Archive for June, 2014

PITCHING THE GOSPEL OF JOY

Sunday, June 22nd, 2014
Auxiliary Bishop Joseph M. Sullivan served the Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y. (CNS photo courtesy Catholic Charities of Brooklyn/Queens) (May 21, 2003)

Auxiliary Bishop Joseph M. Sullivan served the Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y. (CNS photo courtesy Catholic Charities of Brooklyn/Queens) (May 21, 2003)

Bishop Joseph M. Sullivan of Brooklyn was snatched from us one year and one week ago. He died when a tire blew on his car and he pulled into the emergency lane on one of the big city’s fast and furious expressways only to be hit by an oncoming truck.

For most of his priestly life, Bishop Joe Sullivan worked in his home diocese of Brooklyn in Catholic Charities and in Catholic hospitals. As a result of these engagements, he became known nationally as the “go-to” bishop on social justice and Catholic medical issues.

He served on the board of the Catholic Health Association as the official liaison of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops for many years, served as chairman of Catholic Charities USA’s board and also as a member, served as Chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Social Justice and again as chair of the Domestic Social Justice committee. He chaired and supported strongly the Catholic Medical Mission Board which distributes donated medicines to poor countries around the world. He first asked me if I would be willing to take a seat on the board of directors of the Catholic Health Association and then again if I would replace him as a member of the board of directors of the Catholic Medical Mission Board.

The bishop was one of the happiest but most realistic men I have ever met. He played minor league baseball as a pitcher before entering the seminary. He fancied himself as something of an Irish tenor and could easily be coaxed into singing “Danny Boy” at the drop of a zucchetto (that’s the pink beanie we bishops wear). He was never happier when as a member of the episcopal conference he served on the drafting/writing committee of the USCCB’s pastoral letters on the dangers of war and the promise of peace as well as on the economy. His was the mind of a social justice activist and he supported workers in their right to organize into union in the footsteps of Chicago’s Monsignor Jack Egan and George Higgins.

He walked and talked faster than anyone I know. Fast talking with a Brooklyn accent made anyone attempting to listen to listen even closer. He was a man of infinite hope, incredible charity, great faith, and endless love for the poor, the marginalized, the sick and dying, the homeless, the undocumented, and so on. And he was walking contagion. To be near him was to become infected with the joy of the Gospel.

This afternoon [Sunday, June 22nd] I will be delivering the first annual Bishop Joseph Sullivan Lecture, an annual tribute to his memory established by his (and my) beloved Catholic Health Association, as the keynote address for their Annual Assembly beginning today in Chicago, Illinois. You may read my address by clicking here if you wish. Forewarned, however, is to be forearmed – it is a lengthy text. I had great fun drafting it because I love and honor its two principal foci, Bishop Joe and Pope Francis. Let me know what you think, as I know lots of other people will.

+RNL

LETTERS, I GET LETTERS, LOTS AND LOTS OF LETTERS

Thursday, June 19th, 2014

Regular readers of this blog may recall that every year, it seems, I write something about the difficulties involved with transferring priest personnel.

It is a hard job. It is sometimes almost a seemingly heartless job and always a thankless job. And it is something which I do not undertake alone but with a committee of priests, almost all pastors, who don’t like it anymore than I do. Every transfer messes with someone’s life and many transfers can wound parish communities who have come to love and respect their pastor or associate pastor.

In other words, this is not a responsibility anyone in their right mind loves to do. But it is necessary and there are policies and procedures to be followed, many of which are unknown to many of you. So let me enlighten you, if I can, on exactly what is more often behind the decision to transfer your pastor or your associate.

The process begins early in every calendar year when all priests receive a letter asking them if they wish to be considered for a transfer or would they like to remain in place. Generally, pastors choose the latter and many associate pastors choose the former.

