ANOTHER GREAT PRIEST OF THE DIOCESE GOES TO THE HOUSE OF THE FATHER

October 15th, 2014
Father Chris Fitzgerald, I.C. conducts Benediction service at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Seffner. Photo kindness of Ed Foster, Jr.

Father Chris Fitzgerald, I.C. at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Seffner. Photo kindness of Ed Foster, Jr.

I am woefully late in posting this tribute to a great priest of the diocese who recently went home to the “house of the Father”. Father Christopher Fitzgerald, IC a priest for fifty-six years died just as I was leaving for Rome and the ordination to the diaconate of Rev. Mr. Ryan Boyle. It is interesting to me that on the very day I was ordained to the diaconate at St. Clement’s parish church in Fort Lauderdale by the late Archbishop Edward McCarthy, a wonderful Lithuanian priest with whom I lived at St. James parish in North Miami, suffered a major and eventually fatal heart attack (Father George Razutis) and I went right to his hospital room after the ordination and I have not forgotten what he said to me then: “It is all right, Bob, today God gives his Church a new priest and takes to Himself an old one.” When I arrived in Rome and learned of Father Fitz’s death, I immediately thought of that moment thirty-seven years ago.

Father Chris’ final years were spent in the loving care of his long-time Associate Pastor at St. Francis of Assisi parish in Seffner, Father Michael O’Neill. Aided by a staff which clearly loved their founding pastor, they were all able to take care of him until skilled nursing care was required but they never abandoned him to the loneliness of a nursing home but were present to him as often as they could be. Father Fitzgerald was ordained a priest in 1958 having been born in Ballyporeen in County Tipperary, Ireland on January 3, 1932. He was ordained as a member of a religious order called the “Institute of Charity” in Tanzania and served his first two years there before having to leave because of serious health issues. His order sent him to Florida where he first served for eleven years at Blessed Sacrament in Seminole and then briefly in Port Charlotte and then St. Paul, St. Petersburg.

In 1973, he became pastor of St. Anne Church in Ruskin where he served for fourteen years. While there he fell in love with the growing Hispanic population, mostly Mexican and strove not just to minister to them but to learn their language as much as he could. He was a faithful son of Anthony Rosmini who founded the Institute of Charity to serve the poor and needy in a diocesan priest-like formation and ministry program. Rosmini was ahead of his times in many ways and irritated the established clerical system of the time and found himself condemned in a way by the Holy Office (now called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith). The fathers of his order, however, continued to pursue the charism of their founder despite the “cloud” under which Rosmini stood. Father Fitz gave me a copy of a biography of Rosmini when I first came and I found it fascinating. The I.C.’s staff the parishes of Blessed Sacrament Seminole, St. Theresa in Spring Hill, and St. Francis of Assisi in Seffner and they have been great priests in this diocese and we are indebted to them.

In 1987, Father Fitzgerald was made the first pastor of St. Francis of Assisi parish, newly abuilding in Seffner with parishioners “cut off” from the then gigantic Nativity parish in Brandon (much to the chagrin of the Brandon pastor at that time, Monsignor Jaime Lara, who was still complaining about the “theft” in 1996 when I came here as bishop in 1996). St. Francis under Father Chris’ leadership became quite a faith community and the turn-out for this funeral (nine days after his death) attested to the love which they had for him. During his time there, his order chose him as Provincial of the Province in the United States and he had to travel more than he would have liked because he missed the parish so much. His contribution to Catholic Charities of the Diocese of St. Petersburg as my personal delegate placed him right where he and Rosmini would have liked him to be – on the front lines of charity. Father Fitzgerald would live to see the total rehabilitation by no less a person than Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the same Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which once had condemned Anthony Rosmini and he was able to attend his beatification in Rome. Now Pope Benedict XVI would beatify Anthony Rosmini in November, 2007.

Every bishop when he buries a priest buries a brother in the priestly ministry and I am finding it increasingly difficult to preside over these moments because I am saying good-bye to my contemporaries who in so many ways have served the Church better than perhaps I have. Father Fitz and I had a special relationship and he asked that I both celebrate his funeral Mass and preach at it as well. Twelve hours after getting off the plane from Rome, I did as asked and I wish to share with you my homily for this great priest which you can read by clicking here.

+RNL

A VIEW FROM THE SIDELINES

October 13th, 2014

As one who was somewhat skeptical ever since Pope Francis unveiled his intention to call a synod to address the issue of marriage and family life in our day, I must say that the work product from the first week of Part I of the currently convened Extraordinary Synod exceeds my fondest hopes and prayers. And while it is still, as the song goes, “A Long Way to Tipperary”, I find my own skepticism giving way to genuine optimism that our beloved Church is turning a corner on pastoral sensitivity. My initial skepticism was based on two assumptions: first any real pastoral progress develops very slowly in the Church and advances at the same speed as a glacier. Second, no matter what wonderful pastoral ideas the world’s bishops may offer, when they pack up and leave Rome there remain behind in the curia many who usually manage to dilute, diffuse and dissemble the pastoral solutions agreed to. So what’s different this week and wherein do I find my new optimism.

The bishops and laity attending this synod are speaking the truth in love before a Pope who told them, “don’t tell me what you think I want to hear, but tell me what you think.” [from his opening words last Monday]. When Church leadership puts ambition aside and speaks from the heart and soul about everyday problems of humanity throughout the world, a different world view and ecclesial view results.

