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Pat’s clear, direct letters could bend a bishop’s miter


Pat Wolf writes long, thoughtful letters to high-level churchmen, church organizations, occasional politicians -- in short, people with big antlers. They’re not done on linen stationery and it can take time to download them. Her letters can perform more functions than a Swiss Army knife, but there’s meat on their sentences.

Trouble is, virtually none of these indelibly oiled and pedestaled people to whom she writes ever bother to respond. Pat gets a more polite response from a burger flipper at McDonald’s.

Pat often uses humor and sarcasm. Her insights could bend a bishop’s miter. And not just bishops. She recently wrote to Call to Action, a national Catholic reform group that is now the size of a small diocese. She chided them for becoming elitist, announcing that she was “a member of the organization but not of the [Call to Action] club.” They didn’t answer either.

Hers is the voice crying from the back pew. Her letters can be long and disjointed. They are sometimes written with a shaky but readable scrawl, leaving one with the impression that the author’s porch light was flickering. It would be easy to Dewey-decimalize her thoughts under “eccentric,” but that would be a mistake. Pat doesn’t write in the pluperfect subjunctive, leaving thoughts just out of reach. They are as clear and direct as baptismal water.

Which may explain why they are not answered.

The paranoid, elitist style has taken hold. Ever since the departure of Archbishop Jean Jadot, apostolic nuncio of the United States (1973-80), the emphasis on a bishop’s qualifications has shifted from pastoral to paranoid. The Mediterranean (or Mafia?) loyalty model is now in effect. Ecclesiastics now tend to answer only letters from recognized groups, universities, distinguished publications, lawyers and fellow churchmen. Letters from a parishioner living in a three-floor walkup go into the circular file.

“I don’t care if the bishops respond,” Pat wrote to me. “My affirmation comes from a better source.

“My letters take so much energy,” she continued. “Just organizing them is hard. Something else always comes. It’s like delivering a baby.”

One of her strongest letters was written to Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz, a Milwaukee native and devout Vatican stem cell. Named bishop of Lincoln, Neb., in 1992, he set about excommunicating members of Call to Action and banning virtually anything that wasn’t drenched in holy water. Pat wrote him after he savaged Patty Crowley, suggesting that the former representative to the Papal Commission on Birth Control was depraved. Crowley is an American Catholic icon, co-founder with her late husband, Pat, of the Christian Family Movement and arguably second only to Dorothy Day as the most influential Catholic woman in the United States.

“Have you ever bothered to observe a parish during the collection at Mass?” she asked the burly bishop. “You would see that the escapades of these representatives of Christ on earth [the priesthood] are being paid for by money scraped together by people like the Crowleys who worked hard to feed and clothe their families.” The Crowleys were not poor but had a large family and innumerable foster children.

“Have you ever been responsible for anyone’s physical condition?” she asked the ultraconservative bishop. “The Crowleys devoted themselves to helping couples bear the burden of the church’s laws. What have you done except live off their labors?”

Pat knows how to deliver a punch to the cincture. Citing Catherine of Siena (“The stench of Avignon stinks to high heaven!”), she reminded the bishop “There are thousands of little Avignons in the Catholic world, and we’re getting tired of holding our noses.”

Bruskewitz never responded nor did Bishop Joseph Fiorenza, president of the U. S. bishops’ conference, who received a copy. But Pat thinks that her letter touched a nerve. Lincoln’s bishop has hardly spoken in ages.

Pat belongs to an Evanston, Ill., parish where the pastor, Fr. Robert Oldershaw, is gifted with imagination, sensitivity and a soul. He ministered to both of Pat’s in-law parents until they died, although neither of them was Catholic. Pat views the larger church through telling peepholes in church portals. When her large bilingual parish was reduced to one priest, the parish council visited the major seminary to recruit one of the newly ordained. They received no answer but, after a second plea, they were informed no one would come because the rectory had no cook or housekeeper. “We won’t take any job when we have to do our own cooking, laundry or cleaning,” she was told.

“Let’s face it, folks,” the pastor told the parishioners. “It’s not a vocation anymore. It’s a job.”

In her letter to Call to Action, Pat cited an article in The New York Times Magazine that featured a small group of “counterculture” seminarians from Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore. They were swaddled in black suits telling stories of how difficult it was for them to even walk past the magazine section of their local drugstore. It was an occasion of sin. One even bragged that he had to go to confession after reading the Starr Report on President Clinton. Still another had stopped watching TV because he felt the lead character in “Seinfeld” was contracepting. And still another seminarian regretted that he was hearing nothing from the pulpit about the evils of masturbation.

“Notice the dominant theme here?” Pat asked. “The fact that millions of dollars have and will be spent to support the assembly line that produces these robots is scandalous,” she concluded.

Pat likes to cite a radio spot from the Plumbers Council of Chicago imploring people to call and get the name of a member when they need work done. “If any work is unsatisfactory the council will correct it,” the ad proclaims. “Is it too much to ask that the bishops have the integrity of plumbers?” she asked.

When she worked at C.D. Peacock’s and elsewhere, she learned that the best way to settle differences was to confront openly and honestly. But her experience with the institutional church has been quite the opposite. It seems to her that the survival of the increasingly isolated church and organizations that challenge it depends largely on conflict. She would like them to come together.

Pat Wolf is working on another letter. “It will be a case for married priests and women’s ordination, but not heavy-handed,” she wrote. “I plan to draw them into it in a unique way. I guarantee that I will at least snare them into reading it.”

God’s blessing on your words, Pat.

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago where he is recovering from his second colon cancer surgery. Write him at unsworth@megsinet.net

National Catholic Reporter, December 28, 2001