For pastors, there is an agreed upon term of office, which is for six years. After six years, the pastor can be transferred at any time but it is also generally understood that at twelve years, he will be transferred unless he is over the age of sixty, when he generally can expect to remain. This “tenure” for pastors allows some of my brothers to ask for a change at special moments after their initial six years. Our Priest’s Council passed this guideline a number of years ago. Imagine my surprise when a pastor asks to be transferred and then when he goes back to his parish, he says it was the bishop’s wish and decision. Then everyone gets mad at me and do I get letters, lots and lots of letters.

I personally think that a carefully followed policy in this regard is best, but the proverbial devil is sometimes in the details. For example, a pastor may ask to extend beyond the normal twelve years because he is involved in a building project that is nearing completion, or he needs to be near his doctors and health care facility, or he is over sixty and therefore now grandfathered into his position.

Most all of my priests will change when asked to do so. They know that the diocese and/or myself are up against it and they have something which is badly needed in another place. They may not like it but they remember their promise of obedience.

Like most requirements of Human Resources, I am not free to disclose the reason a priest is being moved. Associates generally need two assignments of different varieties prior to being named a pastor. Priests seeking to join the ranks of the priests of St. Petersburg generally must have five years of experience and two assignments before they will be incardinated. A recommendation for incardination comes to me from yet another committee of priests and seldom starts with me but comes to conclusion with me.

And, I do get letters, pro and con, at this time. Every bishop I know has a philosophy of the assignment of priests and whoever follows me will do exactly as I did in my first year, move a lot of people who have been a long time in their assignments, perhaps even regardless of the tenure requirement. He will get letters, lots and lots of letters.

Sometimes a priest is transferred because he has done something which damages his credibility as a servant leader. I can’t think of a single person in this category who has not been given a second or even a third chance at exercising leadership.

You see, priesthood is like marriage, at least in this regard. On the day of one’s ordination the Church agrees to in a way be a priest’s spouse (in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, until death do us part) and the priest does not have to worry about being “fired” save for the worst of offenses like sexually abusing minors, for example. So the priest is ours, all of us, not just me the bishop, but the whole diocese or his religious community. Few people have that sense of job security in life. On the other hand, their promise of obedience means that they must ultimately serve where the bishop (with a lot of help from their priest friends) feels that they are both needed and will thrive.

I can assure you that there is no bench available to me of priests waiting to be sent up to the majors! Everyone is presently in the line-up and a single death, serious illness, or departure from ministry for whatever reason starts a ripple effect among the priests of the diocese, like the proverbial pebble in the smooth lake. We currently provide three men as full time members of the faculty of our two seminaries that we use and I have always prayed that their presence will spur the Good Lord to reward us with many vocations and great young priests. There is ample evidence of that happening, but Lord how I could use those three men back.

Finally, I do not mind getting letters which are displeased with me because I have transferred a priest. That means that that man is respected, loved and missed. Some of the rhetoric in letters can sometimes make me question whether sufficient teaching on Christian love is being taught in a parish, but at least it is a sign of life and vitality in our diocese.

The real heroes are the priests, however, who go where asked when asked and give their best.

+RNL

THINGS WILL NOT BE EASY IN THE “BIG EASY”

Tuesday, June 10th, 2014
Reverend Robert E. Gately.

Reverend Robert E. Gately.

Our United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Spring meeting begins tomorrow (Wednesday) in New Orleans and ends Friday midday. However, I will be unable to attend. On Saturday night last, the mother of our Monsignor David Toups (Lynn Toups) went home to the Father and her funeral will be at St. Cecilia parish at 130pm on Thursday with a Wake Service tomorrow night (Wednesday).

Additionally, yesterday, Father Robert Gately, a priest of the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio, but who spent his entire later years in priestly ministry in this diocese after retiring as a Navy Chaplain with the rank of Captain also went home to the Lord and his wake will also be tomorrow night and his funeral Mass will be on Thursday morning. Father Gately helped for many years at the Cathedral of St. Jude and at Prince of Peace parish in Sun City Center where his services will be held. So for the first time since my long illness I will not be attending a bishops’ conference meeting.