Today’s report on the first week of deliberations is the most open and honest and pastoral document I have ever seen or read. It really indicates a Church leadership which is seeking to reconcile, love and pastorally care for many who have felt mistreated, disowned or unwelcome: those divorced and remarried outside of canonical form (in civil second marriage, for example) can see in the document a genuine care and concern for them which has not previously been seen. Gay and Lesbian Catholics can find the beginning of a call to them: don’t leave us and give us a chance to find both the right and charitable vocabulary as well pastoral openness which makes the future better than the past. Young people preparing for marriage can find our Church leadership acknowledging the real challenges of living in this moment (cohabitation is an absolute economic reality for many, for example) and asking what can the Church do better to prepare them for marriage in their lived reality today? Perhaps it is with unholy glee that I found in Cardinal Erdo’s synthesis of the first week of the Synod almost a carbon copy of what the people of God of St. Petersburg said in the pre-Christmas and pre-Synod survey of local Catholic opinion on these and other matters. Our Church is listening the voice of the people! That’s why my skepticism gives way to optimism on my first point from the paragraph above.

But, given our history the last thirty-five years, what happens when this Synod concludes it work and goes home? What about those persons in the service of the Holy See who will remain? Some of them have been heard from prior to last Monday’s opening preaching the gospel of doom and gloom and a couple have been providing certain outlets a running commentary, what in my opinion, the late Vice President Spiro Agnew once described  as “nattering nabobs of negativism.”

First of all, I think they know that with Pope Francis, this Synod and those which may follow are providing him with some real opportunities for exercising the collegiality and subsidiarity envisioned at Vatican II. It is pretty clear that the previous methodology of “you discuss and I will decide” is giving way to a synodality model which suggests that moving sub Petro et cum Petro ["under Peter and with Peter"] means that we will walk together but ultimately “the buck will always stop with the Holy Father.” For those on his staff who don’t like it, there is an exit strategy. He  is slowly and patiently assembling a team which is attempting to do what we have tried to do (not always totally successfully in the diocese, I might add) of asking “how we can serve the universal Church” more than “how do we shape up the universal Church since we know best.” Here, it is indeed a “long way to Tipperary”, and we need to patiently give him time to implement the vision in the bodies and minds of individuals. Those who don’t like what is happening these days probably know their “shelf-life expectancy” is limited. More reasons for optimism and less skepticism.

So I begin this calendar week with genuine optimism that the Holy Spirit is guiding the majority of those attending the Synod to walk the path of reality and openness which Pope Francis issued forth on that first night the world saw him in March of 2013. They will chart a roadmap for next year’s regular assembly. For those of you old enough to remember the American Automobile Associations “TripTik” for taking trips by automobile in the U.S. this Synod is using a “highlighter” to map out the most direct and fastest way between two points, as well as to point out where construction of the roadway is taking place” and even warning where there might be “speed traps” to be encountered. The next Synod will have this triptik with perhaps even an alternate roadway or two, and they will make the final decision to leave home and journey to a new place. My God, what a great Church we can become!

+RNL

HOPE IN ABUNDANCE

October 7th, 2014

One of the surest signs that it is Fall finds me visiting both of our seminaries, the college program, St. John Vianney College Seminary in Miami, and the Theological program, St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach. At conclusion of the second, each September, the bishops of the province of Miami meet for several hours as the corporate members of the Catholic Conference of Florida. Thursday, September 25 was the meeting in Miami, Friday, September 26 was the meeting for the Board in Boynton Beach, and Saturday morning, September 27, saw me exit the Florida Catholic Conference meeting to catch a plane to Rome to meet with our two seminarians at the Pontifical North American College and to attend the ordination to the diaconate of one.

I almost always take AMTRAK to Miami and Monsignor Robert Gibbons who is on the board of the St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary usually accompanies me as far as West Palm Beach. I had hoped to take sixteen seminarians at the college in Miami out for a light dinner but AMTRAK’s tardiness killed that good idea. We have sixteen men studying in six different years of the program. In recent weeks, Father Art Proulx has moved in as a house Spiritual Director and he is doing just great. So are our sixteen fine seminarians who come from three cultures with four native languages.

The men attending St. John Vianney College Seminary in Miami with Father Arthur Proulx, Monsignor Toups and myself.

The men attending St. John Vianney College Seminary in Miami with Father Arthur Proulx, Monsignor Toups and myself.

The seminary has plans for expansion, as they are too full this year with 97 seminarians living in space maximally designed for 72. The Miami Archdiocese has monies to fund these projects whole and in entirety so we will see what happens. They were in great form and fun to be with when I was not otherwise occupied in a meeting.

Thursday night we left St. John Vianney College Seminary for St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary (about eighty minutes north) where all the seminarians were waiting for dinner and received sad news. One of their brothers, second year theologian Tim Williford’s mother lost her valiant battle against cancer. Here was to be found a group of men so close to one another that the pain and loss of one affected the others. We immediately prayed for Lisa Williford and had a special, second Mass the next morning for her and her family. Our meetings were properly sober and when she was buried on Friday at St. Paul’s St. Petersburg, all of his fellow diocesan seminarians (34) and nine (9) others were present at the Mass to pray and sing.

Our own Monsignor Toups has a mostly new faculty at St. Vincent’s this year and is in the in finishing stage of his twelve plus million construction project which will be ready for occupancy in late November. He has some 87 seminarians on campus and about fourteen in Pastoral Year programs in the dioceses, which send men to St, Vincent’s. They seemed a happy lot and Friday night was devoted to their major fundraiser, FRIENDS OF THE SEMINARY.

With the understandable and lovely exception of Lisa Willifords’ death, the men at St. Vincent de Paul seminary were enthusiastically well into their school year. Please remember that in God’s grace and assuming no departures, our diocese will ordain five men to priesthood in May 2015, seven men to priesthood in May 2016, two in May of 2017, and four in May of 2018. At no time in its fifty year history will this diocese see so many ordained in a four year window – something to be proud of, thank God and these young men and their families for, and continue to encourage others to think of a life of service to God and neighbor in religious life or priesthood. I also with to mention that another seminarian is studying at Pope St. John XXIII National Seminary in Weston, Massachusetts, and will, God willing, be ordained a deacon this coming Spring. Kevin Yarnell previously was on the faculty of Tampa Catholic.

