The idea of creating a new diocese in eastern Virginia was raised in 2001 by the Rev. Thomas J. Quinlan of Holy Family Catholic Church in Virginia Beach. The diocese's Council of Priests subsequently agreed. Sullivan backed the initiative and sent it to the papal nuncio, the Vatican's representative in the United States.
Last December, Cardinal William H. Keeler, who oversees the diocese as archbishop of Baltimore, endorsed the proposal while visiting with Catholics in South Hampton Roads.
At that time, he said: "I can give assurance that the question is receiving very serious study. How long that study is going to take, I can't predict ... but I do believe that this is something that's going to come to pass, at some time."
Proponents of the split generally argue that, at 33,000 square miles, the Richmond diocese is too vast for one bishop to minister to effectively. It contains roughly 213,000 Catholics, about half of whom live in the eastern region that includes Hampton Roads.
Moreover, the Catholic community is surging in South Hampton Roads, growing by 44 percent between 1990 and 2000, to 65,000.
Sullivan said in 2002 that a diocesan study showed that most of the Catholic population was concentrated in Hampton Roads and in the region bounded by Richmond and Charlottesville.
The study also showed that the two areas had comparable financial resources and a similar number of priests, parishes and Catholic institutions such as schools.
Critics have said that splitting the diocese would worsen the priest shortage, since the new diocese would absorb into its bureaucracy some clergy who are serving parishes.
Price said DiLorenzo had studied a file about the proposed split that he received from diocesan officials after he took office.
"Based on the information in that file, it was not an endorsement he was ready to make; it was not an endorsement he was going to make," she said.
According to Price, DiLorenzo feels that "even though we're spread over the diocese of 33,000 square miles, technologically, we're able to communicate with one another instantly."
The bishop also has noted that splitting the diocese isn't being raised as a priority by the lay Catholic leaders he is meeting with around the state, including in Hampton Roads, Price says.
According to Quinlan, DiLorenzo's opposition automatically kills the initiative, wherever it may be within the Vatican pipeline.
"It's dead. The local bishop must initiate the process," Quinlan says, citing canon, or church, law.
But the Rev. Timothy Kulbicki, vice rector of St. Mary's Seminary and University in Baltimore, says the situation is more unclear.
"The Holy See alone has the power to divide diocese, which it can do regardless of the local bishop's desires in the matter," he says, responding to a reporter by e-mail.
"Sometimes things are just left perpetually up in the air," he adds. "The only real fact is that Vatican authorities have not acted on Bishop Sullivan's petition."
The Richmond diocese last saw its boundaries redrawn in 1974, when 21 Northern Virginia counties were brought together as the Diocese of Arlington. S
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