He was the first bishop I ever met. It was shortly after he was made bishop of Youngstown and he visited the small Tridentine chapel I grew up at shortly after it was made a personal parish and the Fraternity of St. Peter was brought in to minister to the faithful. It was the first time a bishop had visited that chapel that I know of. He had come to do Confirmations, which he did according to the old rite, despite not having a smooth facility with the Latin language. His humble demeanor and easy, welcoming smile made an impression on me; especially because of the years our little chapel had fought bitterly with his predecessor over whether we had the right to exist canonically (long story–I may write a book someday–but we were never excommunicated or formally schismatic).
Years later I heard a story about his first act as the new bishop of Providence. The morning after he was named, even before he was officially introduced as bishop, he made a surprise visit to the minor seminary. A friend of mine who was a seminarian there at the time said they all were awakened rather early by the rector and other administrators who were frantically trying to get the house ready for the unexpected arrival of the new Ordinary. His first act was to meet with the men who were dedicating themselves to assist him in serving the people of his new see.
A year or two ago he had a public exchange of letters with then-Representative Patrick Kennedy in which it was clear his only intention and desire was to help a wounded soul understand the truth and true charity of the Catholic position on certain matters.
Now we have a letter he penned “to inactive Catholics,“all those who have abandoned the practice of the faith or rejected it, for whatever reason. I recommend reading the whole thing, but a few excerpts:
If you were baptized a Catholic, you’re a Catholic for life – even if you haven’t been to Mass for years, even if you’ve renounced the title and joined another Church. Your baptism infused your soul with Catholic DNA – it defines who and what you are.
An important point. Our inactive Catholic brethren have the grace of baptism and, in most cases, have tasted the Bread of Angels, and in lots of cases, even have the grace of Confirmation. These are all working in favor of those of us who wish to help them return to Holy Mother Church.
He lists three basic reasons why people may have left the Church: disagreement, boredom, scandal, and laziness. Then he goes through them.
For disagreement he plainly states that the Church teaches what she teaches for a reason: give it a second shot and see if it wasn’t just confusion or a less-than-stellar teacher who taught you. He says, “Sometimes, we find, good folks get bad information and that leads to confusion and then alienation.”
On boredom, he admits:
Sometimes, it’s true, leaders of the Church haven’t fed the flock very well – sometimes we haven’t provided sound and challenging teaching and preaching, and sometimes our worship has been banal and bland. Perhaps we haven’t been very kind or welcoming. I apologize for that; we can and should do better.
(Emphasis mine.) I think the bold section is more important than most would admit. But also, he immediately challenges the reader: “On the other hand, when you attend Mass it shouldn’t be all about you – the focus is God!”
On scandal, he says:
I hope you’ll forgive us and give us another chance. Members of the Church – including priests and bishops – are completely human. Sometimes we say things and do things that are totally unacceptable, even immoral. But let’s face it – we belong to a community of sinners – that’s why we begin every Mass by calling to mind our sins and asking for God’s forgiveness. The virtue of forgiveness is an essential part of the Christian life – we all need to seek and grant forgiveness now and then.
Beautiful–”we belong to a community of sinners.” A retreat master I once had preached that the only thing that qualifies us for God’s mercy is our sinfulness, and that there is that odd moment in the Exsultet, the most joyous hymn of the Church, chanted at the Easter Vigil proclaiming the resurrection and the Lord’s victory over death, “O happy fault! O necessary sin of Adam! Because of which we have such a Savior!”
It is a backward-seeming sentiment, but truly to forgive is perhaps one of the most important aspects of being human–it is one of the most God-like actions we can presume to undertake, considering our relationship to Him is one of nearly constantly needing forgiveness.
Then his final theme was personal laziness, he exhorts the inactive Catholics to give thought to their relationship with God and to consider the importance of the Church (her sacraments, her teaching, her sainted examples) in overcoming the complacency and striving for the burning fire of God’s love.
And he wraps up with a call to a mutual arrangement:
You need the Church – you need the teachings of the Church, the life-giving sacraments of the Church, and the support of a community that shares your faith and values. But the Church also needs you – we need the gifts of your time and talent, your faith and commitment. The Church has an awful lot to offer you, but if in fact we’ve been imperfect fulfilling our mission, in serving the Lord and caring for one another, perhaps you can help us to do better.
The communion of saints includes the Church Militant–we here on earth–striving with one another to build the kingdom of God. No one does it on his or her own, and we cannot do it without the grace received through God’s Church.
I hope his letter is read and shared far and wide this Advent season.