Earlier I mentioned that I was in Rome for the diaconate ordination of Ryan Christopher Boyle. Home grown in the Diocese (attended Bloomingdale High School), Ryan graduated from the Air Force Academy and began flying the air forces’ version of the Boeing 767 which serves as a “gas truck in the air to refuel” air force jets as they fly their missions. Along, among and in the “wild blue wonder” Ryan began to see the call to life as a priest, made the decision with the encouragement of his military superiors and with my permission entered that could be called a “co-sponsorship” between our diocese for which he would be ordained and the Military Archdiocese as an Air Force Chaplain. He loves our diocese and its parish work but he knows he must meet his promise to the Air Force for at least seven years.

Thursday morning last (October 2) dawned absolutely beautiful in Rome and several thousand people crowded the area known as the Altar of the Chair behind the Main Altar of St. Peter’s Basilica. Cardinal Donald Wuerl was the ordaining prelate for the occasion and gave a magnificent homily.

The “laying on of hands” by Cardinal Wuerl on Ryan Boyle with a proud bishop looking on.  Photo credit: Daniel Hart, PNAC Photo Service

The “laying on of hands” by Cardinal Wuerl on Ryan Boyle with a proud bishop looking on.

Photo credit: Daniel Hart, PNAC Photo Service

See more photos from Deacon Ryan’s ordination here. Later the same day, Deacon Ryan assembled his family and friends for a Mass of Thanksgiving at Santa Maria in Trestevere, one of Rome’s oldest and in some ways loveliest Churches and the parish of the Saint Egidio community in Rome, which is quite active for social justice.

At the Mass of Thanksgiving, the new deacon and Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Military Archdiocese and myself.

At the Mass of Thanksgiving, the new deacon and Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Military Archdiocese and myself.

It was a great day and week for our still young seminarian and this morning he put his family and us into cars and buses for the airport breathing a great sigh of relief and likely climbing into bed for a long and well deserved Fall nap. Tanti auguri, Ryan!

So I am back and have Father Chris Fitzgerald’s funeral tomorrow (Monday, October 6) followed by our annual priests convocation at the Bethany Center.

+RNL

*Note: This blog was originally written on Sunday, October 5.

A “FAMILY” FEUD

October 6th, 2014

I write this from a Delta jet flying at 34,000 feet just west of the French coastline headed for Atlanta where I will surely miss my connection to St. Petersburg and an uncertain future on a Sunday night. This morning I awakened in Rome having spent a week there for the ordination to the diaconate of our Ryan Boyle, a resident of the North American College and a student this year at the Angelicum (last year he graduated from the first cycle of theology at the Gregorian University). My next blog, coming very soon, if not tomorrow, will give more details about my visits in the last ten days to three of the four seminaries where our men study. Even as Ryan’s ordination in St. Peter’s Basilica along with forty-two of his fellow classmates was a major moment, for him and for them, the major happening in Rome began last night with tens of thousands again gathering in St. Peter’s Square with St. Peter’s successor to pray for the Extraordinary Synod which began this morning, just as I was leaving.

On the “street” where I live on the fifth floor of the North American College were to be found Cardinals Wuerl, Dolan, and Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, our current President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, all members and participants in this papally called “Extraordinary Synod on Marriage and Family Life in our Day.” A great deal of print has been spilled in the secular and Catholic media in the last week about the event beginning today and being there among all these “heavy hitters” gave me pause to reflect and pray for this first exercise by Pope Francis in the “Synodality” envisioned by the fathers of the Second Vatican Council and for the gift of the same Spirit inspired wisdom in their deliberations.

In those reflective moments, I thought about what I might say, had I the opportunity to speak to the Holy Father and those gathered around him for the next two weeks. Slowly this thought came to me and I could not put it away. Our beloved Church is itself a family – a family of faith, of practice, of divine creation. And like most modern families, we have our share of disfunctionality at times, disagreements at other times, digression at times, and differences of opinion at times. The synod fathers are going to be talking about real challenges to marriage and family life in our time and culture. I would love to see at least an hour devoted to a dispute, which has taken far too much energy in our Church in this country than I think it deserves. While praying during the ordination of the 43 men in St. Peter’s last Thursday, I asked what Peter would have done and what Peter now might do with the current disagreement between certain Roman offices of our Church and the religious sisters of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (hereafter “LCWR”). The thought occurred to me that if Pope Francis could coax the leaders of Hamas and Israel to meet for prayer in the Vatican Gardens during which each side spoke respectfully of each other, could not the family of the Church try a little harder to settle something of a “border dispute” between the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (hereafter “CDF”) and the major branch of religious women in the US?

