Wednesday, April 29, 2009

When Mergers Hit (Back) Home

My home diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, recently announced its plans for parish mergers and closings after a lengthy investigation by a panel of priests. The priests made their recommendation to Bishop John M. D'Arcy, who today made public the recommendations and which recommendations he planned to accept or place on hold for the time being.

The report is available in full on the local daily's Web page. In it, Bishop D'Arcy makes clear his belief that, between the thinning ranks of priests, the tenuous presence of numerous overseas priests and that these decisions should not be left to a new bishop (D'Arcy's retirement is believed to be coming soon), these mergers and closings are a necessary move for the health of the diocese and responsible stewardship of resources.

While it was picked up by the Associated Press and Chicago Tribune, this isn't really a national story. But our office still receives media inquiries on this issue, which confronts bishops and parishioners alike across the country. The Fort Wayne-South Bend plan is fairly standard for a mid-sized Midwestern diocese. Counting both the recommendations the bishop accepts and those he wants to wait on, this plan involves 22 of the diocese's 80 parishes, 33 if one takes into accounts larger parishes that would be drawn into twinnings and mergers with the smaller parishes.

This plan struck a personal note in that, included among the 22 parishes, was my parish home prior to relocating to Washington, St. Mary's in Fort Wayne. About this parish, Bishop D'Arcy offers:

The grand history of this parish is well-known. Established in 1848, nine years before the establishment of the Diocese of Fort Wayne, this parish has won the respect of the wider community in recent decades for its ministry to those in need, especially the Soup Kitchen, the granting of scholarships to Catholic Schools for African-American children and others, the foundation of the Matthew 25 Clinic for those without health insurance and Vincent Village for homeless families.
He goes on to accept the recommendation that the parish be joined with Fort Wayne's cathedral, which is two blocks away, retaining one Sunday Mass at St. Mary's, all of this pending further consultation with the parish and the presbyteral council.

As long as I'm experiencing this reality of contemporary Catholic life firsthand, it's a good opportunity to highlight a few aspects of this issue, an issue on which spokespersons from the USCCB usually have nothing to say to the media.

First, it's striking that St. Mary's, like most of the parishes in this plan, will not be closed outright. The bishop doesn't even recommend that it be merged, but rather "joined" with the cathedral. I presume this means the same priests will oversee and offer Mass at both places. Now, one of the charming qualities of St. Mary's is that, as its numerous ministries suggest, the parishioners are hyper-involved in the life of their parish, which I imagine would allow its individual identity to shine, even if administratively the parish were to lose its autonomy.

Looking at the bigger picture, this reveals a silver lining of sorts with the issue of parish mergers -- it's not a black and white issue of who stays open and who gets shut down, who lives and who dies. The vast majority of recommendations in the Fort Wayne-South Bend plan say that a parish should be joined to another, or that one should oversee the other, usually with the recommendation that at least a weekly Mass continue at the parish that's getting the short end of the deal. Only in a couple of instances are parishes truly merged or shuttered.

This isn't surprising when one takes into account that Bishop D'Arcy's own childhood parish in the Archdiocese of Boston has since been closed. This is someone with empathy for people and the loss of their parish homes. This is also someone who's fond of quoting Pope Benedict's line about the church having an obligation to provide the Eucharist, "but not in every hamlet," or as Bishop D'Arcy interprets, "not on every street corner." No wonder St. Mary's, at two blocks from the cathedral, is on the list.

Another noteworthy detail of this plan is that the decisions regarding each parish are usually pending further discussion with both the parish and the presbyteral council, meaning that nothing is set in stone, that ultimately, when a decision is made and action is taken, it will be a course of action that has involved everyone along the way and is something that everyone involved can own.

This, more than anything, might explain why media never get a good answer from the USCCB when they call about this issue. It's not supposed to be an issue that's passed down from on high, from a conference of bishops or elsewhere. It's best handled not even at the parish level, but at the parishioner level, engaging and listening to the people whose lives it will effect and moving forward together in a way that is most beneficial to the church, big and small.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Holy Intersections

Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has released a new study, Faith in Flux: Changes in the Religious Affiliation in the U.S. Among the interesting findings is one unearthed by Mark Gray from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA). Mark notes that when people were asked the open-ended question, why did you leave the church, only two-three percent cited the sexual abuse crisis. (If you suggest sex abuse as the reason about 25 percent agree.)

