Social scientists have made studies of the behavior of diocesan bishops, observing how important answering their mail is to so many of them. Perhaps it is because the process is easily quantified, yielding a clear sense of accomplishment at day’s end.
Many of these same bishops, however, are also vulnerable to undue pressure from the disgruntled.
Anyone familiar with written exchanges between bishops and laity know that bishops have standard ways of putting off complaints from the left, but their responses to complaints from the right are of a different sort, especially in the current ecclesiastical climate.
In early March, the bishop of an East Coast diocese received a detailed complaint from an individual who “just happened” to attend Mass in one of its parishes. The pastor also “just happened” to be one of the best known and most controversial priests in the diocese.
The complainer, who lives in a neighboring diocese, was appalled by the celebration of the Eucharist on that particular Sunday. He objected to the homily, to the form of the Eucharistic Prayer that was used, to the absence of kneelers in the church, to the pastor’s invitation to the whole congregation to join in the proclaiming of the doxology at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer and to the fact that the pastor left the altar at the “Our Father” to join hands in prayer with those in the first row.
Not surprisingly, the letter’s language was redolent of another era in U.S. Catholic history. Its sanctimonious and self-righteous tone was exceeded only by its obvious determination to “do in” the pastor.
The writer assured the bishop, whom he always addressed as “Your Excellency,” that he was a member “in good standing” of his home parish. How many Catholics nowadays would have felt the need to add that superfluous phrase?
He also insisted that he was writing only “after deep prayer and reflection.” He made this point again toward the end of the letter, adding the phrase, “for several weeks.” I would guess that more than half the priests in the diocese would roll their eyes over those lines.
The writer consistently referred to the Eucharist as the “sacred” Mass, as if the Mass were anything but sacred. The church was not simply “the church” but “our universal Mother Church.”
He informed the bishop that he did not take Communion because the Mass that had been celebrated that morning was, for him, “invalid and a sacrilege.” He reported returning to his home parish that evening where he “attended a true sacred Mass.”
He assured the bishop that he would “continue to pray” for the pastor and his parishioners (more rolling of eyes from the pastor’s brother priests) and that “Our Lord Jesus Christ, who is Our Hope and Our Light, may bless each of us and keep us always as one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church in His tender care.”
This letter would ordinarily not merit even a mention here. However, only two weeks later a diocesan official wrote to the pastor, at the bishop’s request, seeking a formal response to the accusations.
The pastor answered each item in the complaint. Five days later, he met with the bishop, and three days after that was informed that he was being removed as pastor — only a month after this whole process had begun.
Needless to say, his many hundreds of parishioners have been shocked and upset by the bishop’s decision. For all of his unconventional behavior, this pastor is genuinely loved by the great majority of his people. I have been there. I have seen it for myself.
It is an unusually active and vibrant parish, where every member is expected to engage in a ministry of one kind or another. No Sunday-only Catholics there.
Seven years ago, on the 40th anniversary of the pastor’s ordination, the previous bishop composed an ode to him, referring to the pastor as “the Blue Angel.” In that ode, the bishop remarked on the priest’s “tireless care of the poor, the sick, the old, and the lame.”
For 40 years, he said, the pastor “had preached and labored … to make Jesus, the Gospel, and our faith take on new life for us.”
He even compared him to St. Peter, who was praised but also mocked. “But just like Simon Peter, (his) love for all God’s people is solid as a rock.”
The bishop called him a “faithful, ageless, and glorious priest.”
But not according to the ultra-conservative letter-writer, whose complaint to the new bishop trumped all else.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.