In popular Catholic opinion in the United States, I think clearly that the sisters in LCWR have conducted themselves quite admirably in avoiding the same heated rhetoric which came a couple of weeks ago from CDF. They are facing a mandate that they find very hard to swallow which is at its base, “Shape up or ship out.” In the late eighties the USCCB had a similar mandate come down from another Roman office and we politely ignored it and it went away. While the sisters have largely remained cool, calm and collected, the other side in what was perhaps a momentary (one might hope) peak of anger or frustration responded by saying “we are not misogynists” – a principle I would not wish to defend for the universal Church at large. Then there is the preposterous proposition that the LCWR does not represent American religious women. Had CDF said “all religious women” I would have had no qualms. But LCWR sure has a heck of a lot more religious sisters in its communities than any other body of religious women. As a local bishop, I love my sisters. Most could have retired to the motherhouse long ago but they long to help in many ways. And while I am at it, while my own USCCB was bound up for the last decade in liturgy and culture wars, those same members of our family, the sisters, kept the social justice agenda alive for which their leaders seem to now being blamed. These women are neither terrorists nor heretics and while some of the older sisters may not follow the drift or direction of some of the major speakers at the LCWR annual leadership assembly, they hang tough for their leadership and the most of the rest of the “Catholic” family supports them. Ask most of our priests about whether or not they support our sisters and the response will be positive. Ask the same group if this wing of the family ought to be taken to the woodshed for introducing topics of interest to them, and most of the rest of the family would likely say no. The Church at this moment in time does not need an internecine war between two respected bodies that love the same God, serve the same mission, as did our Lord.

I said at the time that the secret to success in getting this matter to go away was found by Pope Benedict XVI in the person of Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle, a good, fair, nonideological man. Sadly, he is required to take his marching orders in this family feud from CDF. So if I had five minutes on the Synod Floor to talk about families and the Church in the next two weeks, I would ask the Holy Father when he has time to empower Archbishop Sartain to find a way to gain a truce on his own which the Pope could himself embrace which respects the interests of both but resolves disputes before they become, at least by one side, a soapbox gone too far. This seems in the political world to be a time of truce and peacemaking, why not also within our family. If the battle continues, there will be no winners, and I would opine that the Church may well lose more respectability and credibility.

Much of this extraordinary synod’s time is going to be devoted to best practices in keeping people within the family circle. How then about the good sisters who worked for decades at less than subsistence wages, taught us about God, bound up our hospital wounds, ran free clinics for the poor and homes for the aged. Let’s love them to death, not beat them to death. Please, Fathers of the Synod and Holy Father, take this contretemps for yourself and solve it for all. The Church as family would rejoice.

+RNL

A NEW BREEZE FOR THE WINDY CITY

September 20th, 2014
Bishop Blase Cupich. Photo courtesy of the Diocese of Spokane's website.

Bishop Blase Cupich. Photo courtesy of the Diocese of Spokane’s website.

Many of you may not be all that aware of Simeon and Anna in the New Testament. Simeon was an official at the temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Lord’s birth. When Mary and Joseph brought the infant child Jesus to the Temple for the Presentation, Simeon exclaimed with great personal joy, “Now, Master, you have kept your word. You can dismiss your servant (meaning himself) in peace (meaning Simeon was ready to go to his death), your word has been fulfilled.”

That’s is somewhat how I felt last night as word began to spread that this morning Pope Francis would be announcing that a wonderful friend of mine of many years and a great bishop was being named to the great Archdiocese of Chicago. That person is Bishop Blase Cupich about whom I have written previously in this space.

He worked at the Apostolic Nunciature in Washington while I was working at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference and shortly after I came to St. Petersburg as bishop, he was made Bishop of the Diocese of Rapid City in South Dakota. More recently he was transferred to Spokane, Washington where he has spent the last four years.

He has addressed the priests of the St. Petersburg diocese twice at my invitation, first as Spiritual Director for our annual October convocation and then at the time of the implementation of the new translation of the Roman Missal. He is 65 years old but with the energy of a much younger person. He will need it in Chicago which has had a succession in recent decades of very fine archbishops (Joseph Cardinal Bernardin and Francis Cardinal George). The former preached at my episcopal ordination in 1996 at St. Jude Cathedral and the latter has been in the diocese on several occasions, including more recently, four years ago as President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops when they held their Spring Assembly in our fair city.

Cardinal George reached the mandatory retirement age of 75 two years ago and is currently quite publicly dealing with an aggressive form of cancer. Through it all, gallantly like his predecessor Cardinal Bernardin, he has witnessed beautiful Christian faith and hope as  one experimental cancer drug after another has been tried out on him. Let us pray for Cardinal George, that the Lord’s will be done for him and that he be spared every suffering possible. Tonight, I suspect, that Canticle of Simeon which I quoted above will be recited with added meaning by Cardinal George.

Bishop Cupich has shown wonderful leadership skills in so many areas but his appointment to Chicago will be quite a test. It is a large and culturally and linguistically diverse city consisting of just two counties and two million Catholics. The last two Archbishops of Chicago have also been tapped for national leadership positions as well as international congregational and council assignments within the purview of the Holy See.

It is much like New York, where Cardinal Timothy Dolan has either been called to national leadership (President of the USCCB) or chosen to accept a time-consuming outside the Archdiocese of New York responsibility (Chairman of the Board of Catholic Relief Services) or papal appointments which require his presence in Rome on a regular basis. These duties often lead the local churches they serve to complain that their archbishop is always away which is one way of looking at it but I prefer that the particular talent of the Archbishop is a gift to be shared with the larger church. New York, Chicago and Los Angeles would be full-time responsibilities for any human, but the burdens of these places are larger.

I mentioned Cardinal Dolan above and one interesting fact which I can share with you which I have not seen elsewhere is that Cardinal Dolan, Archbishops Cupich, Schnurr (of Cincinnati) and Bishop Cote (of Norwich, CT) were all staff to the late Cardinal Pio Laghi at the Washington nunciature, mostly at the same time. Only one US member of that staff from that time period has not made it to the hierarchy of this country and all of the aforementioned colleagues of his, as well as myself, would say that he would have made a great bishop. Monsignor Bernard Yarrish, a priest of the Scranton diocese, who from his room in a Carmelite Sisters of the Aged and Infirm Assisted Care facility in Wilkes Barre, PA must be smiling at the latest news of one of his friends. Monsignor Yarrish whom I think the world of has been dealing with a debilitating disease for some time, but he especially was a jewel of this quintet. Cardinal Laghi and Cardinal Bernardin must have had some reunion last night and today in heaven.

