Archive for February, 2013

A HISTORIC FAREWELL TO A FINE MAN

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013
Pope Benedict XVI at his last general audience on February 27, 2013. Photo credit: News.va Facebook page.

Pope Benedict XVI at his last general audience on February 27, 2013. Photo credit: News.va Facebook page. Read the full text of his last general audience by clicking here.

I suppose almost everyone expects that bishops will “fall into line” and always praise popes. As I have mentioned before in this space, if I had a serious difference of opinion, I am certain that I would not rush to publicize it. When a subordinate criticizes his leader, he or she almost always weakens their own authority. Additionally, as I have mentioned here before, prior to our ordination as bishops we take a special oath of fidelity to the Holy Father and his successors in office. Usually papal transitions take place in the context of death, conclave, election and the beginning of a new chapter in the two thousand years plus of Church history. After the funeral and its concomitant outpouring of affection for the deceased Holy Father, all the critics come out to analyze his performance in office and the state of the Church which he left. We have no experience of how to behave when a pope resigns his office, remains alive, recedes into the shadows for prayer, meditation and reflection, and leaves everything to his elected successor. I hope the Church will be kind to Pope Benedict who on Thursday at 2pm EST will cease being the bishop of Rome and successor of St. Peter. He did not wish the job in the first place but humbly accepted it, probably not expecting to live long enough to watch his physical stamina take its slow leave of him.

But assume the position he did and he exercised his office with far more patience, love and tenderness than his critics eight years ago expected of him. I would say that he should be well-remembered for his work in bridging the gap between the long pontificate of Blessed John Paul II and whomever the Holy Spirit and the Cardinal-electors choose to succeed Benedict. His two encyclical letters are stunning, not just because of their theological insight, but because they address convincingly issues of charity and justice and peace. Eight years and a few weeks ago when the Catholic world was thinking still of the pontificate of Blessed John Paul II, his written legacy was one of long, most of the time challenging to comprehend encyclical letters. Benedict’s encyclicals were shorter, much easier applied to life and living, and challenging to one who wishes to live a fuller Christian life. In this case, the theologian probably bested the philosopher though Pope Benedict would be too humble to claim such. Think for a moment on the long series of Wednesday audience talks on what would come to be called Pope John Paul II’s “theology of the body.” In Benedict’s first encyclical letter, he succinctly and clearly spoke of human love in a few pages.

As I have said many times since the announcement of his resignation, his three volume series on Jesus of Nazareth will be on the bookshelves of preachers for a long time to come. His treatment of the “resurrected body” of Jesus opened my mind and answered questions which I have long thought of, like how does one enter a locked room by coming through the walls. That insight alone makes death even less to be feared. His talks in the United States and England during pastoral visits were very clear, well-done and educational and instructive. He managed to weave the thread of both faith and reason in a manner in which the secular world was largely unable to challenge. So what was the difference between the two popes: one was a phenomenologist by education who had the time to think and write while the other was a professor who had only so many minutes to teach his class in a manner in which the students could “get it.” There is room in the Church and the world for both.

Pope Benedict was neither grim nor humorless as some would have us believe. I remember one occasion when Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk was president of our Conference and Archbishop Keeler was Vice-President. We had our standard one hour meeting with the Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith to raise issues of concern to the bishops of the United States and to listen to the concerns of the Congregation about something that they understood was happening or had happened in the U.S. At the end of the agenda, Cardinal Ratzinger noting the time and the fact that we had completed our working agenda asked if there was anything else which anyone wished to bring up before adjourning. The Secretary of the Congregation at the time, Archbishop Alberto Bovone, asked for the floor and asked this question of our President, Archbishop Pilarczyk. “Excuse me, Your Excellency, but would you know how many internal forum solutions to marriage are given in the United States?” Looking unusually perplexed, Archbishop Pilarczyk responded, “By their very nature, Archbishop, there should be no way of knowing how many internal forum solutions are given in our country!” The room broke into laughter, led by Cardinal Ratzinger who quickly said, “Basta” or Italian for “enough.” If an internal forum solution to a marriage is given by a priest to a penitent, it is done within the seal of confession and is afforded the same level of secrecy as the confession of a sin.

