Anyone who watches or listens to sports talk shows with any regularity knows that the topic of coaching trees comes up now and again and it produces some interesting discussions. Which coaches in pro and college football and basketball have produced the most successful coaches from among their stable of former assistants? The answer depends on who’s doing the shouting into the microphone, but it is an interesting sidelight that people like Vince Lombardi and John Wooden – arguably the two best ever in their respective sports – barely have a coaching shrub, let alone a tree.
This same discussion can occur in the area of episcopal trees, albeit with a much smaller audience of interested listeners. It is a fact that every Catholic bishop ever consecrated can trace his lineage back to one of the Twelve, but the historical records that can take us from that first generation to the present one are shrouded in the mists of history. Was St. Peter’s ‘coaching tree’ better than St. John’s? What about St. Bartholomew, St. Philip and the rest? The definitive answer is known to God alone.
All of this came to my mind during the All Saints’ Day homily by newly appointed Bishop Nelson Jesus Perez. As he spoke to the over fifteen hundred young Wildcats sitting in the Fr. Sullivan Gymnasium, Bishop Perez noted that being a successor to the Apostles might not be such the honor that it appears to be: one betrayed Jesus, one denied Him, and nine ran away. Not a great start to the apostolic episcopal trees.
Eventually, ten of them were martyred, eleven were canonized, and if you include St. Matthias – the man who replaced Judas – then you can add one more martyr and saint to the list. Thus, every bishop ever consecrated since that first generation can look to a saint – and most probably also a martyr – as his spiritual forefather.
Although we have no way of knowing which Apostle began the chain that led to Bishop Perez, we can with certainty trace him back to the sixteenth century. In a Kevin Bacon-esque game of separation, there are nine steps between Bishop Perez and John Carroll, who in 1790 was consecrated as the first bishop in the United States. Surprisingly, the episcopal tree of John Carroll is pretty sparse these days – only 10 of the almost two hundred dioceses are led by a man who can trace his episcopal roots to the man who was the first shepherd of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
The furthest back that we can trace Bishop Perez is to Cardinal Scipione Rebiba. This mid-1500s Cardinal Archbishop of Pisa has by far the richest known episcopal tree. He only consecrated 23 bishops over an eight-year span, but his tree has branched out to the point where it is estimated that around 95 percent of all living bishops in the world can trace their episcopacy to him.
The Church is indeed apostolic, and it would be difficult to overestimate the importance of Cardinal Rebiba in that necessary chain of succession. Every pope from the time of Clement XI, who was elected to the papacy in November of 1700, can trace his roots to this now obscure Sicilian prelate.
In coaching terms we can think of Cardinal Rebiba as the Sid Gillman of the Church. As with Rebiba, few today remember Gillman, yet his coaching tree, in both college and pro football, is staggering. The fact that Woody Hayes, Ara Parseghian, and Bo Schembechler were among his Miami University (Ohio) branches would be enough to make him a star, but with 25 Super Bowl victories hanging in his tree his legacy takes on Rebiba-like proportions.
Given that analogy, let us pray that our newly installed Bishop Perez will have such a long and illustrious career in our diocese that he will be remembered in the same way that football fans remember such protégés of Coach Gillman as Chuck Noll, Joe Gibbs, and Bill Walsh. Odds are that will be the closest we in Cleveland will ever get to celebrating a Super Bowl victory.