There are several interesting items on the agenda for my brothers during the open or public sessions. Every four years in the year prior to the forthcoming general election, the Conference has issued a statement of principles which might guide a committed Catholic in exercising their important right to vote for a President and Congress. Often called simply “Political Responsibility” in more recent years it has become a focal point for some spirited debate with part of the membership basically wanting mainly to highlight and address the so-called “life issues” of abortion, euthanasia, and more recently contraception and give rather pointed comment on the moral judgments one should make about candidates, their platforms and plans, etc.

Another part of the house of bishops while readily conceding that these issues need to be lifted up hope that the issues for voter concern will include the social justice issues of welfare, the homeless, right to labor opportunity, immigration, health-care access, etc. Two standing committees of the Conference usually come together to hammer out a text to be presented to the assembly in November for use the following year. This year, inexplicably to my way of thinking, an Ad Hoc Committee or “task force” has been given the responsibility. In recent general elections I do not think I would be seriously overstating the case if I said there are not good, or at least uniform feelings among the bishops on the matter. While we may always be “gentlemen” with one another, there are agendas at work which divide the house – not so much on core issues but on the quality and reach of the consistent ethic of life. Since I can not attend, like yourselves I will be waiting and reading the commentaries which come from the media as to which “inclination” is likely to prevail for the 2015 General Elections or will a compromise document emerge once again.

Speaking of public policy issues, I have a great concern that the truly poor of Florida are being denied access to proper health care in this state. The Florida General Assembly has refused to expand Medicaid opportunities in Florida, even though much of the money for the programs will come from the federal government. And, while we are not alone in refusing the Medicaid expansion among the states, we may be at the top of the list when it comes to counting those legitimately denied. When the bishops of Florida have spoken to Governor Scott about this, he has left us with the impression that he at least would sign a Medicaid Expansion bill if the legislature would pass it and send it to him, but the Republican dominated House and Senate refuse. What a human tragedy! I have heard it said that no genuinely poor person in Florida will be denied medical attention in an emergency but they better hit the right hospital or they will find themselves “dumped and dispatched” out the ER doors. More important to my heart and to my sense of distributive justice is the blatant and flat-out denial of medical service to the genuinely poor which might prevent the emergency room visit. A poor pregnant mother has no access without insurance to the obstetrical service which she needs, as an example.

In addition, without the Medicaid Expansion, the for-profit hospitals in our five counties are refusing to treat many of the uninsured and sending them to the non-profits which are carrying more and more of the uncompensated care responsibility. And, as happened in St. Petersburg when the major trauma and service hospital was sold to a for-profit company which promised the proverbial “moon” when making a case for their takeover, St. Anthony Hospital is bearing the burden for this uncompensated care as is Meese Hospital in Dunedin. In the five counties, there are far more for-profits for whom lack of compensation is a recipe for “dumping” than not-for-profits which will continue to shoulder the care needs until they can no longer afford to do so. Our state should be ashamed and so should those legislators who for whatever reason have decided we will not participate in the Medicaid expansion plan of the Affordable Care Act. Let them hear from you, if you care enough.

Finally from my soap box, I wish to briefly highlight the issue of immigration reform. The voices of your episcopal leadership are beginning to be heard and the religious case for immigration reform is beginning to get out there. There is no better spokesperson for this issue than our Archbishop, Thomas G. Wenski of Miami. He appeared before Congress last week and once again clearly and compellingly stated the case: protect the borders, yes; grant legal status to most of those who are already here; and make the cry of Emma Lazarus on the Statue of Liberty once again the mantra of this great nation: “Give me your tired and your poor, your restless masses yearning to breathe free….” On immigration reform and elimination of the death penalty, it is sure lonely out here on this limb but it is what Jesus would wish us to work for, it is precisely what he would do, it is the mind of Pope Francis, it is the work of the Spirit.

