Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston
Morgantown, West Virginia
Feb. 28, 2019
Let me begin with a word of thanks. For nearly six months, I’ve had the privilege of serving as Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston. I wish I could get around the diocese a lot more than I do but I must say that wherever I’ve gone I’ve been met with kindness and understanding as well as a spirit of openness and cooperation – and for that I do thank you. I also want to thank Bryan Minor and a number of diocesan staff who are here today. Thank you for your service to the diocese during this time of transition. Most of all, I want to thank you, my brother priests, who continue and sustain the mission of the Church in West Virginia day in and day out, and in very diverse pastoral settings. As I’ve come to learn, there are many West Virginias – whether it’s the panhandles, this college town, the state capitol, our rural communities, and the coal country. And, let me assure you, I’ll never again complain that the territory of the Archdiocese of Baltimore is far flung. These days, Oakland, Maryland seems like it’s around the corner from my !
My thanks to you is compounded because I know that these months since Bishop Bransfield’s retirement haven’t been easy. Transitions are never stress-free but this one is more difficult than usual due to the circumstances surrounding the Bishop’s retirement and indeed due to the crisis that has engulfed the entire Church. So, I thank you for your calm, your patience, and your constancy amid so much ecclesial turbulence. During the Communion Rite at Mass we pray for “peace in our days”; we pray to be “free from sin and safe from all distress”; and we pray for the Church’s “unity and peace”. I can tell you that I offer those prayers with special fervor as I reflect on the challenges facing the dioceses I serve and as I reflect on the divisions and upheaval that afflict the Church in these days. But those same prayers also express the hope that is ours in Christ Jesus, a hope that anchors our labors in the coming of Christ, in the Kingdom of Heaven, a hope that will not disappoint us even if much in our experience does indeed disappoint us and sometimes even angers us. I should also tell you this: when I pray for you each day even as I pray daily for Bishop Bransfield, I am comforted by your prayers for me and those whom I am blessed to serve. We often say, almost as a matter of course, that we pray for one another but this really isn’t something we should take for granted. Prayer, dear brothers, is the principal way we sustain one another in ministry and mission.
Difficulties in the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston
Let me speak briefly about the challenges that, together, we are facing both at the local level and in the larger Church of which we are a part, not so that we can wallow in our problems but rather so that we can prepare to turn the page for a new and brighter day as we await the appointment of a new shepherd for our diocese.
As I’ve already noted, interregna are dangerous moments, even in the best of times. When the leader leaves the building, the occupants grow restless. It can be a time to voice opinions and views from electronic rooftops that heretofore were whispered in secret, behind closed doors. It can be a time to settle old scores, to advance pet projects, to push agendas, to jockey for that next move we think will bring us bliss. All of the above and more are simply part of post-lapsarian human nature which is already but not yet fully redeemed by the blood of Christ.
Yet all this is made more difficult given the allegations that have been lodged against Bishop Bransfield. The preliminary investigation into these allegations has cast a cloud over our local church and over your day-to-day ministries. And we would all like to see this matter quickly concluded and put behind us. Yet, as you know, the preliminary investigation is only the first part of the process. When completed, it is sent to the Holy See which in turn determines what further process should be followed. It will weigh the evidence and conclusions of the preliminary investigation and decide whether a penal process or an administrative process should be followed. The ultimate decision rests with the Holy Father himself. And while this investigation is front and center for you and me, we also recognize that this is not the only matter of its kind before the Holy See. So, it may take a while for a resolution to be achieved – that is to say, what penalties the Holy Father may decide to impose and what information will be shared following any action taken by the Holy See. And while we might wish simply to have all the information “out there” right now, it is important that this process be followed carefully in collaboration with the Holy See – upending it will not help the cause.
