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Church labors under heavy hierarchy


A few weeks ago, I spent an afternoon watching the funeral Mass of the late Cardinal John O’Connor, colorful archbishop of New York since 1984. He was a hard-working, decent churchman with strong pastoral skills, especially in his declining years. He was also a favorite of John Paul II and thus enjoyed more papal clout than any man since Cardinal Francis Spellman, who ruled New York -- and the American church -- from 1939 until 1967.

O’Connor had a fierce loyalty to John Paul, defending him on every issue. Most important, the former chief of chaplains of the U.S. Navy had an immense influence on the political and theological drift of the American church because of his membership on the papal congregation for the appointment of bishops -- a post he took very seriously, often traveling to the Vatican to take part in the monthly cattle call. With at least 70 percent of the U.S. bishops appointed during John Paul’s tenure, O’Connor’s interventions may have changed the complexion of the American hierarchy.

It is ironic that O’Connor’s own successor, Edward M. Egan of Bridgeport, Conn., was probably not one of his suggestions. O’Connor wanted a New Yorker -- one of his own -- someone who was not an office priest.

Egan was thrust upon him in 1985 as an auxiliary. They had a correct but strained relationship until Egan went to Bridgeport in 1988. A native of Chicago from a lace curtain Irish family, which likely had fruit in the house even when no one was sick, Egan was on the episcopal track since his high school seminary days. He is a talented careerist with limited pastoral experience and administrative instincts more typical of Chicago’s George Mundelein (1915-1939) or New York’s Spellman.

Egan will face the Vatican, not St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The lambs are being slaughtered for his pallium, and the silk is being watered for his red soutane. He will be New York’s eighth cardinal since the United States got its first one -- John McCloskey -- in 1875.

I couldn’t watch O’Connor’s final services without comparing them with those of Chicago’s Joseph L. Bernardin who went to his grave in 1996. His final liturgy, carefully designed by him during his final illness, was a clear reflection of what he hoped would become the new church, replete with laity. Six women served as his pallbearers. There was a homily by a priest friend -- not a fellow cardinal. A sign in a fast food restaurant across the street from Holy Name Cathedral read: “Goodbye, Brother Joseph.”

O’Connor’s funeral service recalled the triumphalist liturgies of an earlier time when clergy dominated every aspect. It had dignity, reverence and style, and a tone so serious that it could have used a John O’Connor to inject some life into it. Every aspect was carefully calibrated by clerical thinking reminiscent of another time. Ecclesiastical protocols moved the higher clergy far into the sanctuary -- acres from the laity they had pledged to serve. Monsignors with cadaver faces served as altar boys while carefully groomed seminarians in full cassocks and long surplices crisscrossed the sanctuary on one mission or another.

Bernardin’s funeral was a plea for change, a call for recognition of the laity in virtually every aspect of the church. O’Connor’s service reminded me of a revisionist church. It was a statement that the clergy viewed itself as unapologetically still in charge and that they would cling to power until the last bishop ruled from a pile of rusted crosiers over a church that could readily fit into the cardinal’s private chapel.

The invasive TV cameras played on the cracked faces and the grandmothers’ jaws of the hundreds of aged prelates -- all garbed in identical chasubles designed for an earlier papal visit. They looked like good men who, if not called to the priesthood, might have been respected neighbors, men who mowed their lawns and wrapped their garbage. These are men to whom you would readily give your house keys so that they could feed the cat while you took your kids to the shore. They were described in one paper as “loyal and good soldiers” in the army of Christ. But they are men locked into a system better suited to another time. Their episcopal ancestors had once condemned the locomotive as an instrument of the devil and chocolate as an evil food because it was said to be an aphrodisiac nearly as potent as Viagra. However, they are also men who built nearly as many churches as there are McDonald’s franchises, one of the best school systems in the world, and a network of social services that still outshines most federal or state agencies. It’s just that you wouldn’t tell them that you practiced birth control, that your brother was gay or that your sister married a resigned priest. (It likely wouldn’t be too smart to tell them that you’re a Democrat.)

Now, the poor bishops struggle with leaky roofs and sagging walls. Their seminarians barely fill a bicycle to drive to their ordinations. They labor in vain to contain the Catholics that the church educated so well that they are now talking back or simply walking away. They have created the largest denomination in the United States as well as the second largest -- lapsed Catholics. Most of the bishops would be happy to have one-third of their people in church on Sunday but most get only about 25 percent and some are as low as 13 percent. Yet, they can fill a cathedral sanctuary for a funeral and return home thinking that the faithful are in procession behind them.

Whatever made me think that they would share the power they claim to have inherited from Peter? Whatever made me imagine that someday women would be buried in the crypt under the sanctuary? Whatever made me think that they would tell the Vatican bureaucrats that Ex Corde Ecclesiae was little more than an echo of the century-old statement against Modernism that nearly destroyed a fledgling intellectual American church? Whatever made me think that theology professors would be encouraged to search for even richer truths that continue to evolve and that they would report back to their encouraging bishops? What made me think that they would stand up to Rome on the language issue? What made me think that the last priest in America would be a parish priest?

Instead, the bishops continue to send a clear message: We are in charge and we will be in charge until the last Catholic closes the door of his or her local cathedral.

Shortly, Edward Egan and perhaps a few dozen others will be cardinals. (It’s hard to keep count of cardinals. At the last annual count 49 of the 154 cardinals were ineligible to vote because they had completed their 80th year. Conceivably, John Paul could appoint at least 15 to bring the eligible roster up to 120, the present full voting house.)

While most bishops are measurably older than their parish priests, it will take several more generations of bishops before their complexion changes. In a dozen years following the death of John Paul II, many of his appointments will be resting under marble. However, their political and theological heritage will change but slowly. By the time it does, the distance between shepherd and sheep will be all but unbridgeable. The mournful bishops at O’Connor’s funeral will have a church that is utterly removed from the people of God.

The episcopacy has steadfastly refused to face the truth their own research has taught them. Instead of sharing power with their faithful, they still cling to the concept of power over them.

I’m place-dropping now, but I am writing all this at a lovely city called St. Jean de Luz, a resort of about 13,000 people at the foot of the Pyrenees Mountains in the Basque country of Southwest France. My wife, Jean, and I are on one of those tours designed for people of a certain age.

The Basques go to Mass; there are few other faiths. The 16th-century Basque church where Louis XIV married Marie Therese of Austria in 1660 was crowded with people who filled the church with song. Alas, it is not that way elsewhere in France, where Mass attendance can run as low as 3 percent. But the country, which is about the size of Texas, has 94 dioceses, presided over by five cardinals and 172 bishops. The higher church labors under the immense weight of accumulated power. The structure remains in place for a church that has more parishes than priests. Now the United States is drifting toward a French model -- one that cannot distinguish between maintenance and mission.

John O’Connor was laid to rest in a manner that befitted his style. He had worked as hard as any priest for a church that is still stuck in rigidity, rubricism and fear of the laity. Now, the bishops must put aside fear of the future, fear of change. Now, they must listen, listen to events outside, listen to the sounds of the times and the needs of God’s people. But I’m terrified they won’t.

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago. You can reach him at unsworth@megsinet.net

National Catholic Reporter, July 14, 2000