The Cardinal lived in the same apartment building outside Vatican City as Cardinal Pio Laghi, formerly Apostolic Nuncio to the United States of America. On one occasion I entered the building elevator with Cardinal Ratzinger, who was returning from lunch to the office wearing his black beret and simple black cassock. “How is your visit to the Holy See progressing, Monsignor?” he asked, beginning a short but delightful conversation. Even as Pope, his humility was always evident.

So the history book on the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI ends tomorrow at two p.m. I think history will be kinder to him than some contemporary commentators. He did more than keep the chair of Peter warm for a successor, he gave it his all. I see that the PEW Research people have found that more than three-quarters of American Catholics have generally good feelings about him, not as high as his predecessor’s 90% plus approval rating, but then Benedict never set out to win a popularity contest, just to be a good shepherd of God’s people. I likely shall not write about him again, but if I were at the heliport tomorrow night at 5pm Rome time, I would be crying, I am sure. Nobody is perfect but Pope Benedict XVI in my eyes is about as good as it gets.

+RNL

THE DEATH OF A BROTHER

Friday, February 22nd, 2013
Bishop Norbert Dorsey at his 50th anniversary mass of ordination to priesthood on April 28, 2006. Photo credit: Diocese of Orlando

Bishop Norbert Dorsey at his 50th anniversary mass of ordination to priesthood on April 28, 2006. Photo credit: Diocese of Orlando

Today is the day when the church universal  celebrates what is called “The Chair of Peter”. I intended to use this day to reflect on the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI which will come to an end  next Thursday at 2p.m. EST as the Holy Father vacates the papacy for his remaining years in prayer and solitude. But that reflection will have to wait because last night about 850pm Bishop John Noonan, the Bishop of Orlando notified me of the death of Norbert Dorsey, C.P., third bishop of Orlando, a few minutes earlier. Bishop Norbert was a brother in the episcopacy, a friend, a wise, lovely, cultured, deeply spiritual man. So I have lost a brother, not Tim or Jim, my blood brother, but a brother bishop, a neighbor, and a dear friend.

Norbert M. Dorsey was a passionate Passionist. No one my age who ever thought of being a priest in the ’40’s and ’50’s could possibly forget something called SIGN magazine. In many ways, next to Catholic Digest, it was THE Catholic magazine. My paternal grandparents in Boston, surely worried about that wing of their family living in Protestant West Virginia and Virginia gave my family an annual subscription to SIGN magazine hoping that it would keep the “Catholic” flame of faith alive in the “heathen” lands where their son, daughter-in-law and three children were living. And in many ways SIGN did just that. When old enough I always read it and looked at the advertisements for priests in the back. Passionist priests also preached parish missions in the small churches of my youth. They all seemed to come from the east coast and Boston with their distinct local dialects and to me that seemed especially sent as messengers from God.

I recalled this feeling once in conversation with +Norbert and he told me that I was not far from wrong – they were messengers from God sent to preach the faith and win souls for God. Bishop Norbert was from western Massachusetts (Springfield) and he did not have to travel far to enter the religious community which he loved all his life. A gifted musician, after ordination, his religious superiors sent him to Rome to study sacred music and to teach in their seminary. So loved and admired was he that in time he was called to the Passionist generalate in Rome to be their world-wide orders Assistant to the General Superior for English speaking countries. It was there that he was eventually surprised one day to be called and told that Pope John Paul II wished him to come to Miami as an auxiliary bishop. Shocked at this sudden news and saddened deeply to leave the comfortable climes of his Passionist community of priests and brothers, he consented and started his new life as an Auxiliary to Archbishop Edward A. McCarthy, whom he had never met, in Miami where he had seldom visited except for its airport on his way around the world visiting his community.

“Who is this man?” the Miami priests asked. It did not take them long to discover a kind, holy, loving and sympathetic bishop. Auxiliary bishops in Miami did not do a lot of administration in those days and were used mostly for sacramental purposes like confirmation and show the flag at things the Archbishop either did not wish to attend or could not attend. Bishop Norbert lived in a small two-room apartment at the Cathedral rectory. He “cut his teeth” as a bishop in multicultural and multilingual Miami and the priests came to like him as a person, though they had not known him as a priest or pastor.