In the meantime, however, I think that consultations leading to the appointment of a new bishop are likely to proceed in the near future. For that reason it is important for us to pray and reflect more intently on the pastoral needs of the local church and on the qualities of mind, heart, and spirit that are especially necessary in the bishop who will shepherd this diocese into the future. And while we may be tempted to think that these needs are self-evident, that we are sure of what they are, I would suggest that it is important not to jump to conclusions too quickly but rather to take time and reflect on the pastoral needs of those places where you currently serve and where you served in the past. I’m sure you will keep uppermost in your minds and hearts the real-life struggles of the parishioners you shepherd so ably. We need to allow their voices, their needs, their aspirations to register in our hearts as we offer our reflections on the future of this local Church. It is also good to speak with your people about their needs and hopes for the future, recognizing as we all should, that we, the clergy, are not the Church but rather the servant-leaders of the Church who work and serve in partnership with the lay women and men of our diocese. I’ll have more to say about preparing for a new bishop in a moment but for now allow me to speak more globally about the crisis facing the Church.
The Global Crisis
As you know, the Holy Father concluded the summit on sexual abuse last Sunday. If you’ve followed the coverage of that meeting, you know that it has not received high marks from the secular media, or from the blogosphere, or from Catholic media outlets – right, left, and center. Many people have panned the Holy Father’s efforts because they say it is long on words and short on action. A headline in the Baltimore Sun’s editorial reads: “The Catholic Church (is) All Talk on Sexual Abuse Scandal”. A Washington Post editorial headline reads, “Pope Francis’ sex abuse speech was a disgraceful display of excuses.” Not exactly the outcome that the Vatican Press Office was hoping for.
It was, I think, pre-ordained that no one would be satisfied with such a meeting, not only the press but many of the victim-survivors who carry in the depth of their being the deep wounds wrought by sexual abuse. Something in our American mentality says, “Why doesn’t the Pope just allow us to fix this?” Why didn’t the bishops assembled in Rome vote on a global framework for handling this crisis, a framework that allows for local adaptation? We all have our ideas as to how we might have run this meeting and what outcome we would like to have seen. But there’s something about the Holy Father’s approach many are missing. When you elect a Jesuit to be the Pope, he’s going to behave like a Jesuit. I don’t mean to say that he’ll be “a Jesuitical casuist” – but rather that he will be a loyal son of St. Ignatius of Loyola. And that means he will place high value on prayer and discernment. Last November, when the Pope asked the U.S. bishops not to vote on the measures that had been devised to ensure episcopal accountability, most of us were angry and when he told us to make a retreat in Chicago in January most were incredulous. Couldn’t we have at least been ordered to show up in Florida? I have to tell you, these days were filled with God’s grace. They were a time when we really did pray, when Fr. Cantalamesa led us deeper into the Gospel, when we related to one another differently than we do at a business meeting, when we reflected more deeply on our calling and on our responsibility at this critical moment in the life of the Church.
The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola caution us against the view that all we have to do is to put in place the right safeguards and policies – and voila! – we have solved the problem and move on – much as we would all long to move beyond this terrible crisis which seems to haunt the Church decade after decade. In other words, there is a temptation to deal with the symptoms not the illness. In calling us to prayer and reflection, the Pope is not delaying or circumventing action. Rather, he is insisting that we confront the roots of the crisis— the sickness of spirit that underlies this sickness and crime that wreaks unspeakable havoc in the lives of its victims and erodes the Church’s morality and purity and its credibility. The Pope has taken time to listen to the voices of victims and he has taken their testimony to heart. In prayer, their experiences have registered on his soul. Pope Francis is asking us to do the same thing as we seek to address this crisis. The Holy Father has also taken time to discern prayerfully the conditions in the Church and in the world in which the abuse of children and minors could have proliferated and for such a long time and on a global basis – and one of those conditions is, of course, a sense of entitlement on the part of bishops and priests and a culture of secrecy, in a word, “clericalism.” He is asking the same of us.
Yes, in doing this, the Pope is accused of being all talk and no action and of making excuses instead of addressing the issue head on. Nor do those who criticize the Pope give him credit for empowering, as he has, episcopal conferences around the world to deal with this according to certain principles in ways that are appropriate to those cultures. In our country, this process, I sincerely believe, has helped the American bishops to think through their proposals more thoroughly, such that they actually do hold bishops accountable while at the same time not violating the Church’s constitution by the creation of ad hoc structures that are, in the end, accountable to no one. Above all, I think there is newfound desire on the part of the bishops to take forthright action, to do what we can do locally, to ensure that we don’t hold others to standards we are unwilling to adhere to – while at the same time, rooting from our own hearts the seeds of this crisis which have borne such bitter fruit in the life of the Church.
