Archive for February, 2015


Saturday, February 28th, 2015
Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh C.S.C. in his Hesburgh Library office. Courtesy of the University of Notre Dame. Photo by Matt Cashore.

Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh C.S.C. in his Hesburgh Library office. Courtesy of the University of Notre Dame. Photo by Matt Cashore.

Father “Ted” Hesburgh went home to the Lord on Thursday, having lived 97 years and acting as an agent of change for many of those same years. Theodore Martin Hesburgh or simply “Father Ted” as he was affectionately referred to by thousands of Notre Dame alums was a proud member of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, a religious community dedicated to education, higher and secondary, and to parish work. For thirty-five years he led Notre Dame to becoming certainly one of the, if not the, most prestigious Catholic university in the United States. In that role alone he became an icon of Catholic Higher Education.

The Jesuits also founded many fine universities in the US but it was Father Ted who through faith, grit, and sheer force of personality changed the face of Catholic Higher Education. Within two years of the close of the Second Vatican Council, Father Hesburgh convened a landmark meeting of leaders of Catholic Education at Notre Dame’s Land-o-Lakes, Wisconsin property. Certain that tough days were in store for sectarian higher ed., he outlined a new “idea of the University” in which trustees, not religious orders, would own and control their respective campuses. The canonical term for what he proposed was titled “alienation of church property” and the idea caught on both in academe and in health care. It was not well received by some in the hierarchy who smelled “loss of control” and “loss of Catholic identity.”

There are endless theories about what actually led Father Ted’s thinking. The ‘mid-60’s also were a time when the litigious nature of life in these United States was rearing its sometimes-ugly head and the potential of lawsuits against the university might bankrupt Notre Dame or the Congregation of Holy Cross. But I think he saw that with the close of the Second Vatican Council the Church was wrestling with its  new openness to the modern world and nowhere better should such debates take place than in a Catholic institution of research and education. Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman toyed with this notion in his The Idea of a University but it remained for Father Hesburgh and a few other Catholic University presidents to put flesh on Newman’s intellectual bones. Father Hesburgh was also aware that opening governance to the laity would bring to decision making for the future a world of worldly experience and wisdom and he was right.

Today Notre Dame has the largest endowment of all the Catholic schools and is closing in on Harvard and Yale. It has not lost its Catholic identity and I would argue that Father Hesburgh’s foresight strengthened the same and did not weaken it. It makes good sense to me that a university is exactly the right place where ideas are debated, research is pursued, and ideas and ideals are spread throughout the Church. ND has given much back to the larger Church since Father Ted began his presidency and it still does, in programs, which strengthen Catholic education, church life, and leadership in ethics through its business and law schools. If there were not the strong university which exists today precisely because of the Hesburgh vision, our beloved Church would be the worse for wear. It has perhaps the nation’s finest theology and philosophy departments among the major Catholic universities with Boston College in hot pursuit.

There used to be a saying about the difference between God and Father Hesburgh – God is everywhere including on the Notre Dame campus and Father Hesburgh is everywhere but Notre Dame. A tireless traveller on behalf of his beloved university, Father Ted was also an icon in the civil rights movement, thrust into that by appointment of President Lyndon B. Johnson to chair the nation’s new Civil Right’s Commission following Selma and Montgomery and whenever a President needed a mediator for some sticky wicket, they called on him. But coming back to South Bend was ever a joy for him and while away the University was watched over with diligence and care by his longtime priest friend, Father Ned Joyce.

One time Father Hesburgh was in Paris and visited that city’s Cardinal Archbishop, Jean Marie Lustiger, himself a convert from Judaism. Father Ted bragged that his university’s Lourdes grotto was never without at least a hundred students praying the rosary to Our Lady. Lustiger disputed that assertion saying that young people of that era did not have great devotion to the mother of Jesus. Upon returning Hesburgh invited the Cardinal to come to South Bend for an honorary degree or something and on the way from the airport, keeping his fingers crossed or having pre-arranged it, no one knows for sure, the two drove right to the Grotto. There were hundreds of young people kneeling in prayer, lighting candles and Lustiger could not believe his eyes.