When Bishop Thomas Grady reached the retirement age in Orlando, Bishop Norbert was called north to become the third bishop of that diocese. He started new parishes in the rapidly growing area, bought the downtown US Post Office and turned it into the Pastoral Center or Chancery Office for the diocese. Ever the gentleman, ever the kindly priest he was often tested, mostly by testy priests, but he calmly stayed the course and led by humble example. When the time came and he felt his energy diminishing, he asked the Holy Father for help and getting it, retired soon thereafter, turning over this beloved diocese to others. Two bishops have served Orlando since Bishop Norbert’s retirement and he has been in diminishing health for almost all of his retirement. Living with a Passionist brother, Gus, he privately celebrated Mass, prayed, read, and smoked cigarettes.

As his neighbor to the West for a few years prior to his retirement, he was always encouraging to me, ever ready to lend a hand or an ear. He loved priests, even those few who gave him occasional fits and that is what I will always cherish as my memory of him – he loved priests. It hurt him as we all hurt when a priest was credibly accused of misconduct with a minor and it was on his watch when many cases came to light. Each was a crucifixion for him as were their acts for their victims. So last night, after a long period of illness which ended as a result of cancer, he went home to the Father. The church in Florida was blessed by his presence among us, the people of Orlando knew they had a good shepherd, and I lost a brother bishop last night, a friend, a wise counsellor, a genuinely good and holy man. Your own passion is now over, dear +Norbert. May you rest in peace.

+RNL

FATHER MUSHI

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013
Father Evaristus Mushi 1956 - 2013 Photo credit:  Diocese of Zanzibar website

Father Evaristus Mushi
1956 – 2013
Photo credit: Diocese of Zanzibar website

I first learned of the death of Father Evaristus Mushi yesterday while checking my emails from a retired pastor who once enjoyed the presence and priestly service of Father in his parish. The details were astounding to me and crushing. This good priest, whom the people of St. Benedict’s parish in Crystal River and Our Lady of Grace parish in Beverly Hills came to know and love, was murdered at the entrance to his parish church in Zanzibar, an island in the Indian Ocean off of and a part of Tanzania, by at least two men who gunned him down on Sunday morning before Mass. Police investigating the murder think they now have in custody the men who killed Father Mushi but only time will tell. Father is the third clergy victim of such attacks since Christmas including a second priest,  but one of the clerics attacked was an Islamic cleric.

We remember Father Evaristus as an extremely kind, generous and genuinely holy priest who helped us here out for three years before returning to his country of Tanzania. He may well be a martyr for the faith. But for now, his parishioners, family and friends mourn this senseless act of violence and pray for the peaceful repose of his soul.

+RNL

GOODBY TO A LONG TIME FRIEND

Saturday, February 16th, 2013

Last Friday a week ago I received a phone call in the morning from the Bishop of Covington, KY informing me of the death at age 91 of the former bishop twice removed, Bishop William A Hughes. Sixty-six years a priest and 29 a bishop, he had spent recent years in Carmel Manor, an assisted living and nursing home in his diocese owned and operated by the Carmelite Sisters. I thought the world of the good bishop and missed him very much in these later years. Amazingly, Bishop Foyes call was to inform me that Bishop Hughes had asked me to preach the homily at his funeral Mass which was yesterday (February 15th) in the beautiful Covington Cathedral. It was a labor of love so I wish to share it with all of you who have the time and patience to read it.

I must admit that I was somewhat taken aback when Bishop Foyes called me on Friday morning to inform me of the death of Bishop Hughes and indicate that in his funeral directions, he had asked that I give the homily this morning. I am honored since I have long held Bishop Hughes in admiration and once had the privilege of working for him.

Death allows for no survivors and is one thing which all humanity shares in common. No amount of money or any position of prestige buys a “pass” from death’s embrace. It is a reality which we all must eventually face and for which many of us prepare. Seeking a dwelling place in the Father’s house is our life project for “God shows no partiality.” Kings and Queens, Popes and Presidents, bishops and priests, religious and lay all await that moment when we either will or will not be called to the “mountain top” where we will either have the veil which hides our vision of eternity lifted and are invited to join the elect, or face an eternity doomed to never see the face of God. The person of true faith fears not that moment and often when they pass from this life to the next, few tears are shed because there seems to be a surety of a life well lived.

