Friday, 2 May 2014

Francis’ new bishops

That Pope Francis lives a simple life and seeks closeness to people is well known, documented and broadly admired. However, the question of whether his personal conduct has any effect beyond the Pope himself is regularly put on the table, in the context of concerns about whether the Church as a whole is in the process of changing or whether it "only" has an admirable leader. I have to say that this type of question is well founded, since the Catholic Church has 1.2 billion members, over 400 000 priests and around 5000 bishops, and asking whether the behavior of one person, even if it is its leader, can lead to change in that of over a billion is eminently reasonable.

As a result of the above concern, that I shared, I have been keeping an eye on reports about the new bishops who have been appointed since Pope Francis' election as well as on reports about the conduct of other bishops. Instead of dwelling on surgical interventions, like the removal of the German "bishop of bling," the Bishop of Limburg Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, I would like to share with you three examples - two of newly-appointed bishops and one of an established bishop's change of judgment.

Bishop john keenan
Fr. John (wearing a black t-shirt) with a group of students from Glasgow University at the World Youth Day in Brazil last year.

The first instance of a Pope-Francis-like bishop that I noticed was that of John Keenan, the newly-consecrated Bishop of Paisley. His first move was reported by a Scottish daily, The Herald, by saying that he "has shunned the more comfortable address [of the bishop's residence] to move into a parish house in a housing scheme in an area of multiple deprivation." Why did Bishop John do that? His answer was: "[T]o be close to the people of our times," and he went on to describe his choice as follows:
"I've just come from living in a university chaplaincy with a dozen students so I've been living surrounded with the buzz of life and fun. When I was thinking about becoming a bishop I was keen to take as much of that into my new life, finding people who could form a family with me and support me. Priests in Paisley found me a place in St Laurence's, Greenock. I am living with the parish priest, Father Gerry McNellis, lots of parishioners come in and out of the house and it has the sound of laughter that makes me feel at home. I celebrate the parish Mass and am getting to know the people and that's perfect for me."
The buzz of life and living in a family are the key here, which then lead to change: "When people see a church not just giving to the poor and the excluded but being among them and living with them joyfully, then they will really begin to believe there is a way out of the vicious cycle of living for yourself in your own little bubble."

Bishop carl kemme
Bp. Carl in a "selfie" after his consecration.

Next, I read about Carl Kemme, the new Bishop of Wichita, who was consecrated last Thursday and whose choice of how to celebrate the event was very much Francis-like. The Wichita Eagle reported it as follows:
"Kemme has decided to have his pre-ordination luncheon with friends and family [...] across the street from the cathedral at the Lord’s Diner, which serves dinner each night to the needy. The diner’s staff members will prepare the luncheon. “I’ve asked that the meal be ... just a simple meal that we can share in the same place where our brothers and sisters ... rely on that for their daily bread,” Kemme said."
That this is inspired by Francis' example is something that Bishop Carl is explicit about: “His simplicity, his humility, the fact he’s chosen to live in a simpler place and to ride in a regular car and to prefer not the trappings of the pontificate but the real ministry of it I think signals to the whole world and certainly to the church of a whole new dynamic.” And his reaction to first receiving the news is also telling: “Without a doubt, Pope Francis could have chosen a far more qualified candidate. But in God’s mysterious plan, he has chosen me, which is a humbling and sobering experience. I receive all of this as a sign of how God often chooses the least qualified, the weak and the sinful to accomplish his mission in the world.”

Bishop wilton gregory
Abp. Wilton with youth from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

The final example I'd like to share is of a different kind. It concerns Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, who has been in office for 10 years and who was consecrated bishop another 11 years before he took on his current post. To resolve space limitations at his Atlanta cathedral, he was planning to move out of his residence, so that other priests could move in, and he was going to have a new archbishop's residence built with donated money and land. As the New York Times reported, the plan was to build a "$2.2 million, 6,000-square-foot mansion, with plenty of room to host and entertain." A choice, which in the past would not have been frowned upon since it has to be borne in mind that this was going to be not only the accommodation of the current archbishop, but serve other current and future needs of the Church as well.

However, already during his first meeting with the media since his election, Pope Francis has called for “a church which is poor and for the poor," and Archbishop Wilton's plans were out of sync. The key here is that he himself admitted so when he publicly apologized for them, after concerns were raised by lay members of his diocese. In spite of following a selfless decision making process, which he openly shared with his diocese, Abp. Wilton nonetheless took full responsibility, by saying:
"What we didn’t stop to consider, and that oversight rests with me and me alone, was that the world and the church have changed. [...] I failed to consider the impact on the families throughout the Archdiocese who, though struggling to pay their mortgages, utilities, tuition and other bills, faithfully respond year after year to my pleas to assist with funding our ministries and services. I failed to consider the difficult position in which I placed my auxiliary bishops, priests, deacons and staff who have to try to respond to inquiries from the faithful about recent media reports when they might not be sure what to believe themselves. I failed to consider the example I was setting for the young sons of the mother who sent the email message with which I began this column."
And he proceeded to apologize unreservedly and repeatedly: "To all of you, I apologize sincerely and from my heart." and to put a clear, new process in place, demonstrating again his commitment to listening and his openness to change:
"It is my intention to move deliberately forward and to do a better job of listening than I did before. When I thought this was simply a matter of picking up and moving from one house to a comparable one two miles away, we covered every angle from the fiscal and logistical perspectives, but I overlooked the pastoral implications. I fear that when I should have been consulting, I was really only reporting, and that is my failure. To those who may have hesitated to advise me against this direction perhaps out of deference or other concerns, I am profoundly sorry.

There are structures already in place in the Archdiocese from which I am able to access the collective wisdom of our laity and our clergy. In April I will meet with the Archdiocesan Council of Priests, and in early May our Archdiocesan Pastoral Council (a multi-cultural group of Catholics of all ages, representing parishes of all sizes, who serve as a consultative body to me) will convene. I will ask for the Finance Council of the Archdiocese to schedule an extraordinary meeting. At each of these meetings I will seek their candid guidance on how best to proceed."
While the examples of Bishops John and Carl are greatly encouraging, I am most impressed by Archbishop Wilton - a bishop of 21 years experience who is ready to take responsibility, apologize for an error of judgment and bring about change in his diocese. His example is one of profound humility and illustrates Pope Francis' insistence on the need to acknowledge our failings without letting them hold us back from change and constant renewal.