In the end, Father Ted’s eyes began to fail him and blindness enveloped him but it did not stop the inquisitive mind, which remained alert, bright and informed till near the end. Father Ted died a humble priest of his beloved Holy Cross. Always approachable, ever faithful to his priesthood and to his Church, he richly deserves the accolades, which are today coming his way. His two successors, Father Edmund “Monk” Malloy and Father John Jenkins know well of their predecessors shoes and they have measured up to the task admirably and the Irish remain a storied past, a very rich present, and a great future. He lived simply and died humbly as many of his contemporary Holy Cross brother priests had done. He knew his stature was high but he maintained a low profile in retirement. Father Ted, you served your Lord, your community and the Church brilliantly, now rest in eternal peace.



Monday, February 16th, 2015

Yesterday in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Pope Francis gave the strongest, clearest, and most concise homily he has given yet of his vision for Church leadership and membership. In speaking on the occasion of the creation of new Cardinals from throughout the world, the Holy Father used the Sunday Gospel to remind them, the world’s bishops, myself, and all who are involved in the ministry of the Church of the Gospel account of the curing of the leper. in so doing he told  once again that maintaining what we have is not enough, indeed far from enough. Rather  the spread of the Gospel and the success of the presence of Jesus in our world must penetrate every corner of our world and force us to look to the peripheries for the modern day equivalents of the leprosy so that they can feel the healing touch of Jesus.

A local pastor shared with me before the weekend this point, which would be a part of his homily; “Such behavior [he was speaking of the Gospel note that the priests who thought that people had leprosy, banished them to the outskirts of town and forced them to announce their presence by shouting, ‘unclean, unclean’] is abhorrent to us. How could someone who is ill be treated so heartlessly? But perhaps we are no different than those priests of Levi. Think of how we treat or avoid those who are of a different race, culture, religion, sexual preference, political persuasion, age group or economic status. The list is endless.”

There is a natural tendency of all religions and maybe especially ours to “preach to the choir” or put another way to concentrate our ministry on those people and aspects with which we personally are most comfortable. For the last twenty-five years, we bishops in the United States spent perhaps entirely too much time on liturgical language, battling politicians, threatening sanctions (the result is driving more good people out of the church and into the peripheries), whining against an admittedly dangerous secularism and seemingly ever stronger perversion of our Judeo-Christian culture (should we not soon add “Islamic” to the preceding hyphen?).

Politicians and their advisers learned long ago that the majority of Catholics don’t listen to their leadership when we engage in what is mostly verbal sparing. They would be a lot more worried about us if we took to heart the social justice aspect of both the Gospel and our ecclesial mission. If we were unanimous, for example (or close to it since I think that even the Nicene Creed would garner two negative votes at USCCB General Meetings) in supporting President Obama’s first small step at immigration reform (how many homilies have you heard this mentioned in?). In my seventy-three plus years, the Church never had the credibility outside and within its own membership that we did in the 1980’s with the twin pastoral letters on War and Peace and Economic Justice for All. Even those who disagreed took us far more seriously that many do today.

For the last thirty years, the Catholic Church in the United States has been much too content to pitch its tent on a safe island assuming that the surrounding seas were serene. Fear took hold of bishops and bishops’ conferences, the theological enterprise, and relationships with exempt congregations of religious women and men. At the same time, truthfully we watched tons of people abandon the Church for many reasons. And here in the United States, we are told, the periphery became the second largest religion in the nation: lapsed Catholics.

Now there is a voice, Peter’s present successor, who challenges Church leadership to get off that island and listen to and heal, comfort and don’t condemn, the sores of alienation of many while all the time listening to the cries of the immigrants and others for help. Rediscovering the “soul” of Catholicism is what this pontificate is all about, with an enormous reliance on the Holy Spirit.

I suspect and am afraid that there are those within our ranks who hope and pray that this Pope does not live long. Sad, isn’t it, that we would wish that on the most popular Holy Father in recent history (he will eclipse St. John Paul II in the hearts and minds of the people of the world, believe me). His challenge is not with God’s people but with those of us who promised obedience and respect for him and his successors as well as those who promised the same for their local bishops and religious superiors. (For a masterful review of the present current of dissent and unhappiness with this Pope, click here for a blog posting this past weekend by Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington)

Pope Francis is dealing with major issues of humanity which preclude far too many from a relationship with Christ the healer. He basically said to the world’s Cardinals in his homily that maybe those rich red robes were fine for that occasion but get out of them as soon as possible and get to work touching people like Christ touched the leper. “Sir, I know you can heal me if you just touch me.” God’s people do not care what we wear but that we care. There is a new freedom in the Church of Christ and only we can determine whether we are “players” or content to simply “sit this one (papacy) out by sticking to the safer sidelines”.