The crisis has been so horrific that when Mark pointed it how few cited it, I was surprised. It just feels like it must be more. That may be the effect of media coverage. When you read something in the newspaper it can seem bigger than life. As big as the sex abuse crisis is, media can make it look even bigger.

In some ways, like politics, all religion is local. People make judgments on the church based on the priest at Mass, the chaplain in the hospital, the cleric at the funeral home, the deacon who performed the baptism – at the holy intersections – the significant and tender moments in their lives.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Newly ordained men have inspiring backgrounds

Just got a note from an editor praising two releases we sent out to highlight the ordination Class of 2009. The annual ordination releases can be tedious because they involve gathering data (Cara’s Sister Mary Bendyna, RSM, and Mary Gautier, over at Georgetown University, do the heavy lifting on this project, but here at the USCCB we try to add as much other info from local dioceses as possible). Catholic press editors like the stories because they tell good news, that hundreds of men, young and older (25-65) are answering a unique call to serve. The releases are inspiring too. Matthew Schiffelbein, 29, of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, is legally blind because of macular degeneration. His sharp memory, video magnifier and text-to-speech software, will facilitate his ministry.

Men who came to the United States as Vietnamese refugees also touch my heart. I remember thinking when the Vietnamese boat people reached our shores in the late 70s and 80s that this boded well for the USA. People who could survive that trek clearly had much to offer our nation. We in the church benefit now as men like the Diocese of Austin’s Justin Minh Nguyen, a skilled tailor form Vietnam, are ordained for the priesthood. You can read more about the new ordination class on the USCCB Web site here and here.

Friday, April 17, 2009

A Numbers Exercise With Cardinals

The presence of so many cardinals -- Egan, Rigali, O'Malley and Ouellet to name a few -- at the installation of Archbishop Timothy Dolan in New York raises one fair question. When might the New York prelate receive his own red hat?

While it's nobody's business but Rome's as to which members of the USCCB are decked out in red, we can still discern a general answer to this question using a combination of a few church precedents and simple math. (And by simple, I mean readers of Whispers in the Loggia are going to find this elementary bordering on insulting.)

First, Vatican officials notwithstanding, the American cardinals head archdioceses of particular prominence or historical importance -- New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Baltimore, Washington, Boston, Detroit, and Philadelphia. Of course, Pope Benedict demonstrated that this list is flexible in late 2007 when he elevated then-Archbishop Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston to the College of Cardinals to honor the growth of the Church in the American South.

The next fact worth noting is that, of this list of eight cities, only half (Boston, Philly, Chicago and LA) have archbishops who are currently cardinals.

The reason for this, as has been cited by Rocco Palmo and other voices in Catholic media, is that tradition does not allow for more than one cardinal who is eligible to vote in a conclave for a new pope per diocese. And since a cardinal can vote in a conclave until the age of 80, this leaves the retired cardinal-archbishops of Detroit, Baltimore, Washington and New York sporting red while their successors do not.

Since becoming pope, Benedict XVI has elevated two groups of cardinals, the first in March 2006, the second in November 2007. The observation by John Thavis of Catholic News Service and others is that the pope has taken a "topping off the tank" approach to naming cardinals. That is, he names only a dozen or two at a time to replace those who have died or turned 80 in the last year, keeping the voting-age total of the College of Cardinals around its prescribed 120 members.

That the number of voting-age cardinals has only dropped to 115 in the almost year and a half since the last consistory suggests that Benedict's next batch of cardinals may still be a ways off, but this is just as well for the American archbishops awaiting red hats, whose predecessors don't turn 80 until March of 2010 at the earliest and April of 2012 at the latest.

So when might Archbishop Dolan become Cardinal Dolan? Barring acts of God or a papal break with tradition, anywhere from spring to fall of 2012 would be a reasonable guess.