Ninety-one years was a long time to wait for that moment, but unlike Thomas in the Gospel, when one has a fairly certain instinct where Jesus has gone, where He is to be found among us today, and how we follow the path of holiness by following the one person once on earth who came as “the way, the truth and the life”, then a peace sets in and waiting and watching take second place to reflecting on and thanking God for the manifold blessings which have been at the heart of one’s life. So today we gather not in grief but rather in gratitude, today we lift our voices not in lamentation but in praise, today we celebrate a life well lived according to the Gospel and we rejoice, strangely enough, in Bishop Hughes’ passing to the place for which he longed, one with Jesus, Mary and all the saints, and reunited with James and Anna his parents, and with others among his family, friends, and the faith communities of the dioceses of Youngstown and Covington where he served as priest and bishop.

I first met the bishop in 1969 when he was Superintendent of Schools for the Diocese of Youngstown and I as a young, cocky layman interviewing for a position with the Catholic Conference of Ohio. All of the Ohio superintendents interviewed me that day but there was one who scared the daylights out of me, saying little and staring me down. That was Monsignor Hughes. I was sure I would not get the job and I didn’t. But they created a position for me anyway and in the ensuing months I came to know, appreciate and admire all the Catholic school leadership of Ohio and especially Monsignor Hughes. He believed in Catholic education and with the help of several highly talented religious women and one fine lay man, they ran the best diocesan school program in the state.

After my own ordination as a priest, almost ten years later, and my subsequent involvement as a staff person for the United States Catholic Conference, I came to know Bishop Hughes much better, as a friend, mentor, supporter, and defender. He helped me especially come to understand and deal with his seminary classmate, friend of many years, and eventually his bishop, James Malone, a formidable figure of our Church in this country in the ‘80’s who was capable of striking fear in any other person’s heart. Involved as almost a charter member of the new NCCB Committee on Priestly Life and Ministry, Bishop Hughes was a silent author of many of that committee’s best efforts in defining the post-conciliar hope for the priesthood.

He, like his friend Bishop Malone, were bishops of the Second Vatican Council, the latter an attendee and the former a disciple. Excited by the possibility of preaching the Gospel with new enthusiasm and shepherding the Church in the modern world, Bishop Hughes devoted his truly pastoral years to implementing what he saw as the Council’s spirit and vision. I have reflected the last several days on the first reading of this Mass from Isaiah and truly believe that Bishop Hughes and his contemporaries in the episcopacy saw their roles in the Church in a new and prophetic manner – to reconcile all people to Christ and one another through collegiality, subsidiarity, and liturgy. Those three words, collegiality, subsidiarity and liturgy, led them to long for a more sensitive, loving, caring, inclusive Church, which would be at its best when “the People of God” gathered for Eucharist and the other sacraments. What he may have held sacred, as he was ordained as priest almost 66 years ago gave way to a somewhat albeit slightly different vision of Church when he was ordained a bishop 29 years ago. Those two men, both bishops from Youngstown, OH, could at times be stubborn, but they felt it was Gospel and Council driven stubbornness. And in the face of criticism at times from some who did not share their vision, they stayed their course and led as they believed their Lord would wish of them.

Early in my own life as a bishop, I needed the support of other bishops and through the kindness of the late Archbishop Kelly of Louisville, I was invited to join the bishops of the province of Louisville in their Jesus Caritas support group. I had to fly farther and travel longer but it was a grace to be with these brothers who were also bearing the “heat of the day.” Bill Hughes once again sat opposite and facing me on many occasions but this time there were smiles exchanged, words of comfort and support instead of the sharp questions of our first close encounter. He had retired and Bishop Muench had succeeded him so he seemed freer. He would come to my diocese on the Gulf coast in the winter for a few weeks in the sun and to play golf. And in the Fall, we would often meet in South Bend for a Notre Dame football game. He lived long enough to see the Fighting Irish in a national championship game but its final result may have hastened his death.

Nonetheless, I know that he felt secure that on the day when death and the Lord would come to claim their servant, he felt that he had served the Lord well enough. Last Friday was that day. We pray that he rests now in peace, having heard the words for which everyone in this beautiful Cathedral longs to hear: well-done, good and faithful servant. . . .come now to the place which the Father and I have prepared for those who love me.”

He was a humble, simple, loving and caring servant of Jesus Christ who like the Lord he served came not to be served but to serve. Rest in peace, dear Bill, and may perpetual light always shine upon you.