So why am I so excited about this news? I think it is but one more, albeit very important, sign of the seriousness with which Pope Francis takes his mandate to recapture the spirit, vision and direction of the Second Vatican Council. Though I have never asked him this directly, I know the new Archbishop of Chicago would say that he admires deeply the ecclesiology and vision Archbishops John Raphael Quinn (ex of San Francisco), Archbishop Joseph A Fiorenza (ex of Galveston-Houston), Cardinal William Keeler (ex of Baltimore), Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk (ec of Cincinnati), Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, Bishop Anthony Pilla (ex of Cleveland), and Bishop William Skylstad (who on November 18th when Archbishop Cupich is installed in Chicago will share with the new Archbishop the moniker of “ex of Spokane”).

There is a plethora of things to be read and watched about today’s happenings and as always I recommend to you the mother of all ecclesial blogs, Whispers in the Loggia as well as a piece of reflection which I think is spot on written by Michael Sean Winters for the National Catholic Reporter and if you go to the websites of The Chicago Tribune or The Chicago Sun Times you can find almost everything you want to know about this new “breeze” blowing now in the Windy City and soon to visit the places where you live and pray and play. For myself today, the Master has indeed kept his word.

+RNL

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BEING CAREFUL ABOUT WHAT WE HOPE FOR

September 15th, 2014

In just a few weeks now, the principal focus of Pope Francis’ vision will begin to take place in Rome. In Church language it is called an “Extraordinary Synod” and it in the Holy Father’s mind is a necessary preamble to an “Ordinary Synod” which will also be held in Rome in 2015. “Synods” are a consultative device used for centuries by our own Church and by many other churches as well. Dioceses hold synods to plan and prepare for the future of local churches. Implied in the word is “consultation” with priests, deacons, religious and especially laity and the process implies openness,honesty, collaboration and even “thinking outside of the non-definitive theological box.”

I wished to hold such a gathering in the Diocese of St. Petersburg about nine years ago and because everything at the time was focused on the clergy sexual abuse scandals, my priests and other consultive bodies I spoke to said, “this is not the time.” I firmly believe that my successor in office in a few years should and will likely call for a synod process to chart the path for the future of this local Church.

For the universal Church, the fathers of the Second Vatican Council envisioned an “Ordinary Synod Process” which would be convened in Rome by the Holy Father every three years and its membership would be elected bishops from each of the world’s national episcopal conferences, representative bishops from the Eastern Rites and a few other papal appointees. The ordinary synods were envisioned to focus on a particular topic of Church life in the modern world, meet for four weeks, hear endless five-minute speeches (often off-topic), vote for a final set of conclusions and then leave Rome and leave it to the curia to draft a response to the conclusions and then the Holy Father would in a year or two publish a “post-synodal exhortation” which often to those attending did not look an awful lot like their conclusions. Both Pope St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI gave the plenary sessions a lot of their time, being present, listening, and in the case of Pope Benedict, occasionally offering a comment or two of his own to the discussion. No bishop of my acquaintance who was elected to an Ordinary Synod speaks too highly of the process as hopes were often dashed and dreams were often unrealized.

Now, however, not unlike everything else he attempts and does, Pope Francis has instilled new energy in the Synod process. Already he has taken the initiative to go back and revisit the disappointing theme of “Marriage and and Family Life” which was first addressed in the Ordinary Synod of 1980 (the second year of Pope John Paul’s pontificate). This time he gave all the local dioceses and eparchies (Eastern Rite dioceses) throughout the world an opportunity to “vet” the theme of Marriage and Family Life in our Day with everyone who wished to participate.

As you know, in this diocese over 7000 Catholics participated in and responded to the first ever online survey of questions raised by the Pope/Holy See for the coming synod. Very few dioceses in this state or in the nation gave their people this opportunity, often limiting the input to diocesan Pastoral Councils or Presbyteral Councils. The Synod office in Rome was inundated, flooded may be a better word, with advice apropos of the topic. Universal responses tended to focus in real-life and real-time challenges: the effect of the culture on the notion and institution of marriage, readmission of the divorced and remarried to the sacramental life of the Church, most especially the Eucharist, living with same-sex civil marriages, etc. My suspicion is that Pope Francis has been amused if not energized by the attention given to both the topic of the Extraordinary and Ordinary Synods as well as pushback the topic has given birth to.

First, the Extraordinary Synod will meet in three weeks for three weeks. A very good Archbishop friend of mine whose theological and ecclesial opinions I admire very much says that this Synod will mark a “crossing of the Rubicon” for the Church. I hope he is right. I hope that a vast majority of the bishops present will affirm that the topics, especially the more neuralgic ones, will be vetted and addressed in the Ordinary Synod to conform to this Pope’s ardent desire to become a Church of mercy, compassion and forgiveness.

I see hard lines developing against any effort to find a way to readmit divorced and remarried Catholics to Eucharistic communion. The punishment is more important to some cardinals than the moment. I recognize that changing the praxis of the Church on this means finding a way to reaffirm the indissolubility of marriage which has been and must always be true of our ecclesial communion but at least being open to those who have failed.

Think about it for a moment, I can absolve the most heinous of criminals who seeks God’s forgiveness for the sin of murder and give him or her the Eucharist, but let a twenty-one year old who made a mistake in choosing a spouse for a bevy of reasons return to the Eucharist – no way says the Church and I pray instead for some way. Pope Francis has instilled in my heart a desire for reconciliation of all, forgiveness, mercy and compassion for those who need it and seek it, and a Church which is itself a beacon of hope to those who walk in the darkness of this day and age.