In true Benedict XVI fashion, we'll likely pick up a trickle of new American cardinals in the meantime, in the aforementioned other cities, to say nothing of Archbishop Raymond Burke, formerly of St. Louis, now prefect of the Apostolic Signature (or chief justice of the Vatican's supreme court), whose new job more-or-less assures a red hat.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


Media covering the installation of Archbishop Timothy Dolan as the new Archbishop of New York are captivated by the custom which will have the new leader knock on the door of St. Patrick’s Cathedral to announce his arrival at the Vespers welcome ceremony April 14.

No one, however, seems sure of the origins of the rite. It’s not part of the official liturgical rite for the installation of a bishop, but lots of people recall its being done before.

Research finds that knocking three times was part of the old rite for the consecration of a church. That rite called for the bishop to knock on the door three times with the base of his crozier as a sign of taking claim of the church. At the cathedral, home of the bishop’s (cathedra) chair, the prelate is laying claim to the church from which he leads his diocese.

News reports say the knock in 2002 at Milwaukee’s Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist was loud and clear when Archbishop Dolan took the helm there. The strong, heavy doors of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, will really call for a hearty oomph for the sound is to be heard inside.

Easter in Washington

Today's Mass in the USCCB chapel provided an insight into the Resurrection that was appropriate for both the Octave of Easter and the USCCB headquarters, located in Washington, D.C.

Father James Massa, Executive Director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the Conference, began his homily by noting that for a number of years the most frequently visited site in Washington, D.C. is not the Lincoln Memorial, the White House or the U.S. Capitol, but rather the "Wall," that is, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

He described the "between heaven and Earth" feeling that the Memorial evokes -- including how, when a visitor stands a few feet back from it, his or her reflection and the reflections of other visitors can be seen amid the names of the fallen etched in the black granite. When visitors then reach out to touch the names on the wall, they feel as if they are in communion with those who have already passed into the afterlife.

He related this to today's Gospel, in which Mary Magdalene sees the risen Christ but is not permitted to touch him. This is strange, he noted, especially when compared with the appearance of the Risen Jesus to Thomas the Apostle, who is invited to touch Christ in his hands and side.

To highlight the connection between these Easter readings from John's Gospel, Father Massa turned to Pope Benedict XVI, who'd written that these passages, taken together, show that Mary Magdalene wanted to embrace Jesus as she had known him before his humiliating death on the cross, that she wanted to "bury the cross." Thomas, however, is invited to touch the wounds that were inflicted by the cross, drawing the connection that we can only "touch" eternal life be entering into the mystery of the cross through the suffering of Christ reveals God's infinite love. In short, the path to Easter glory is through the love-revealing passion of Good Friday.

The communion experiences by the visitors to the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial, where the fallen are remembered and loved from across the chasm separating this world and the next, points to that all-embracing communion that Catholic believers share with the living and the dead in the most powerful sacrament of the Eucharist. It is there where we touch eternal life.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Refugee resettlement saves lives, in spite of economy

Due to the ongoing national economic crisis, Migration and Refugee Services of the USCCB and many programs within the Catholic resettlement network are experiencing increased interest about refugees, particularly, in how refugees are faring in the face of economic difficulties. Sentiments reflected by media have ranged from support of the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program despite the current economic crisis, to highly critical, with some calling for a slow down, even a complete freeze, of refugee admissions. When thinking about refugees, human beings fleeing persecution, torture and death, there are a few things we must keep in mind beyond economic cost.

1. Resettlement saves lives. Refugee resettlement is a life-saving, humanitarian response to individuals in urgent need of protection who often have nowhere else to turn. Resettlement offers them a chance at a new life. While these are difficult economic times for everyone, refugees do not have the luxury of waiting for the economy to improve. Their situation is urgent and life-threatening. Delayed action may cost lives.

2. The U.S. has a long history of offering humanitarian protection to those most in need and we must not compromise our core values even in difficult times. Reneging on this commitment because of an economic slowdown would be a tragic departure from what makes our nation great. During previous times of economic hardship, the U.S. continued to help refugees begin a new life. If we could do it then, we can do it now. In spite of the ailing economy, it is heartening to see thousands of selfless Americans across the country continue to volunteer and assist those in need.

