote of confidence – one which, again, can’t be taken for granted these days – allowed Rome to register its own in fairly rapid order.
As the scene in Allentown goes, even if Schlert’s done two decades’ worth of legwork behind the scenes, the fifth bishop steps into the spotlight with most of a sizable parish consolidation project – which merged the previous 121 communities into 84 – already in the can. (Just yesterday, the diocese announced the Vatican’s rejection of another round of appeals from members of closed churches.) At the same time, however, with a sizable recent influx of Hispanic immigration ballooning the upstate fold’s Latino bloc to almost 40 percent – by far the largest presence of its kind in a Pennsylvania diocese, per USCCB figures – it is conspicuous that the bishop-elect doesn’t speak Spanish, at least not enough for the skill to be listed in the usual spot of his Vatican-issued biography, which does note his ability in Italian.
With an 11am presser called at the Cathedral of St Catherine of Siena, Allentown Chancery has already announced that Schlert’s ordination will take place there on Thursday, 31 August.
Upon today’s move – and as the last appointments begin to roll out before the Curia’s summer hiatus – five Stateside Latin-church sees remain vacant, with another five led by (arch)bishops serving past the retirement age of 75.
While the latter crop is led by Washington – where the ever-influential Cardinal Donald Wuerl reached the milestone in November 2015 – a transition in the nation’s capital is not expected until at least the first half of next year. To that end, this December’s dedication of the Trinity Dome – the massive mosaic “capstone” of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception – is being sensed in ranking circles as the beginning of the cardinal’s “victory lap.”