+RNL

WHAT A LENT THIS IS GOING TO BE

Wednesday, February 13th, 2013

I am certain that almost every serious Catholic has spent the run-up this week to Ash Wednesday thinking about “Super” Monday. Here I use the word “super” only to emphasize the magnitude of the news to which we awakened some forty-eight hours ago. Pope Benedict’s momentous decision to stand down from his office of Pope later this month  commanded almost all of my energy Monday as I raced from one local TV station to another, answered phone calls and mail from friends and others, and had dinner with about twenty-six young men interested enough in a vocation to priesthood to come with their parish priests to dinner with the bishop (this latter group was full of good questions showing an interest in things “Churchy” that I found quite surprising.) As a consequence the time I would usually devote to preparing myself spiritually for Lent which began this morning was seriously encroached upon by the news coming from Rome and around the world.

Ash Wednesday Mass at St. Petersburg Catholic High School. Photo courtesy of Maria Mertens.

Distributing ashes during the Ash Wednesday Mass at St. Petersburg Catholic High School. Photo courtesy of Maria Mertens. View more photos by clicking here

Only last night, after coming home from my final confirmation for seven weeks (in this diocese we do not confirm during Lent), dead tired and knowing that I had my traditional Mass with the students of St. Petersburg Catholic High School this morning for Ash Wednesday in just a few hours, I retired to my chapel for some quiet time. It occurred to me that the three principal actions of Lent are all to be found in some way in Pope Benedict’s brave and humble decision. If fasting reflects sacrifice, imagine walking away in a few days from one of the world’s remaining spotlights. Even our critics acknowledge the continuing presence of the papacy and its influence in much of the world. While some might wish to write Popes off as irrelevant, they can not. Pope Benedict’s highly successful pastoral visits to Great Britain, to use only one example, showed that a politically neutral moral voice still has a role to play in the public square. This Holy Father can retire into the “wings” confident that he has made a difference. So he soon begins a life time fast of giving up the “spotlight” as you will, which has been his and watching the attention which remains with the office to come to his successor.

Pope Benedict has twice including this morning in his General Audience mentioned that he looks forward to spending his remaining days in prayer for the Church and (I am sure) for himself. During Lent we are all encouraged to look for more opportunities of communicating with our Lord in prayer. When Jesus grew weary and tired, the Gospels all tell us that he often went off to a “quiet place” to be alone in prayer. The Holy Father has chosen the same path in withdrawing from the glare of leadership of the Church and will spend his remaining time on earth praying for the Church, for us. In some ways, it would  not miss the mark too much to say that life will be one long Lent for Pope Benedict.

Finally, the thought occurred to me that in the challenge of “almsgiving” which is also a part of our Lent observance, there are many ways in which we can place ourselves at the service of others. Giving m0ney is one way but not the only way. It may come as a surprise to many, but the popes of the modern era are not rich men. I doubt if they ever receive a salary and while it is also true that they receive what they need to live and maintain a modest household, there is no such possibility as accumulated wealth derived from the papacy. They live simply in what I believe is incorrectly called a “palace” (sometimes “prison” would be a better word), spend a lot of their day seeing people and having little time for themselves, constantly preparing public statements, greetings, encyclical letters which have to be delivered within the next 24 hours, week or month. Benedict took time out from his little leisure time to write three wonderful books on Jesus of Nazareth, pure gifts – alms of another kind. He did not so much receive as a result of the office he held, but “spent” himself for us.

The Light Is on for YOU

The Light Is on for YOU

So, in these special forty days beginning today, each of us has an opportunity to join ourselves to him in the practice of this Lent by making more time for prayer, giving up something we hold precious but which might no longer be essential (at least for the next six weeks) and sharing our gifts, talents, selves with others even if we do not have the means to share “alms.” During Lent, giving of our “arms” can be just as fulfilling as giving of our “alms.” In  his final, humble and extraordinary gifting of himself, all of us can find something which we can do to make this Lent special. Confession and reconciliation are also essential and your parish will be having many opportunities for receiving the sacrament in the coming weeks, what with Penance Services and for the fifth year in a row, on Thursday, March 7th, “This Light is on for YOU” during which all our parishes will be open and priests available to hear your confession from 5pm until 7pm. Find out more information about “The Light Is on for YOU” by clicking here.