Preparing for the New Bishop
Which brings me back to the question of your preparing for a new bishop. How should you prepare yourselves and your people for a new bishop, especially in a time when cynicism and skepticism are the order of the day? It used to be that, when a new bishop arrived, the question was “What does he like to eat?” When I arrived in Bridgeport, CT years ago, I spent the day unpacking and when it was time for dinner, a gentleman from the diocese who was helping me asked if I wanted baked ziti – and at that point I would have eaten a horse. “Oh, yes, I said, I would love some ziti” – and ever thereafter when I had a meal in a rectory, there were baked ziti. For a while I thought it was the Connecticut state food.
I don’t know who your new bishop will be (at least not yet) but I think the program of prayer throughout the diocese is a really good idea, especially your offering Mass for the Election of a New Bishop (February 2-3), including it in the Prayers of the Faithful, and praying the prayer that had been prepared. Joining with your people to reflect and pray as the process proceeds and praying for the new bishop and the diocese is an expression of hope – not mere optimism but genuine theological hope for the future. But I would like to go a bit deeper with you before I conclude.
As you know this is not the first time the Church has been engulfed in crisis. Some indeed predict that the current crisis will be seen by those who come after us to have been as serious as the various schisms that tore the Church apart, or the Avignon papacy, or the Borgias, or the Reformation. Time will tell but one thing we do know: This crisis presents us with the ultimatum that lies at the heart of God’s Word. For all the nuance with which we like to engage in theology and with which we seek to interpret Scripture itself, underneath it all is a stark choice which we must face as individual priests, as a presbyterate, as a diocese, as a Church: Shall we choose life or death? Good or evil? Shall this be a moment of repentance, reform, and renewal for the Church or shall it be a moment in which the Church and her mission are undermined? This is not a time for us to shrink from the challenge of proclaiming the Gospel, to lose our boldness in proclaiming the truth and love of Christ. Neither the media nor the secular establishment, nor even the full fury of our sins is stronger than the love of Christ, crucified and risen. The grace of Christ is sufficient for us.
As a presbyterate you and I are at a crossroads. Let us decide here and now to travel together the route of transformation in Christ. It is one thing to travel this road as individual priests, each in our own way, but indeed a very powerful thing when we decide to do so together. Scripture says how pleasant it is when the brethren dwell as one. Jesus prays for our unity so that the world may believe. And what we need to unite around is not a mere policy or procedure but rather a deep renewal not only in our individual priestly lives but also in our life together as a presbyterate. This surely means making some common commitments with regard to daily prayer, to spiritual direction, to confession, to the seriousness with which we prepare to preach, to the fidelity with which we live out our ordination promises, to the way we conduct ourselves when we are together and when we are with our people and when we are out in public. In a word, we have to be whom we say we are. We have to be in private what we are in public. And we have to be a presbyterate in which we give the encouragement that we owe to one another in Christ Jesus.
Renewal at this level requires personal sacrifice on the part of us all. It requires of each of us – myself very much included – that we are not engaging in any form of self-deception – whether with regard to celibacy or simplicity of life or charity or zeal. It means healing the wounds of sin and division in our midst, being agents of reconciliation and mutual forgiveness in our local church, laying aside ideologies that divide, not allowing our own personal style to become an obstacle to Christ, seeking think together with the whole Church, seeking to be one in mind and heart in the service of the Church.
In my humble opinion – and I speak as one who stumbles along the way – that is the best way to open ourselves toward a future full of hope. That is the best way to prepare the way for a new bishop recognizing that our holiness and zeal is what defines the true success of his ministry and our ministry, a ministry that leads to the peace and joy that only Christ can give. Even though you are far-flung due to geography, and even though, like every presbyterate, you represent many different cohorts of formation – it is possible in the Holy Spirit to attain that unity and holiness which will enable us to transforms this crisis into a great grace, a moment of purification, new life, and new energy, for ourselves and those we serve. Thanks for listening! God bless you and keep you always in his love!