So let’s pray that the Extraordinary Synod will be open to a full and active participation by the Church universal in not just repackaging the age-old method of dealing with modern day challenges but is open to that same spirit who gave us this extraordinary pope. But then again, we must always be mindful and careful of what we hope for as it has been tried before and has, in the minds of many, not worked. This one hangs in the balance of the hands of a man who subscribes to that part of the prayer of St. Francis which says, “give me the grace to accept those things which I can change”. Prayers for the Extraordinary Synod are welcome!

+RNL

GOING TO POT! REALLY?

September 4th, 2014

The topic/subject of this blog has been tossing around in my mind for several weeks. At first, I was not going to address the issue of Constitutional Amendment Two on the November ballot which would legalize the use within the State of Florida of “medical marijuana” but then after consulting with friends in the medical field, in the law enforcement field and in two states, California and Colorado, I decided to share with you my thoughts. Please bear in mind that in all likelihood the Church will not “have a dog in this hunt” so today what I am sharing with you is the prayerful conclusion of simply one voter – myself, and is not Church teaching. The whole issue entered the political process due to the determined doggedness of one person, attorney John Morgan of Orlando. His passion, he says, came from the palliative relief given to his brother or another close relative by the use of marijuana. Morgan became a believer and an advocate for change in the law.

Florida was breaking no new ground in this initiative because other states and particularly California and Colorado had already paved the way. It is hard not to like something which claims to remove the physical pain from certain illnesses when nothing else seems to work. I must admit, the claim caught my interest and I suspect it would have won my ballot support if that was all that was involved. However, what law enforcement in this state as well as the medical associations point out is that there is “wiggle room” language in the proposed amendment which would extend the use to “other needs.” The docs say that they do not need such an amendment and that there are less risky ways of achieving the same goal of pain alleviation and law enforcement which has a tough time, they claim, dealing with instances of illegal use of marijuana and its “effects” on human behavior don’t even want to think of wholesale marijuana becoming available in the state.

So how about my Church friends in California, what do they think of “weed availability” in their state? The camel’s nose and neck under the tent they would say. Californians are among the first to take on anything controversial and experiment with it and usually they find a way of accommodating “California dreaming” into their daily and civic life. They also have generally developed a somewhat defeatist attitude that if it is going to happen anyway, why not in California? My friends in Colorado are a slightly different story. They long for the days long ago when one went to Colorado to buy Coors beer and export it back into the Eastern states where it was not commercially available. Now the state is seeing a lot of buying and exporting of marijuana and some of them say that the social dangers of this new reality are alarming.

There is a fine reporter for the TAMPA BAY TIMES by the name of Stephen Nohlgren and he has recently completed extensive research into almost every aspect of the issue. This morning he notes for the first time that the amendment may not be the “slam dunk” which it has previously appeared to be and last week-end and during this week he has authored a series of very fine pieces on both the truths and myths of the issue. At the end of the day, I was left with enough  uncertainty about the issue to decide to vote “no” on the amendment myself. I remain unconvinced of the medical argument at least as a necessity and am a vigorous opponent of smoking anything, legal or illegal. It seems to me that what John Morgan and the other proponents are proposing, albeit somewhat silently, is the decriminalization of marijuana and that is what I wish the electorate was truly deciding on this issue, not some back door proposal.

This may, however, be one issue where reasonable people can differ. I trust the doctors (Lord, knows I see enough of them personally for one thing or another) and not the ads that this amendment is not necessary for palliative care and while personal experience may be helpful in something like this, the research is still lacking. Amazingly I find myself thinking a “no” vote is really “for the people.”

+RNL

A FACE WORTHY OF NORMAN ROCKWELL

August 27th, 2014
Most Reverend John J. Nevins, D.D. Photo courtesy of the Diocese of Venice's website.

Most Reverend John J. Nevins, D.D. Photo courtesy of the Diocese of Venice’s website.

Last night around 930pm, Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice called to inform me that Bishop John J. Nevins had just gone home to the Father. Bishop Nevins was the first bishop of Venice when the diocese was  established  in October of 1984. He and I lived on the same property in Miami for five years as I succeeded him as Rector of St. John Vianney College Seminary in 1979, but he remained on property as Auxiliary Bishop of Miami till his appointment to Venice in 1984.

An only child of first generation Irish parents, the bishop grew up in New Rochelle, New York where his education was largely in the hands of the Irish Christian brothers. Graduating from Iona College (also run by the Irish Christian Brothers) he entered the seminary for the Fathers of Mercy, a religious order of men, and studied at the Catholic University of America. Just before his ordination to the diaconate, the Fathers of Mercy were disbanded, leaving young John Nevins with no place to go.

A wonderful Sulpician priest recommended that the “homeless” seminarian contact Bishop Coleman F. Carroll who was in his second year as bishop of the new diocese of  Miami and upon doing that he was accepted as a seminarian for Miami and ordained to the priesthood on D-Day the sixth of June 1959. He held many positions in Miami including pastor of several parishes, director of Catholic Charities, and Rector of St. John Vianney College Seminary from 1974 till October 10, 1979. Venice was made a diocese in June of 1984 (along with Palm Beach) and he was installed as the first bishop in October of the same year. He served as active bishop for twenty three years until succeeded in office by Bishop Dewane.

I remember very well the consultation which preceded the decision to erect Venice as a diocese. Many people pointed out that it would be a challenging diocese to administer for a number of reasons, the major being that the population of the expected counties to be included consisted of many seniors and finding enough priests from within the diocese would be unlikely. True to predictions, the diocesan population grew very quickly and the need for priests increased even more exponentially than predicted.