Lent 2013 begins with historic significance but at the personal level, the possibilities of turning away from sin and returning to the Gospel are even more awesome.

+RNL

AN AMAZING GIFT

Monday, February 11th, 2013
with Pope Benedict XVI at the Ad Limina visit in May 2012. Photo credit: Servizio Fotografico de "L.O.R" Cita del Vaticano.

With Pope Benedict XVI at the Ad Limina visit in May 2012. Photo credit: Servizio Fotografico de “L.O.R” Cita del Vaticano.

Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation this morning and will be leaving the Petrine office on February 28, 2013. I arrived at the office today with the parking lot full of television trucks and a room full of reporters. I began with a brief statement which you can read by clicking here, knowing that the media gathered was likely looking for some hint of controversy or some deep, dark secret as to the “real” reason. For the full audio of the press conference, recorded by our Catholic radio station Spirit FM 90.5, please click here. I also knew I would have a better opportunity to share what I believe to be the truth here in this blog.

I believe the Holy Father has served the Church incredibly well throughout his entire life. Brilliant, patient and pastoral as priest, bishop, cardinal-prefect and pope, he has given his unique gifts to the Church and we have been enriched by them for many years prior to his election as the successor to St. Peter. He loves the Church and the Church should love him as he exits “stage right” to spend what time he has left in prayer, reflection, and hopefully writing. Ever the superb teacher, I would hope that there might be enough energy left in the man to continue to open the worlds of theology and scripture to us as he has done so beautifully with his three books on Jesus of Nazareth.

Seventy-eight years old when called to the chair of Peter as bishop of Rome, he summoned forth enormous personal energy to lead us for eight years. No one who has been in his presence, as I have had the privilege of being, could be anything but happy that his desire to withdraw from the physical, mental and emotional demands of the office have led him in his 85th year to wish to relinquish the office and all its demands. Wishing to spare us anything resembling a “death watch” and sensing that he has done what God has asked of him, he has given the Church one last gift. And, as I mentioned during the press conference, it should not have been a surprise to anyone. He said several times he would resign if he felt no longer able to lead the Church as God might wish of him or as he personally wished. Most all Popes today are selfless servants of the Gospel. Believe it or not, they live simply. There is no “rush” derived from the exercise of power and most dread the demands of administration. If elected, they must choose to serve, and if they choose to serve, they must sacrifice so many things that we hold important in our daily lives.

Blessed John Paul II and Pope Benedict are entirely different but I believe that the latter has survived very nicely any comparison to the former. They were good friends and held each other in esteem. Benedict did not try to be John Paul because it would not have worked. Comfortable in his own skin, Pope Benedict XVI led the faithful according to the mandate given to Peter by Christ and came to serve and not to be served. He has been a wonderful leader who has often been wounded by the actions of a few which have called into doubt the relevancy and credibility of the Church. Let me add here, knowing that this will upset some of his critics, that the bishops of this country and of the world have had no greater friend in addressing the issue of sexual misconduct than Josef Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI. He got it early on and knew what was required for the ultimate purification of the Church.

Popes mean a lot to bishops. We recognize them as the supreme heads of our family of Roman Catholic Christianity. We wish to assist them in spreading the Gospel and shepherding Christ’s church. We do not wish to become simply another problem to them and we take an oath of loyalty to them. I have always admired and esteemed Pope Benedict, before and after his election. He was generally easy to serve, support and admire. I will miss him as will many other people in the Church and I wish him well in his final years, happy to have been in his service and the Lord’s when this humble successor of St. Peter decided to step aside and let another succeed to the throne which is really a cross.

Thank you, Pope Benedict, and may God give you strength and health for the remaining part of your earthly pilgrimage.

+RNL

THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAILS

Saturday, February 9th, 2013

It has been eight days since the Department of Health and Human Services has issued its latest attempt at regulations covering what is called the “contraceptive mandate” as contained in the Affordable Health Care Act (“Obamacare”). The regulations are some eighty pages in length but two thirds of those pages outline the management of the funds for the program once fully implemented. Every bishop in the country now has access to legal opinions on how these revised regulations will effect the Church’s approach and response to the “mandate.” I and almost every other bishop have waited while our own attorneys have studied the “regs” in detail. I also have the added assistance as a member of the Catholic Health Association Board of Directions, having listened to their General Counsel’s careful opinion of what influence these new regulations would have on Catholic Health Care interests. The wise and prudent approach has suggested not rushing into comments without the assistance of those more skilled in reading and understanding government “legalese” than most bishops. So what follows are my personal impressions of the Administration’s latest proposals.