+RNL

COMINGS AND GOINGS

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014

I can see the light at the end of the annual “spring” tunnel and so can many of our priests, educators, parish personnel and others engaged in the enterprise of spreading the Gospel in the five counties of the diocese. As I write this, I have four more confirmations scheduled, one cook-out tomorrow night with those few seminarians remaining in the diocese for the summer and the graduation exercise next Monday night for this year’s participants in the Lay Pastoral Ministry effort. I have two commitments outside of the diocese in the next three weeks including a meeting in New York of the Catholic Medical Mission Board on which I serve and an invitation to give the first Bishop Joseph Sullivan lecture as the keynoter at the annual Catholic Health Association Assembly in Chicago. I think I’ll make it! So allow me a few paragraphs to do some summing up of the year in review.

First, I wish to express my profound gratitude to many of you who through comments, e-mails, and letters, etc., shared with me your sorrow for Father Vladimir Dziadek and your concern for myself. No blog entry has achieved the number of comments as did the last posted here and with a single exception of one person who utilized two comment opportunities, all have embraced the twin themes of forgiveness and mercy. Father’s funeral in Poland is today (June 3, 2014) and my Mass this evening will attempt to connect spiritually with those with whom he had familial ties as they grieve his loss. St. Joseph parish under their new administrator, Father Carlos Rojas, is recovering very well with renewed energy and commitment from everyone and that is reassuring.

My annual rounds of the high school baccalaureate Masses (Jesuit, Clearwater Central and Tampa Catholic) and graduations (St. Petersburg Catholic, the Academy of the Holy Names, and Bishop McLaughlin High School) are now history. I have listened to four salutatorian addresses (St. Petersburg Catholic had a tie for this honor), three valedictorian addresses, five lengthy remarks from school principals, and way too many acknowledgments of my presence at the events which reminded me too much of the old days when the bishop was treated like royalty.  I have been impressed with the seriousness of the graduates this year in particular, with the love and admiration they hold both for their sacrificing parents as well as their teachers (quite often mentioned by name) and their references to their basic faith in God. At times it has seemed like a long desert had to be plowed through, arid and with little water of refreshment and regeneration as neither God nor faith nor Catholic nor thanks were extended to those who really deserved the recognition. Don’t know what is currently in the air, but it is refreshing!

There is not much left of summer vacation, even though it has yet to begin. Our seminarians are either in Guatemala or Honduras studying intensive Spanish, in Omaha at Creighton’s Institute for Priestly Formation studying how to be holier, at Tampa General Hospital in Clinical Pastoral Education learning how to listen, or working in parishes with everything from youth ministry to painting. By my count they have only nine weeks until they are back in the seminary, scratching their heads and wondering where the time as gone. Teachers and school administrators are closer to reporting for the new school year today than recalling Easter Sunday and their Spring break. Such is the rhythm of life these days. When I recall that my summer vacation started a day or two prior to Memorial Day and ended a day or two after Labor Day, that was a real summer vacation.

Priests too used to take a month (or if you were from Ireland where there are six weeks in a month) off but now they are lucky to grab a few weeks. There are less of us which means less priests to cover and the shortened summer has shortened most summer vacations for your priests. We seem to all have become prisoners of a new reality which is more occasions of shorter times off. My men work hard for the most part and it is generally acknowledged that few of them take care of themselves in the manner in which they should. Sad really but something of a sign of the times. I wish them the best and begrudge them little. Understandable when a trip home means lengthy and challenging travel such as to Ireland, Poland, India and Africa, the time away should be a little longer as there is no home for these men to go to recover from Christmas and Easter and the mad and merry month of May.

Despite it all, the wonderful work of sharing the “Joy of the Gospel” continues unabated throughout the summer months. Where there was once a full choir at a Mass, there may now be only a cantor and organist; where there once may have been a youth group, there may now be only trips to Cove Crest. The Church, like nature, abhors a vacuum and the Spirit whose coming we recall this coming Sunday leads and guides us. I intend to continue posting from time to time throughout the summer because my mind never shuts down but my episcopal clock is still working its way toward ecclesial midnight. Like Robert Frost, I feel “I have miles to go before I sleep” and with you, to continue to choose “the road less travelled by.” Have a great summer.

+RNL