Administering in a Climate of Transition and Church Crisis

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by Very Rev. Peter B. Mangum, Diocesan Administrator

I was standing at the corner of Peacock Lane and Southgates in Leicester, UK, having just visited the recently excavated burial site of King Richard III (found underneath a parking lot) when I learned via email on June 26, 2018, of the news of the impending transfer of Bishop Michael Duca to Baton Rouge. (Receiving significant news has a way of imprinting the time and place on one’s consciousness). I knew the 10 priests of the diocese that form our College of Consultors would need to select a diocesan administrator to run the diocese until the arrival of a new bishop, our third for the Diocese of Shreveport. As a matter of fact, from the time of the retirement of Bishop Friend until the announcement of Bishop Duca, we were without a bishop for 17 months. This inter regnum is a time without any major innovations meant to tie up any loose ends and to prepare the diocese for our next Shepherd. Little did I know that that task would soon fall to me.

On my way home, while in the Atlanta airport, Terminal D Gate 26, I learned of the death of Msgr. Carson LaCaze, a second date and place stamped on my memory. A few days later, I preached the funeral homily for the priest who gave me First Holy Communion, who was my pastor at my first priest assignment at St. Mary the Pines Parish, and for whom I served as pastor the last 12 years of his ministry and life.

Only three weeks later we learned that Archbishop McCarrick, already removed from public ministry for credible allegations of sexual abuse, had resigned from the College of Cardinals – the first time such a thing had happened in the Catholic Church since 1927. That was July 27, and I heard the news as I was sitting at my desk in my Cathedral office. The grand jury report from Pennsylvania investigating sexual abuse of minors by priests was made public shortly thereafter, on August 14.

I vividly recall Bishop Duca sitting in the cathedra, installed as the sixth Bishop of Baton Rouge on August 24 at 2:35pm, a significant date as the College of Consultors of Shreveport needed to meet within eight days of that event to elect a diocesan administrator. That same evening, an 11- page bombshell of a letter from the former apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Viganò, was released, alleging the cover-up of the activities of Archbishop McCarrick and ultimately asking for the resignation of Pope Francis.

The fifth of a series of five homilies based on John, chapter 6, on the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist and explaining parts of the Mass, was quickly shelved for a future date. I urgently needed my parishioners to hear, not from the media, but from me, their pastor, of my disgust related to this horrifying sex abuse crisis the Church was facing, yet again, and on the cover ups by many bishops.

The transfer of our bishop, the loss of my associate and friend, the grand jury report, the news surrounding Archbishop McCarrick, the explosive letter of the former nuncio, and my urgent homily: this was the context in which I was chosen to administer our diocese. It was as if the water had reached boiling point and I was thrown in.

Within the week of my acceptance of this position, the USCCB informed me of two November meetings I needed to calendar: the USCCB General Assembly in Baltimore of this year, and the November ad limina meetings in Rome of 2019, in case no new bishop had been appointed by that time. I also learned that as a diocesan administrator, I would have the same vote as any bishop present. I was given a password to access the BishopsOnly website, and that’s when hundreds of emails and letters flooded my inbox and mailbox, mostly to prepare me for the historical, monumental vote to take place at the November gathering of this country’s bishops (and those equivalent to them in law, like diocesan administrators).

As I prepared for the meeting, security concerns began to mount. Three times the number of media outlets were credentialed to cover this momentous meeting; the world would be watching this historical event.

The conversation during my first evening of the meeting centered on one thing only – the vote of the century: on “Standards of Episcopal Conduct” and the proposal to set up a “Special Commission for Review of Complaints Against Bishops.” I participated in a two-and-a-half hour long dinner presentation and discussion for new bishops specifically on the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young Adults, given by the professionals of the USCCB and the National Review Board. Others bishops were in their respective committee meetings, many having begun two days earlier, participating in plenty of behind the scenes meetings and activities.

The first day of the General Assembly was set: we would take care of some formalities then enter the Day of Prayer, hearing what would be very moving presentations by two victims of sexual abuse by priests, as well as talks related to the call to bishops to shepherd after the Heart of the Good Shepherd. Everything would culminate with the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, with the most providential, unbelievably apropos of readings to be proclaimed worldwide: Titus’ exhortation on a bishop “as God’s steward… blameless, not arrogant, … temperate, just, holy, and self-controlled… [called] to exhort with sound doctrine…”  And Jesus telling His disciples:  “Things that cause sin will inevitably occur, but woe to the one through whom they occur…  If your brother sins, rebuke him… And the Apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith.’ The Lord replied, ‘If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.’” Archbishop Hebda was sure to give a great homily.