1. Clearly, the Administration has been desirous of listening to and accommodating the concerns of Catholics and other people and institutions of conscience, like myself, who had real worries about the regulatory language in possession up till last Friday. There has been a serious effort to accommodate some of the conscience concerns of the Catholic bishops and I feel some expression of gratitude is due to the Administration.

2. One would be hard put to find any other segment of the American public whose concerns about the Affordable Health Care Act have attempted to be dealt with than those of the Catholic bishops and other like-minded people on this very important matter. There have been moments when I think we should consider ourselves lucky that they are still talking to us.

3. The result has been that many of our concerns, about religious freedom and conscience have been attempted to be met. For me the first attempt of the government to define religious ministry outside of our houses of worship has been addressed in the removal all together of the first three prongs of the prior definition and I am personally at peace with this aspect of the challenge.

4. By opening again, for the third time, a comment period (all must be submitted by April 8th), the Administration has offered an invitation to all interested parties, the Catholic bishops included, to raise any additional concerns which this new draft may have given birth to. There are no promises and anyone who has worked in Washington, as I have, should be prepared for the reality that whatever finds it way into law eventually will be “imperfect” in some way, but so was the much missed “Hyde Amendment.” Cardinal Dolan has made it clear subsequent to the statement issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops that the USCCB has not rejected the HHS draft but seeks to continue to explore progress on some points which would lead to improvement.

5. As a former teacher of English (long ago), I find any discussion of the difference between exemption and accommodation to be interesting because as I look them both up in the OXFORD DICTIONARY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE I am led to believe that it is a distinction without a difference. I find this especially true when studying the manner in which HHS would allow other religious entities for whom the mandate presents an issue of “conscience” to decide that they were worthy of the accommodation. Not many other entities of American life are treated with this level of trust (and this would be especially true of the tax code) and some thanks should also be due to the Administration for trying to find a solution which might satisfy us and other constituencies who think otherwise.

6. In the last eight days or so, I have found myself wondering who speaks for the Church? Cardinals, archbishops and bishops are certainly entitled to their opinions (as I hope I am amply demonstrating in this blog post) but since the Second Vatican Council, our collegial voice has almost always been the elected leader of our episcopal conference, currently Cardinal Dolan. His opinion is certainly not binding on every Catholic, but should be accorded greater respect than any of us. But he speaks for the bishops who elected him, as did his predecessors and as will his successors, not necessarily for the whole Church.

7. Which brings me to my final point. As far as I know, at no time up to yesterday (Friday)since the new HHS regs were made available for review and public comment, has anyone from the conference structure consulted with legal counsel for other entities in the Church (hospitals, college and universities, Catholic Charities)to ask their read on how this proposal will affect their ministry. Yet the USCCB statement, it seems, would have one believe that the above mentioned entities might fairly have their “noses out-of-joint” because they are being given consideration under the “accommodation” and not the “exemption.” I did not leave this week’s Board of Director’s meeting of the Catholic Health Association thinking that all those CEO’s of systems and related members felt they were being treated as second class citizens by these new regulations. Perhaps we bishops need a little more humility from time to time, recognizing that we are not the only “game in town” but that there are other players, women and men of great faith who also love the Church, and who can speak for themselves and their organizations, on what effect legislation, proposed legislation, regulations will have on their ministry. A more collaborative effort might lead to greater results.

We still have time to work to smooth out some of the rough waters which lie ahead. As one member, I would hope that our episcopal conference might be as open to listening to the issues and challenges which government seems to face as I believe they have been so far in hearing our concerns. But in the end, everyone must prepare themselves for what is likely to be imperfect regulations drawn from imperfect legislation. I still am grateful that that more universal health care coverage will be the first fruit of the Affordable Care Act and I am beginning to feel that I can say to my diocesan self-insured employees, all 1400 of them, that their moral right to health care coverage will survive this moment.

+RNL