The Holy Father’s homily, which you can read by clicking here, said to me: you have ears to hear but are you listening? In my following blog entry I shall attempt an answer as to what I as a bishop, my priests, religious and members can do to respond to the Holy Father’s challenge. It may take me a few days.




Sunday, February 8th, 2015

The content for this blog entry has been simmering for some time and, in fact, I wrote the first draft over ten days ago. Why the delay? I wanted to wait, think and pray about its contents, hoping beyond hope that I might simply stimulate others to prayerfully reflect on its contents and claiming only to be the teacher of this local church faith community who makes no claim to infallibility or even to profundity of theological thought. I simply am a pastor who attempts to discern the presence of Christ in the Church I am privileged to lead and to which we are all baptized into belonging.

In the last forty-eight hours I have been made aware that Sister Mary Ann Walsh, RSM, a former colleague of mine at the USCC/NCCB (I wrote about her departure from the Conference staff in this space sometime ago) is about to complete her earthly journey, having been diagnosed with a particularly virulent strain of cancer). Sr. Mary Ann, I dedicate this entry to you and I will see you soon enough with the Lord if I merit what will surely be your reward.

If you have been following the media’s reporting on “Catholic issues” for the past several months, you must have noticed that largely because of Pope Francis, great ink has been spilt on divorce and remarriage in the Church, artificial birth control, same sex marriages, and to a lesser degree women in the Church today. I thought the time might be opportune for me to share with you some of my own thoughts on these subjects which I hope and trust are in line with those of the Holy Father. But I begin with restating one undeniable truth – there has been no change in doctrine or Church teaching in regard to any one or all of these subjects.

On divorce and remarriage, I find it just short of amazing that this Pope is so “connected” with an issue that is largely of North American and European consequence. I say this because while I do not have the exact percentage figures, I would go to the bank with a number akin to 85% of all marriage annulment cases come from the above-mentioned geographies.

Twenty some years ago when I was General Secretary of the US Bishops Conference, I asked my Brazilian counterpart, Bishop Celso Quieroz about how many marriage cases were processed in Brazil, a larger Catholic country than the U.S. He looked at with me with utter amazement and said, “dear Bob, so do you know how long it would take a letter seeking testimony in a case to reach a recipient in Amazonas (the large northwestern state in Brazil) when the mail boat which is the only means of communication comes to the river village maybe once a month?” He led me to believe that in Brazil, there are few formal cases seeking annulments and people largely decide themselves how to deal with the matter.

That Pope Francis has shown interest in this matter I find amazing. Here in the Diocese of St. Petersburg the annual number of formal cases has gone down from approximately 600 per year to the present number of slightly in excess of 200. There are myriad reasons why Catholics no longer seek a review of a prior marriage by the Church, among which are fear of opening older wounds encountered during the civil divorce proceeding; the fear of getting a “no”; the time it takes (an average of slightly in excess of a year including the mandatory review of the first decision by an appellant court in Miami and much longer if one party appeals to Rome); one party believes that there truly was a valid marriage and so the whole process is suspect in their mind; and a general frustration and occasionally anger with the Church, etc.

Every pastor knows of wonderful married couples in his parish who remain faithful despite being denied Eucharist by Church Law and others who just don’t come but wish they could, and still others who having received a negative judgment readmit themselves to Eucharist sometimes with the counsel of a priest and sometimes without. When it works, the tribunal process can be very healing. When it is perceived that it does not work, it is one more source of great pain. I have had two marriages, which I witnessed, which ended in a negative decision (not from the St. Petersburg Tribunal) and in my heart and mind I know the decision was outrageously wrong but there is nothing that can be done. Restating what is clearly not obvious (even the vaunted New York Times a few Sundays ago got it wrong, again), no Catholic is excommunicated because they are divorced, but only when they remarry outside of the Church do they incur the penalty of being unable to receive the Eucharist for even then they are not excommunicated and remain members of the Church.

At a meeting two weeks ago, the pastors of our parishes asked me to abolish all costs associated with the work of the Tribunal and I did that effective February 1, 2015 so let no one here say, “I don’t seek an annulment because I can not afford it.”