3. The U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program provides a great deal of necessary assistance and services to refugees. However, the program is antiquated, under funded and in need of reform. Designed nearly three decades ago, it has not been updated to accommodate changes to incoming refugee populations, the economic climate, and social supports. The success of the program relies mostly in the VOLAGS (volunteer agencies) whose creative approaches and community partnerships help make up for the gap in federal resources.

4. Refugees are an asset to our communities and country, as they fill important niches in the economy, revitalize communities both culturally and economically, and create jobs by opening businesses.

5. The U.S. has a particular responsibility to assist Iraqi refugees and special immigrants, as many of them are at risk of death and persecution at home due to their ties to the U.S. government.

Although safe and voluntary repatriation is usually the most desirable course of action, resettlement is often the only option for many refugees. They are granted sanctuary in the U.S. because they are in danger, cannot return home safely, and cannot be safely integrated into their countries of asylum overseas.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Joining the Fold

With Holy Week upon us, it's typical to wonder just how many faithful are joining the Catholic Church this Easter. Our office contacted dioceses across the country, requesting numbers of catechumens and candidates for full communion.

Their responses provide a partial early glimpse of these numbers for 2009, which we have posted on the USCCB Media Relations site.

While these numbers are informative on one level, on another level it's still worth noting that it's an incomplete snapshot. Depending on differences in Catholic populations and overall populations of a given diocese, it difficult to say which dioceses are really experiencing good years and which are having more average years. On the other hand, Seattle, for instance, reporting 736 catechumens alone, is having a banner year by anyone's standards.

The USCCB numbers are also incomplete in that our focus was on RCIA, that is, initiation of adults. Some dioceses offered entirely different sets of numbers that included children. Further complicating things, some dioceses maintain a third category (apart from catechumens and candidates) for people who were baptized Catholic, but either were not formed in the faith or fell away, and are now returning. Other dioceses lump these individuals in with candidates.

Ultimately, the natural response seems to be to throw up one's hands and remember that the Catholic faith is not about numbers. Jesus spoke of the Good Shepherd who would leave the 99 to pursue the one. And ultimately these RCIA numbers are more about celebrating those "ones" than they are about grand totals.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Old Documents Seen as New

Material surfaced again this week that has been on the Web for almost a year. The materials were documents, such as letters, from the founder of a now-closed New Mexico treatment center who questioned as early as 1952 if pedophilia could be cured. The recent articles question how bishops could say later that that they did not know the scope of the pedophilia problem.

I doubt that many a half century ago knew the scope of the problem which, with hindsight, we’re all too aware of now. It wasn’t only the church that was ignorant as Monica Applewhite, PhD, notes how much society has changed in this article.

Actually the mid-80s becomes the tipping point to mark when people in the church and in society beyond it began to understand this crisis in the church and in society.

A half century ago bishops sent clerics for psychological treatment for what they saw as a serious moral failing. Only later did the medical community say pedophilia also amounted to a disease. Many compared it to alcoholism and said it couldn’t be cured but could be treated and controlled.

When bishops recognized the scope of the problem, and its traumatic effect on victims, they took action that will go down in history as dramatic, some would say, draconian. What did they do?

They instituted the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People which called for

Any cleric credibly accused of molesting a minor to be REMOVED FROM MINISTRY even if it was just one time.

SAFE ENVIRONMENT PROGRAMS to be established in dioceses in parishes. As a result, to date the church has:

A. Trained more than 1.8 million clergy, employees, and volunteers in parishes in how to create safe environments and prevent child sexual abuse.
B. Prepared more than 5.7 million children to recognize abuse and protect themselves.
C. Run background checks on more the 1,535,000 volunteers and employees, 164,000 educators, 51,000 clerics and 4,955 candidates for ordination.

Also worth noting:

The church has paid about 2.5 billion dollars in recent years for accusations that go back decades, even when the accusation were against priests long dead and/or out of ministry.

While one case is still one too many, the fact is that there has been a dramatic decline in the number of clerics credibly accused of abuse of a minor in recent years. Most accusations that come forth now allege abuse decades before. Last year, dioceses received ten new credible allegations of abuse to a person still under 18 years of age. (There were more than 41,000 priests in that year, according to the Official Catholic Directory.) In the same year many old cases also came to light as 620 victims made 625 allegations against 423 offenders. Those cases go back decades, most occurred between 1965 and 1974.