Chimes rang to get us all to our seats for the prompt beginning of the General Assembly. First, we prayed, commemorating the feast of a bishop martyred for his tirelessly laboring for the unity of the Church, St. Josaphat. Then came the special announcement from the Holy See, delivered by the clearly rattled president of the USCCB: “At the insistence of the Holy See” the American bishops would have to delay the vote on the proposed action items on the agenda for some time, until after the February 2019 Vatican summit of all the presidents of bishops conferences worldwide. This watershed moment in the life of the Church was now delayed, for the apparent fear that this one bishops’ conferences taking such bold and needed steps could affect the whole Church.

I wanted to slam my fist down on the table! Time and place indelibly stamped on my consciousness, yet again. What was up? Does Rome not recognize the urgency of the moment with our people crying out for action? One bishop near me said it felt “like a punch in the gut.” Even the cardinal leading us said he was deeply disappointed by the news he had received the day before.  Another said: “If Francis wanted to unite us, he just found the way to do it” – through common anger and disappointment.

Catholics are angry and losing patience. I know my parishioners are.  In the midst of the meeting, several texted their frustration: “The Holy Father’s record on this was weak in Chile, and then in Honduras, and now in the United States. This is a bit like telling the paramedics to stand aside until a real doctor can arrive at the scene.”

Another simply wrote: “Unforced error” later writing, “The crisis will decimate the Church in the United States for generations to come if the episcopacy does not immediately take decisive action. Even the most faithful Catholics will not support an institution that accommodates and protects sexual predators. I will not.”

A third texted: “The bishops don’t realize how impatient and disgusted guys like me are. It’s a fine line before we are lost.” There was the clear sense from parishioners that nothing meaningful will come from Baltimore or Rome in February. All the bishops were very aware that the world outside was livid!

Over the next two days, bishop after bishop expressed grave concern, on the assembly floor and in interviews outside, desiring to get a strong message to the Vatican of the urgency of reform and needed action regarding Archbishop McCarrick. Everyone knows that the stakes for the February meeting have been raised and must result in universal, global action.

In his closing statement, Cardinal DiNardo said: “Brothers, I opened the meeting expressing some disappointment. I end it with hope… that the Church be purified and that our efforts bear fruit… We leave this place committed to taking the strongest possible actions at the earliest possible moment. We will do so in communion with the Universal Church. Moving forward in concert with the Church around the world will make the Church in the United States stronger, and will make the global Church stronger.  But our hope for true and deep reform ultimately lies in more than excellent systems, as essential as these are. It requires holiness: the deeply held conviction of the truths of the Gospel, and the eager readiness to be transformed by those truths in all aspects of life.

Even in this disappointment and pain, the Church is the only one founded by Jesus Christ, reflecting for us all the glory of Creation, yet all the corruption of the Fall. The light of truth always shines, and no darkness can overcome it. With the long view afforded by history, the Church has deeply experienced that Jesus never claimed the gates of hell would not encroach on the Church; only that they would never prevail against it. I will never – in any way – minimize the present pain and crisis, but this is not new as we know who prowls about this world. Yet in every age, God raises up reformers to challenge evil, and this time we inhabit is no different.

Being in the thick of things these past months has already affected the way I pray. I am grateful for the support I have received from the priests of our diocese as well as many lay people. As one wrote from Monroe, during the final day of the General Assembly: “You did not choose the Church abuse scandal. But you were chosen to face it.” I face it for and with all in our diocese. I minister, not in a Church I would prefer, but in the Church as I find it. I have not lost the sense of outrage at the abuse crisis and cover-ups, nor do I wish that for anyone. We must be about real reform in the Church as we find her in our individual parishes. We must take seriously Christ’s call to holiness, starting with our bishops and priests and indeed everyone! Jesus Christ truly is the Word made flesh, the splendor of the Father, the One sent to save us and give us Himself in the Eucharist and His transforming, purifying grace in and through the Church as He founded.

One of the sexual abuse victims who earlier addressed the conference, summed up her experience saying: “A surprising aspect for me when speaking at the Conference was how utterly pained the bishops are about Church-wide suffering over abuse.”  There is no doubting that.

2 Responses to Administering in a Climate of Transition and Church Crisis

  1. Ione Procell Durr says:

    Father Peter I was encouraged as I read your message. We all pray continuously for our church and all our priests. One of our former pastors at St Ann in Ebarb, Father Luis Antlitz(deceased & at rest in our cemetery) repeatedly said “Being a priest is a hard job at best”! His quote came to my mind as I was reading your comments. You have been assigned at a time when the church is under attack like never before seen by my generation. Please know I pray every day for you and our priests…Thank you! Hope, Love, Joy and Peace as we begin the season of Advent ….

  2. Thanks, Fr Peter, for writing this. Makes me feel proud of our good priests and shepherds. Hugs, MaryAnn. Been a long time. But I remember you dearly and your mother. After my seeet hubby died 4 yrs ago I hang on to my Faith mostly. It’s my happy part and I pray each night that he sees the Face of God.

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