It was also a large diocese. Since Bishop W. Thomas Larkin was a classmate in graduate school of St. John Paul II (he taught the pope his English), he was in the driver’s seat in shaping the size of the new diocese, ninety per cent of which was formerly the Diocese of St. Petersburg. Bishop Nevins, faced with these foreseen challenges and many more unforeseen led the diocese often by sheer force of his wining, loveable, Irish personality. He was always a good priest and a person of the people. He was also at the top his game when a priest was in trouble, caring for them and trying to get them the help they needed. In Miami and in Venice, he will be fondly remembered until we all die off as a “priests’ bishop”. Lay people and religious also responded to him well.

He could occasionally be unpredictable as when presiding at the funeral of Dr. Ben Shepherd, the seminary’s doctor, in the seminary chapel during the homily he walked down placed his hand on the casket and told the grieving widow in these precise words, “you know, the shell is still here but the nut is gone!” She shrieked in grief while the rest of us struggled to control our laughter. On the occasion of his 25th anniversary of his ordination, also in the seminary chapel, he began his homily with this line: “my mother and father were peasants” and I thought his mother, Ann, was going to come right out of the pew and “crown” her son.

John Nevins lived his life for his God and for his mother. He began to change and age and start his own walk to heaven’s gate when his mother died. I accompanied he and the casket on a bitterly cold December 27th to Kilkar, County Donegal, where she is buried. When the two of us climbed in the car to leave for Shannon and the next day’s flight home, it was akin to his spirit dropping like low blood pressure. He was a hoarder, never throwing anything away, but were you to visit his home, you had to be struck by the number of pictures of he and Pope John Paul II and he and his mother. It was like he was in love with both.

His period of declining health was long and drawn out and very sad. Bishop Dewane and the Chancellor, Dr. Volodymyr Smeryk took great care of the bishop. He had no other family than the Church and the Church cared deeply and lovingly for him. Many of us, bishops of Florida and priests, have missed him the last seven years during his declining health and next Wednesday at 11 a.m. when we gather at Epiphany Cathedral for his funeral Mass, everyone will have their own memories and recollections. I have shared only a slither of what I could say about this good man and I thank God for coming for him last night and ending his confinement.

Norman Rockwell once painted a picture of a very young John Nevins for the cover of THE SATURDAY EVENING POST magazine. Young Johnny was a red-head with freckles looking expectantly for something coming which was not there. Now he has seen the Lord and the same broad smile as in the Rockwell painting must be on his face.

+RNL

DEATH COMES TO CARDINAL SZOKA

August 24th, 2014
"Cardinal Edmund C. Szoka takes a moment of prayer in his private chapel. | Photo by Larry A. Peplin". Photo originally in The Michigan Catholic newspaper, August 2011

“Cardinal Edmund C. Szoka takes a moment of prayer in his private chapel. | Photo by Larry A. Peplin”. Photo originally in The Michigan Catholic newspaper, August 2011

Let me begin with a simple declarative sentence. I very much liked Edmund Cardinal Szoka and I lament his passing. As most of my regular readers know, I spent eleven of my early priesthood years in the office of the General Secretary of what was then the National Conference of Catholic Bishops-United States Catholic Conference (from 1984-1995).

Twice during that period of time, Archbishop Szoka of Detroit served as Treasurer and a very good Treasurer at that. He was sharp, incisive, and most of the time fun to serve. He understood the worlds of accounting and investments and he was a great steward of the conference’s resources which ultimately could be tracked back to the offerings of God’s people in many of the dioceses.

He could be intimidating and often would revel in putting someone off guard and in a defensive posture but if you gave it right back to him, he appreciated that and never pulled rank or took offense. If you wish to learn a lot about his life, go to the website of the Archdiocese of Detroit where they have very fine tributes to this Churchman.

I wish to share with you from probably a unique standpoint one of the major moments in my life when dealing with him. Beginning in 1985, the Conferences knew Pope John Paul II wanted to make a second, but this time “pastoral visit”, to the United States of America and my boss, the General Secretary at the time, Monsignor Daniel Hoye remembering that I had organized the first papal visit in 1979 asked me as his Associate to lead the effort in the U.S.

I flew to Rome where I met with now Cardinal Roberto Tucci, S.J., Dr. Alberto Gasbarri who is now still in charge of all arrangements for papal trips, and Monsignor Emil Tscherrig who is now the Apostolic Nuncio to Argentina. The mind of the Holy Father and his collaborators were already fairly clear in that he did not wish to return to any of the places he visited in 1979: Boston, New York, Philadelphia, DesMoines, Chicago and Washington.

Additionally, President Reagan had taken the initiative never before undertaken on behalf of the government of the United States (the 1979 trip was at the invitation of the United Nations and the U.S. government under President Carter simply approved) to invite the Pope to make a pastoral visit.

From as early as 1985, we knew that the trip would focus on the South, Southwest, and West and we would not be traveling to the East or Midwest. There was an additional wrinkle which I was charged to address: in 1983 when making a pastoral visit to Canada, the Pope had to cancel a visit to native-Americans in Yellowknife in the Yukon Territory because fog prevented his plane from landing at Fort Simpson. Saint John Paul II promised the tribe that he would return and come and see them and he and his handlers wished me to make arrangements with the airline which would fly him back to Rome from the U.S. to divert to Fort Simpson prior to flying him on to Rome. It made good sense to end the trip on the West Coast where the flight to Fort Simpson would be only four hours during which the TWA 747 which I had chartered for the Rome trip would wait on the ground for the Pope to return from Yellowknife prior to making the nonstop journey back to Rome. (p.s., the  Canadian bishops wanted no part of paying for a charter plane to fly the Pope from their country home which until that moment was established protocol).

