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With retirement at hand, Kmiec looks toward surgery; Bishop will be treated for spinal stenosis

Newly appointed Catholic Diocese of Buffalo Bishop Richard J. Malone was whisked through Our Lady of Victory Basilica in Lackawanna on Tuesday afternoon on a quick tour with the pastor, Monsignor Paul J.E. Burkard.

Struggling to keep up with them was Bishop Edward U. Kmiec, hobbled by a painful condition in his back known as spinal stenosis, which causes leg numbness and makes it difficult to stand or walk.

Kmiec will likely undergo major surgery to ease the condition soon after Malone is installed Aug. 10 as the 14th Catholic bishop of Buffalo.

Kmiec, bishop of the Buffalo Diocese since 2004, has battled stenosis for years. He had surgery in 2008 that provided some relief, but the condition appears to have worsened again. Kmiec usually walks with a cane and can stand on his feet only for short periods of time.

"I need to deal with that," Kmiec said while sitting in a pew of the basilica as Malone and Burkard continued their tour. "I think surgery is the best option."

Kmiec, who turns 76 today, has been holding off on another surgery until Pope Benedict XVI named his successor, because the next procedure will entail a lengthy recovery time.

The bishop's doctor told him the surgery would bring him to about 80 percent mobility -- not a complete cure, but a vast improvement over where he is now, Kmiec said.

"I can't stand and I can't walk," he said.

In retirement, Kmiec expects to stay in the Buffalo area -- at least part of the time. He still owns a home on the New Jersey shore that he purchased years ago with his brother, who is deceased. Kmiec enjoys staying there in the summer months and visiting with family and friends in the Trenton area, where he grew up and spent a large part of his priesthood.

Like Kmiec, who arrived in Buffalo after serving 12 years as bishop of the Diocese of Nashville, Tenn., Malone, 66, comes to Western New York with administrative experience in a much smaller diocese.

Kmiec was 68 when he moved to Buffalo from Nashville, where he oversaw a small minority faith community of 70,000 Catholics in a Bible Belt region.

"The circumstances are very similar and parallel almost," noted Kmiec.

Since 2004, Malone has been bishop of Portland, Maine, leading 187,306 Catholics in 57 parishes across a state with a largely secular -- and rural -- population of 1.3 million.

By comparison, the Diocese of Buffalo encompasses eight counties in Western New York, with 633,123 Catholics in 164 parishes. The overall population for the diocese is 1.5 million people.

It was the second time in a row the Vatican departed from a tradition of plucking an auxiliary bishop from a larger archdiocese for the Buffalo post, as was the case with Bishops Edward D. Head and Henry J. Mansell.

The trend may reflect a Vatican preference for appointing seasoned managers who won't make the kind of critical management mistakes that have afflicted dioceses in the past, said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, an expert on the Vatican and Catholic hierarchy.

"You're getting somebody with some real administrative experience. He's run a diocese, as opposed to an auxiliary bishop, who may not have any real administrative experience at all," said Reese.

Malone's appointment did not alter scheduled priest ordinations this weekend in Portland and in Buffalo.

Kmiec ordained Sean P. Fleming, Andrew R. Lauricella and Jeffrey L. Nowak during a Mass Saturday in St. Joseph's Cathedral. Malone left Buffalo on Wednesday, and presided at the ordination of a former Episcopal priest Sunday in Portland.

email: jtokasz@buffnews.com