The clerical abuse scandal is a horrendous one for which the church will do penance for a long time. At the same time, it is a scandal from which the Church has learned as is evident in the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.

Number of Hispanics Entering Ministry Continues to Grow

Our office has received inquiries regarding the number and percentage of Hispanic seminarians being ordained in the United States, as well as efforts to recruit seminarians from the Hispanic community. This year’s ordination numbers came to us from Mary Gautier, Ph.D., senior research associate for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University. She reported that for the class of 2009, 12 percent of men being ordained to the priesthood listed Hispanic/Latino as their primary race or ethnicity. This breaks down to 13 percent among priests ordained in dioceses and 9 percent among priests from religious institutes.

She adds that “approximately 14 percent of seminarians in theology are Hispanic/Latino. Overall, the ethnic distribution of seminarians in theology is gradually becoming more diverse. In 1993, the first year CARA collected racial and ethnic data on seminarians, 11 percent were Hispanic/Latino.”

Jesuit Father Allan Deck, executive director of the Secretariat of Cultural Diversity at the USCCB, added that despite this movement of Hispanics into ministry in the United States, “it still doesn’t come close to the percentage of Latino Catholics which is in excess of 35 percent and moving up all the time.”

According to Father Deck, of the many seminaries in the U.S., the most Hispanic is Assumption Seminary in San Antonio (where most of the actual courses are taken at Oblate School of Theology).

He added that there are also many programs that set out to recruit Hispanics, noting, “One of the longest-standing programs is in the Archdiocese of Chicago where Hispanics are provided with a residence where they can live and study English and get the educational background necessary to succeed in the seminary. It is called Casa Jesús. Many Hispanic priests have gone on to the priesthood from here.”

Mary Gautier noted that one seminary program in Mexico City accepts only seminarians sent by U.S. and Canadian bishops.

“It is called the Seminario Hispano de Santa Maria de Guadalupe,” she said. “The seminary sees itself as helping to promote priestly vocations among Hispanics in the United States and Canada arising out of the need that exists for priests to minister to these groups of Catholics that are increasingly found in those countries.”

According to Father Deck, one of the most frustrating aspects of recruiting Hispanic seminarians is that “some good prospects come forward but lack legal immigration status. It becomes increasingly difficult if not impossible to gets visas and/or regularize these prospects,” he said. This is due in part to laws put in place after September 11, 2001, and it puts a strain on candidates born outside the United States. These candidates constitute the largest group of Hispanic seminarians.

“The other story is the rise of Hispanic permanent deacons,” Father Deck added. “Of the approximately 16,000, some 3,000 are Hispanic. They are pounding to get into programs. This is a much under-reported success story.”

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

If Conscience Protection Goes, What's Next?

Lots of nervousness around with the Obama Administration’s wish to rescind Health and Human Services regulations that guarantee conscience protection for health care workers. It certainly ought to make historians antsy. Our nation was founded for religious liberty, sought by both Protestants and Catholics centuries ago.

The regs the Administration seeks to abolish merely support freedom of conscience, so why rescind them? Does rescinding these regs suggest other rights will be eroded soon afterwards?
Conscience matters, and, personally, I’d rather have someone with a sensitive conscience providing my medical care than someone who goes mindlessly on his/her way ignoring the effects of his/her work.

Conscientious objectors to killing in wartime always have been protected and defended by the U.S. government. In recent times, medical personnel rightly object to giving lethal injections in prison. That’s within their rights. It’s easy to see that were someone to provide prisoners medical care with one needle, he/she would feel squeamish about taking a prisoner’s life with another (let alone what the prisoners might think).

Clearly the rights of medical personnel and institutions who cannot participate in ending a life as part of their calling to serve and do no harm ought to be protected. More info can be found on the conscience protection page of the USCCB Web site.

Citizens have until April 9 to voice their concern about rescinding the conscience protection regulations. Info on how to do so can be found at the Web address above.