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Populism Endears Bishop to Flock

Religion: The cleric has won many over by naming Latinos and women to key posts. He announces plans today to build a cathedral in Santa Ana.


The moment was a small one, noticed by no one but the most liturgically savvy. Of course, the priests in the audience picked up on the nuance right away.

Tod D. Brown, at his installation as Roman Catholic bishop of Orange, had used a new prayer during the tradition-laden Mass.

"I think he chose that purposely to signal a new openness to change," said Father John McAndrew of St. Angela Merici Church in Brea of the service nearly three years ago.

Brown, 64, laughed gently when told of his priest's interpretation: "Honestly, I just happened to like that prayer."

Intentional or not, the new wrinkle in the Catholic liturgy foreshadowed bolder changes that would mark Brown's first months as chief pastor to the county's 1 million church members. The series of swift decisions, which include the announcement today of plans to build a cathedral in Santa Ana, are geared to making the church more responsive to its growth and diversity.

The soft-spoken bishop has appointed Latinos and women to key diocesan positions. He has approved the construction of six churches and multimillion-dollar expansions of older churches, many in impoverished areas. He gave one of the new parishes a Vietnamese name, Our Lady of La Vang, a first for a Catholic church in Southern California. And he has made--for the first time in more than 15 years--information about the church's finances available.

The populist moves have provided Brown an extended honeymoon as the county's new bishop, giving him the reputation of a pastor who cares for "the least among us" even while he proposes the construction of a cathedral. Major criticisms of Brown's performance are difficult to find.

"Give him a while to make enemies," said Father Enrique J. Sera with a laugh. Sera is from Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Santa Ana. "He's only been around a couple of years."

During a 25th anniversary ceremony today at 9:30 a.m. at Holy Family Cathedral in Orange, Brown will unveil plans for both the new cathedral and a capital fund-raising campaign that could bring in more than $100 million.

"Probably my toughest decision as bishop is to move forward with this capital campaign," Brown said. "It's very challenging and will demand an awful lot of work."

The funds will be used to build the cathedral, its price tag still undetermined, buy land for new parishes, assist needy schools and churches, and help provide housing for retired priests.

Diocesan workers have experienced a kind of cultural whiplash since Brown took over from now-retired Bishop Norman F. McFarland, who spent 11 years in the position. The two bishops, who have become friends, have opposite management styles that mirror changes in the Catholic Church.

McFarland--a bear of a man who can be blustery and intimidating--was an old-school, hands-on manager who took pride in answering his own phone. During his tenure as bishop, he built the diocese into a financial powerhouse with $150 million in net assets.

But during that time, the church also spent little on new parishes even while the number of Catholics in the county soared.

Brown runs the diocese more like a business school-trained CEO. He's a consensus builder and delegator, in part because his roles in the ecumenical and inter-religious movement often take him out of the county.

Brown is different from McFarland in other ways. The new bishop is less intimidating physically, of average size with a round, kind face. Shy by nature, he speaks quietly and, at times, self-consciously. He is known for his intellect and gentle sense of humor.

"He has an excellent sense of proportion of himself--and a sense of humor about himself," said Bishop George Niederauer of Salt Lake City, a friend and former classmate. "He's a humble man."

One priest described Orange County pastors as "deer caught in the headlights" until they adjusted to Brown's ways.

But most of them have welcomed the change.

"He's including all of us in the process, which is very comforting and energizing," said Father Roy Kim of St. Thomas Korean Catholic Center in Anaheim.

Perhaps no priest has felt the change more than Father Bill Barman, pastor of tiny Our Lady of Lourdes in Santa Ana, the county's poorest parish. He holds seven Masses each weekend to accommodate the crowds, which pack the aisles during services.

Barman said he went to McFarland "eight, nine, 10 times" to plead for a building adequate for the parish's worshipers.

Each time, Barman said, the answer was no. "I could not tell you the pain I felt as a pastor," the priest said. "He wasn't a bad guy. He wasn't ill-willed. His job was to be an accountant."

When Brown arrived, Barman was the second person to visit his office. Three months later, the parish was in escrow on property that will be the site of a $9.3-million church. It was the first time the construction of a parish in Orange County was funded primarily by the diocese.

"I thought, 'Oh, my God, we've got help,' " Barman said. "He's got a very strong commitment to the inner city."

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