When the U.S. bishops meet next month in Baltimore, part of the business of their fall assembly will be to elect new chairs for five of their standing committees. 

Often, these elections throw up candidates from recognizably different wings or strains of opinion within the conference, and set the tone for one school of thought or another to shape a committee’s work. 

But this year, the race to chair the bishops’ liturgy committee features an interesting pair of choices, Archbishop Mitchell Rozanski of St. Louis and Bishop Stephen Lopes of the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter. Neither appears an obvious selection for the job, which might suggest that some potential candidates have steered clear of running for a seat on the third rail of American ecclesiastical life.

Archbishop Rozanski has led the St. Louis archdiocese for just over a year, formally replacing Archbishop Robert Carlson in August 2020. 

Probably Rozanski’s most public foray into liturgical and sacramental issues came in the months before his move to St. Louis, while he was still Bishop of Springfield, Massachusetts, and as dioceses across the world grappled with restrictions imposed by governments in response to the coronavirus pandemic. 

In June 2020, Rozanski issued a controversial directive, allowing, effectively, for lay people, even non-Catholics, to administer the holy oil in the anointing of the sick. 

Rozanski’s policy allowed for a Catholic chaplain to stand away from a patient’s bed, or even outside the room, dab a cotton swab with the sacramental oil, and then give it to a nurse or other attendant to take to the patient and administer. 

The policy, while intended to provide some access to the sacrament for patients in pandemic isolation, drew strong criticism from theologians, who pointed out that the physical act of anointing by the priest is an intrinsic aspect of the sacrament’s valid application. 

After the policy attracted national media coverage, Rozanski retracted the decision and instead told priests of the diocese that he was suspending administration of the sacrament altogether. On the same day, the USCCB’s committee on divine worship – the committee Rozanski is now seeking election to lead – issued a memo to all U.S. bishops clarifying that “with regard to the Anointing of the Sick, it is not possible for the anointing with oil to be delegated to someone else, such as a nurse or doctor.” 

The other candidate for the position, Bishop Steven Lopes, also presents an unusual potential choice for the role. 

Lopes was made a bishop in 2016, making him relatively young in the conference for a senior committee chair. Like Rozanski, he possesses no advanced degrees in liturgical studies, though he has studied sacramental theology. But perhaps most interesting is that Lopes doesn’t even lead an ordinary Latin rite diocese at all.

As ordinary of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, Lopes is responsible for shepherding former Anglicans who came into communion with the Church after Benedict XVI’s 2009 apostolic constitution Anglicanorum coetibus

As such, Lopes’ daily liturgical life differs from that of his brother bishops. It revolves around the Anglican Use, a form of the Roman Rite of the liturgy which contains parts of the Anglican liturgical patrimony, including elements from the Book of Common Prayer, as well as prayers within the Mass taken from English translations of earlier Latin Rite missals. 

None of these circumstances, for either Lopes or Rozanski, are disqualifying, and they do not even mean either would prove ill-suited to the job of chairing the bishops’ liturgical committee, necessarily. But the fact that no bishop with a formal background in liturgical theology has allowed his name to go forward in the election is noteworthy, and may suggest that the committee’s work is now seen as something of a third rail in American ecclesiastical life.

Full story at The Pillar.