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L.A. priests, Mahony seem poles apart at meeting

Los Angeles

Priests here want a moratorium on the archdiocese’s ministerial cutbacks (NCR Sept. 27and Oct. 4). But they’re probably not going to get it. During an Oct. 7 meeting they asked Cardinal Roger Mahony to engage the priests and laity in a more collaborative way to deal with fallout from the current $4.3 million budget deficit.

At least half -- one priest estimated perhaps a majority -- of the archdiocese’s 1,200 active priests attended the Presbyteral Assembly in the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels conference center. It was a closed annual gathering.

One pastor told NCR, “The cardinal was very explicit in inviting the priests to speak. He was saying how problematic it is when there is one set of issues being brought up in the formal meetings and another set in the corridors and over coffee, so he wanted it all put on the table.

“But we were not encouraged by his response to the major thrust of the priests’ remarks,” said the pastor, “which questioned not the cutbacks, not that they needed to be made, but the manner, the process -- or lack of it. The response was a constant one-note symphony -- ‘I had to do this because we are in such dire financial straits.’ ”

During the meeting many priests voiced their objections to the end of essential ministries to many of the five-million member Catholic archdiocese’s diverse population.

In a prepared statement, Msgr. Timothy Dyer of Nativity Church in South Los Angeles -- which has a large African-American and Hispanic population -- said, “It strains the credibility we have with our people when we dedicate a $189 million cathedral -- rejoicing that it is fully funded -- and, one week later, declare that 60 lay and religious employees must be let go because we have not planned wisely enough to raise the $4 million needed to fund their ministries to prisoners, ethnic ministries, gay and lesbian outreach, and religious education to children.”

Another priest told NCR, “Mahony was taking note of all these things, but I believe he sees his hands as tied because of the finances.” He said that still other priests felt that “finances and budgets are all about decisions, so I think that’s where the rub is -- how the decisions were made.

“I think [the cardinal] really feels for the guys who are hurting and suffering in the ministries that will hurt and suffer,” said this priest, “but he feels the real possibility of bankruptcy if the archdiocese goes into deficit financing for these ministries.”

Another priest suggested that the Archdiocesan Catholic Center was mainly populated by bureaucrats “who do nothing for the parishes, where the real ministry is.”

The real questions, one priest told NCR, were: “ ‘How did the process come about? And what did that process do for trust?’ Those were the real questions,” he said.

Msgr. David O’Connell, pastor of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Church (African American-Latino) in South Los Angeles, told the Los Angeles Times the decision to cut prison ministries “was especially galling. It affects an awful lot of families in our area, and it’s a ministry that is vitally necessary.”

The archdiocesan detention ministry was halved, the numbers reduced from 24 chaplains to 12. Some detention units will be completely unserved unless local parishes and priests step in.

Said another priest, “No one’s questioning the financial problems.”

Yet there didn’t seem “to be a connecting between the cardinal and the priests,” he said. “Speaking for myself, I came away feeling that he wanted to connect with the priests. We ritualized that in our closing prayer, we laid hands on him, and that expressed to me the fact that included in the prayer was his desire for that communion. But it really didn’t represent what actually happened in the conversation.”

That priest also said, “We were very disappointed in what happened. While the people who spoke were quite eloquent, and showed their love for the disenfranchised and marginalized people being served by the programs, and while the cardinal expressed that love, too, he didn’t seem to take responsibility for the process.”

Mahony has a familiar, one-on-one rapport with his priests, most of whom call him “Roger.” And at the cocktail hour, if previous practice was repeated, he probably stayed to mingle.

Meanwhile, at the Archdiocesan Catholic Center, some senior staff whose positions were secure have chosen to resign. Leaving are Adrian Whitaker, who has run the archdiocese’s nationally known and highly successful annual religious education conference; Monica Hughes of the education department; and detention ministries director, St. Joseph Sister Suzanne Jabro. Jabro said she resigned so that her paid position could be used to fund a slot for another chaplain.

Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is arthurjones@attbi.com

National Catholic Reporter, October 18, 2002