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ARRIVAL OF AN 'EXTROVERT'S EXTROVERT' <br> NEW BISHOP BRINGS A REPUTATION AS SOMEONE WHO 'ENJOYS PEOPLE' AS HE CONFRONTS THE CHALLENGES OF LEADING THE REGION'S 700,000 CATHOLICS THROUGH DIFFICULT TIMES

St. Matthew School was built in 2001, and the Catholic diocese here expected it to last at least until 2009 before being expanded.

But construction workers already are hammering away again, adding classrooms, a gymnasium and parish center and more than doubling the size of the 28,000-square-foot campus in Franklin, a wealthy suburb 25 minutes from downtown.

Other Catholic elementary schools are bursting at the seams, too, and a new high school, named for Pope John Paul II, opened in 2002.

Bishop Edward U. Kmiec, the Nashville prelate since 1992, oversaw the growth, helping raise millions of dollars for education.

"It's a thriving economy here," said Kmiec, who will be installed Thursday as the 13th bishop of Buffalo. "People wanted schools. They were moving from the north, and they were very interested in Catholic education."

Kmiec (pronounced KIM-ik) will lead a Diocese of Buffalo vastly different from the one in Nashville.

Instead of growth, he will be called on to steer the faithful through the retrenchment of schools and parishes.

When he arrives in Buffalo today, Kmiec will be thrust from a small minority faith community of 70,000 Catholics in the Bible Belt into a region of about 700,000 Catholics -- more than half of the total population of Western New York.

And his responsibilities will expand exponentially:

While Kmiec consulted with two Catholic-run hospitals in Nashville on ethical issues, he did not serve on the hospital boards or participate in administrative decisions. In Buffalo, he likely will be involved in the operation of the region's second-largest health care organization, Catholic Health System, which has five hospitals plus numerous nursing homes and primary care centers.

Nashville's Catholic Charities last year raised about $600,000 in donations, a sliver of the more than $10 million in gifts generated by one of the Buffalo area's largest human service agencies.

Buffalo has nearly nine times as many priests and sisters, five times as many parishes and five times as many elementary and high schools.

In short, Kmiec moves from a post of relative obscurity outside the Catholic community to one of power and influence extending far beyond chancery and parish walls.

But the former Trenton, N.J., priest also trades in an up-and-coming diocese with a prosperous economy and an influx of observant Catholics for a diocese struggling to overcome financial distress and spiritual malaise.

How will Kmiec handle the transition?

Those close to the son of Polish immigrants believe that he will thrive here simply by being himself -- a gregarious, down-to-earth priest who likes discussing issues and finding consensus.

"He's a true extrovert's extrovert," said the Rev. David R. Perkin, who served as vicar general under Kmiec in Nashville.

"He enjoys people. He's not afraid to venture right into a crowd," said Monsignor Leonard Troiano, a Trenton pastor and longtime friend of Kmiec.

Kmiec already has received hundreds of letters from the Buffalo faithful and more than a few words of advice.

Those who know him said he is not likely to make huge waves here.

Kmiec is viewed as a centrist on hot-button church topics and, like most bishops, has not wavered from Catholic teaching on issues such as the ordination of women or married clergy.

"We work with the magisterium of the Church," he said. "We've just got to understand what are the real possibilities -- what can we be doing in these kinds of times?"

Though he is not afraid to take a public stand on issues, according to colleagues, Kmiec probably will not make headlines by sticking his neck out too far.

"Some of the bishops are coming out with things that are raising eyebrows. I don't think he's that way," said Monsignor William Fitzgerald, a retired Trenton priest who worked for 50 years in the chancery. "He's not going to cause a stir."

Kmiec already has gone on record saying he would not deny the Eucharist to Catholic politicians not voting in line with Catholic teaching, a stance in the mainstream of American bishops.

He also does not favor jettisoning liberal Catholics, as some conservative Catholics have argued, as a way to create a smaller but stronger and more orthodox church in America.

"The church has its diversities," he said. "I'd rather us be a welcoming church, come home. We've got to draw them in. That wouldn't be Christ-like (to not try). There is room in the church."

The bishop likes to use the paradoxical Latin phrase "festina lente," or "hurry slowly," in describing how he will approach the work to be done in Buffalo.

He said he needed to become better acquainted with the diocese but acknowledged he had many difficult decisions ahead, especially pertaining to the organization of parishes across Western New York, which has experienced large demographic shifts of Catholics away from Buffalo and into the suburbs.

In a modest office in Nashville's Catholic Center, Kmiec pledged "to do it in a consultative manner, not just to impose something."

"I wouldn't hastily and presumptively come to a place and say, 'I know what you need,' " he said.

Kmiec never envisioned having that kind of authority as a young man, nor did he think he would ever leave Trenton, a heavily ethnic, predominantly Catholic industrial city.

He grew up the youngest of five children in a working-class Polish immigrant neighborhood and studied at a Catholic parochial school and high school.

As an altar boy for many years, he was constantly around priests, and his vocation started by observing their rituals.

"I thought it would be fantastic to consecrate the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ," he recalled.

At first, Kmiec hesitated to go to the seminary because he did not want to leave his aging parents alone in Trenton. But when his brother, Henry, returned from living in the South, he enrolled at Saint Charles College in Catonsville, Md., and later at St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore.

Ordained in 1961, while studying theology in Rome, Kmiec served for three years as an assistant pastor before being chosen for the administrative track as secretary and master of ceremonies for Bishop George W. Ahr.

He was named auxiliary bishop of Trenton in 1982 under Bishop John C. Reiss. Kmiec's colleagues said they doubt that he will have difficulty adjusting to the size of the Buffalo Diocese because Trenton is even larger and Kmiec played an integral role in managing that diocese.

Kmiec was pastor of a parish in the eastern part of the Diocese of Trenton, which has about 800,000 Catholics, while essentially overseeing that half of the diocese, Fitzgerald said.

"I think Reiss relied on Kmiec a lot," Fitzgerald said. "He would talk things over with Kmiec a lot."

Kmiec's appointment as bishop of Nashville in 1992 came as a surprise.

"He said to me, 'What am I going to do in Nashville?' I think there was some trepidation," Troiano recalled.

After meeting the people of Nashville for the first time, Kmiec returned to Trenton "beaming from ear to ear," Troiano said.

"He said, 'Oh, my God, what a jewel,' " his friend recalled.

Kmiec largely operated under the radar of public scrutiny in Tennessee, aside from the clergy sexual-abuse scandal. Even after being named Buffalo bishop in August, no reporters showed up for a scheduled news conference in Nashville to discuss the move.

Less than 4 percent of the Nashville metropolitan population is Catholic. The major religious denomination is Southern Baptist.

Kmiec said he quickly grew to love the people of Nashville.

"People are very dedicated and committed to the faith," he said. "Most of the churches are full or overflowing."

Kmiec is often described as hardworking but easygoing and protective of his free time. He spent most weekends in the Diocese of Nashville traveling the 38 counties of Middle Tennessee and usually took Mondays off.

He lived in the Cathedral of the Incarnation rectory in the company of other priests and cooked his own meals, enjoying scallops and omelette-type dishes, said the Rev. Patrick J. Kibby, the pastor.

He also likes cigars and is a fan of the Tennessee Titans. He keeps a picture on his desk of himself with several of the Catholic members of the Titans, including Frank Wycheck, the former tight end who played a pivotal role in the "Music City Miracle" that ended the Buffalo Bills' playoff run in January 2000.

But Kmiec promises that upon his arrival in Buffalo, that football allegiance will change.

"If they'd get off the schneid," he said. "Shame on them."

e-mail: jtokasz@buffnews.com

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