Jackson's Bishop Latino hitting retirement age

By Jeff Amy/The Associated Press

JACKSON — Catholics in northern Mississippi will soon begin the wait for the Vatican to name a new bishop for the Diocese of Jackson.

On Sunday, Bishop Joseph Latino turns 75, the mandatory retirement age for Catholic bishops, and Latino is submitting a resignation letter to Pope Benedict XVI.

“We congratulate Bishop Latino on his birthday and wish him much joy and peace in his ministry as shepherd of the Diocese of Jackson,” diocesan spokeswoman Mary Woodard said.

Latino will continue to lead the diocese until the pope accepts his resignation. He’s likely to remain bishop until a successor is named, a process than can take months, or even as long as a year. The current archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Francis George, is more than nine months past his 75th birthday.

With Latino’s birthday, eight of the 177 Roman Catholic dioceses in the U.S. have leaders older than 75 and seven are without a bishop.

While bishop of Jackson, Latino has opposed a proposed state crackdown on illegal immigration and fought against the execution of prisoners. He’s generally supported restrictions on abortion, but he notably did not take a stand on the 2011 Mississippi personhood referendum, which would have defined life as beginning at fertilization. He told his followers to vote their own consciences, writing that the initiative’s “unintended consequences” were “deeply concerning.” The initiative was defeated.

Latino has often lined up with Mississippi’s United Methodist and Episcopal bishops, such as in 2009, when the trio called on lawmakers to support a children’s legislative agenda.

In 2006, the diocese agreed to pay $5.1 million to 19 people who claimed they were molested by priests over three decades. Latino drew fire several years earlier for questioning whether a victims’ support group was harming victims by putting them in the public spotlight.

Latino’s successor will inherit a diocese that is the largest, by land area, east of the Mississippi River, but one of the smallest in terms of adherents, with 48,000 Catholics. It covers the state’s 65 northernmost counties.

The Diocese of Biloxi covers 17 southern Mississippi counties, from the coast north through Laurel. Though smaller in land area, it has 70,000 Catholics.

Since its founding as the Diocese of Natchez 175 years ago, Mississippi has always been a missionary territory, and fewer than 3 percent of residents of the current diocese are Catholic. With 101 churches, many rural and small, it has struggled to find enough priests.

Latino appointed a number of lay people as ministers in parishes, with the diocese at one point among the top 10 in naming lay ministers.

Having traditionally brought in priests from Ireland, the diocese is now turning to India, with four Indian priests having arrived and more on the way.

Latino has ordained six priests since becoming the 10th bishop of Jackson in 2003 and the diocese now has 11 men in the seminary. It’s unlikely that a homegrown priest will be Latino’s successor, though. Vicksburg-born Joseph Brunini, bishop from 1968 to 1984, is the only Mississippi native ever to lead the diocese.

Latino was serving as a priest in the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux, La, when he was named bishop in Jackson. He was born in New Orleans and ordained there in 1963.

Bishop William Houck, Latino’s predecessor from 1984 to 2003, still lives in Jackson.