Archbishop Szoka, then in Detroit, approached the NCCB/USCC and asked for the inclusion of Detroit which he claimed had the highest concentration of Polish American Catholics in the U.S. The Conference’s response to him was negative but I knew in my heart that that would not be the last of it. I then learned that the good Archbishop had made a trip to Rome to personally ask the Holy Father to come and he was given a noncommittal response. When I called my colleagues in Rome, I was told that when they met with the pope after Szoka’s visit, the Pope had somewhat amusingly asked, “how many events did Pope Paul VI schedule in his travels to meet with Italians?” [The answer is zero]. A month or two more passed by before a call from Father Tucci asking me if I would do two things: explore the possibility of including Detroit at the end and then seeing if TWA would agree and could do it? I knew then that we were headed to Detroit come hell or high-water and shared that with my Secret Service head of the papal protection detail, Joseph Petro.

But the story does not end there. In November of 1986, I made my first visit to Detroit with SAIC Petro and my associates to see what we might do and whether or not it could be done logistically. The U.S. portion of the trip was already 9 days long at a cost then to the local Church of about three million dollars a day plus additional cost to the communities, the federal government, the state governments for security and logistical assistance. Some things fell into place almost immediately. The Mass would be at the Pontiac Silverdome. We would not go to SS Cyril and Methodius Seminary in Orchard Lake even though it was the only Polish language seminary in the country. But the Archbishop wanted a pure Polish event in Hamtramck, a largely Polish neighborhood in Detroit.

At dinner at his residence that evening with Agent Petro and his Detroit SAIC Jim Huse, after telling us how much money the crystal stemware and china we were using cost, Archbishop Szoka promised that the next morning we would visit Hamtramack where he, the Archbishop, was a rock star in his own right and could not walk ten feet without being stopped, ring kissed and adored and if that could happen to him, how much more would Poland’s great son be welcomed.

At the far end of the table were to be found the Archbishop’s two priest secretaries: Father (later Bishop) Kevin Britt and, I think, either Father Leonard Blair (now Archbishop of Hartford) or possibly Father John Zenz and they were laughing and joking among themselves. Later Father Britt said to me, “Bob, wait till tomorrow and you’ll see why we were laughing.”

The next day dawned very cold, dreary and rainy. We drove to Hamtramck, got out of the car and started walking and not one person we passed on the sidewalk took any notion to any of us, including the Archbishop. “I don’t understand,” he said, “they are usually falling all over themselves to greet me.” Frustrated he motioned that we should go into a meat market which had Polish sausage hanging from the rafters as well as surrounding a large framed picture of the Archbishop.” A butcher came up and simply asked if he could help us? Archbishop Szoka, now desperate, pointed to the picture of himself surround by the sausage and finally a “connection” was made and the Archbishop recognized. Father Britt was beside himself laughing.

We finished a proposed schedule for the visit which I promptly flew to Rome with, Detroit was included, all went well, and I became a friend of Cardinal Szoka for the rest of his days, including a frequent guest at his table when visiting Rome but only after being reminded of the cost of the table settings which was really something for a “poor boy from Grand Rapids.”

Finally, several years ago I attended the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the Diocese of Gaylord where the Cardinal had been their first bishop. It was a proud, homecoming day for him made more so by the gracious attention showered on him by their fourth bishop, Bishop [now Archbishop] Bernard Hebda. Every time the Cardinal heard his name mentioned he would smile and stand up and the congregation would applaud.

He did very good things in his ministry and please don’t allow my story above to color your sense of what a great churchman he was. I admired him deeply and in my case that is hard to earn too often or easily. He never shied away from anything which he thought was good for the Gospel or the Church and was a real leader and that is what is most important about this once poor son of immigrant parents. May he rest now in the peace of the Kingdom to which he pointed many in his lifetime.

+RNL

SEX AND SACRED HEART ACADEMY

August 21st, 2014

I was awakened this morning by the sound of an e-mail being received which was from my former Vicar General, Monsignor Robert Gibbons, pastor of St. Paul parish in St. Petersburg. He called my attention to an article in today’s TAMPA TRIBUNE about an apparently raunchy and sleazy movie filmed on location at the now largely deserted Sacred Heart Academy Building (his grade school Alma Mater). Reading the article quickly led me to believe that Sacred Heart parish and its pastor had been duped by the producer of the film and that proper oversight of any agreement to use church facilities which is in place had not been exercised. I wish to begin by apologizing to all alumni of SHA who like myself are embarrassed and perhaps even mortified by today’s revelations and to assure all it will not happen again. Here are the facts as I can best determine them.

  1. The producer of the film approached the pastor of Sacred Heart and he entered an agreement without reading the script allowing use of the buildings in return for an agreed upon rental fee. While not reading the script, he was shown an outline which he says did not raise any “alarms” and feels he was “used”. He is a very fine pastor.
  2. The diocese requires that any such requests be vetted with my office and with legal counsel for the diocese which has a rental agreement form with requirements (including review of the script) ready for execution. There was no request for assistance from the diocese or its legal counsel and the parish executed the agreement on its own.
  3. Last year an article in the TRIBUNE brought up the matter of the concurrent filming and upon learning of it, the Vicar General, Monsignor Robert Morris called the pastor and then learned that indeed an agreement had been entered into which would return some money on an unused, vacant building that was costing money. Additionally, the offensive scenes had already been filmed and Monsignor Morris learned that it was too late to do anything about it.
  4. Had proper procedures which are in place been followed, this would not have happened and the embarrassment avoided.
  5. In today’s article the producer basically revels in the fact that the pastor and diocese has been duped and I readily admit that we do look bad. But, the old adage, “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice shame on me” is operative in this instance and again I sincerely apologize for this publicly painful moment. It will not happen again.

+RNL