What can and will be done this year about this situation. I can honestly say I do not know but I am comforted that the Vicar of Christ feels the pain of many in the Church in second, non-sacramental marriages and that of many priests who wish that at least the process were simplified, or speeded up, or both. Time will tell.

Now to the contraception question which Pope Francis raised himself in several ways during his trip to the Philippines? First, amazingly, he acknowledged that as a priest and bishop, he counseled a woman who was pregnant with her eighth child, all but the first two by caesarian section, that she should do nothing which might render her children motherless. I would bet almost every one of the priests of this country has on occasion offered the same solace and advice. It is now possible because of Pope Francis to speak of the modern day reality of pregnancy and childbirth without fear of ecclesiastical punishment.

Of all the popes of my seventy-three years, I would easily vote Pope Paul VI to have written the best encyclical letters to the whole church, on life, evangelization and the People of God in the post-Vatican II world. I would also proudly say that if someone asked me to direct them to the finest magisterial teaching on marriage, parenting, and conjugal love, without question I would send them to Pope Paul’s Humanae Vitae. So far there really is nothing better.

But what about those few what some consider tendentious paragraphs dealing with artificial birth control. Again, I can embrace Pope Francis who said that his predecessor was being prophetic. I had an uncle who was one of the most loved and best ob-gyn doctors in the Milton, Quincy, Dorchester area of Boston. When I was twenty-seven and Humanae Vitae was issued in a storm of controversy, my Uncle Ed called it prophetic and it confirmed his medical approach to pregnancy. It also cost him mightily not in patients (they still flocked to him) but in serenity in group practice.

However, as Pope Francis acknowledged, Pope Paul VI understood that many would find this teaching hard and would seek the comfort of their own conscience, often with the support of their priests. When Paul issued his encyclical he even allowed national episcopal conferences to demur from its teaching. He was a pastor who saw the need for marriage as a primary albeit only means of propagating the earth and from that every act should be open to propagation, but he knew the world of marriage and family was evolving. Mothers were beginning in great numbers to enter the workplace to support even small families and that was not likely to change. Will Church teaching and doctrine change on contraception; it is too early to tell. As the new Archbishop of Chicago, Blasé Cupich said recently in an interview in Commonweal magazine:

“The Pope has a firm belief that the Spirit of the Risen Lord is working in the lives of people . . . . Ours is a living tradition. It always has been. There is no moment in time that can be so idealized that it undermines the tradition is a living one. It is a living tradition not because of anything we say, but because the Risen Christ is always doing something new in the life of the Church. In Pope Francis’s Evangelii Gaudium , there is a whole section in which he talks about the idea that Christ is always doing something new in the lives of his people as he accompanies them.”

Unless and until there might be some change, Pope Francis is urging us to be pastorally sensitive, compassionate and understanding. What’s wrong with that? Our Holy Father is showing himself to be a deft pastor, a good gauge of the times and needs of people, and a defender of doctrine. It is not an east balancing act or tightrope to walk as some of his detractors are beginning to charge.

I note no Church change at all in approving civil society’s rush to legalize same sex marriage and I can assure all that I for one do not foresee it ever becoming sacramentally possible. However, I do hear Pope Francis in his constant refrain to bishops and priests, religious and laity, to be sensitive and caring of those who feel that they are not just on the periphery of the Church but are ostracized by it. Some of the vehement and I would term hateful language emanating from professed Catholics leads me to pray all the more for these zealots. Every gay or lesbian person is someone’s child and they are also children of God.

Finally [by now that adverb must be music to your eyes – a mixed metaphor if there ever was one], I know a lot of young women who still tolerate us but wonder about us. The news that a pastor in a parish far from here banned female altar servers is causing something of a current media storm and is just one more thing to make a loving, faith-filled mother cringe. I think Pope Francis has some surprises up his sleeve in positioning women in offices of great responsibility in the Church, which will lead to even greater utilization of their talents, gifts, and intelligence. Sister Mary Ann Walsh, Sister Sharon Euart (the first female Associate General of the USCC/NCCB), a religious sister who was General Secretary of an African episcopal conference are all pioneers in a Church structure which must to remain credible avail itself of women’s gifts and presence. Enough already.