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Issue Date:  May 19, 2006

From the Editor's Desk

An unconventional tale

The headline, I know, refers to Paul Wilkes as a conventional Catholic (see story). It works for purposes of the story. Almost any Catholic from anywhere, in the setting in India that Wilkes describes, might be considered fairly conventional. But in his writing, his personal ministry and his determination to promote both healthy spirituality and rich parish life, Paul Wilkes is anything but conventional.

It is an irrepressible, both-eyes-open optimism and enthusiasm one encounters on meeting Wilkes. He has chronicled Catholic events and figures in pieces for The New Yorker and in numerous books. He has advanced model Catholic communities in his project, New Beginnings, and the book that resulted: Excellent Catholic Parishes: The Guide to Best Places and Practices. He is a perfect example of what Dominican Fr. Timothy Radcliffe in a recent issue of NCR called a “kingdom Catholic.” That might be an unwieldy term, but as Radcliffe used it, it conveys an outward look, an invitation to the community to explore. In the case of Wilkes, and not to speak too freely for him, I would imagine he would also accept the invitation as one to redeem the world by embracing it. His is a Catholic imagination that can find the ties that bind today to our deepest history. And so he writes: “As I closed my eyes one morning, I felt not only in the company of the monks and other guests, but those early believers in Christ’s day in Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia as they wove their cultural traditions into the fabric of belief that sustained and comforted them. After all, it was not Montevideo or Milan or Minneapolis where Christianity first was practiced, but in humble homes in the Middle East.”

It’s a delicious read and no conventional tale. Find some quiet and some time to sit with it.

~ ~ ~

No sooner had the electrons settled in place on the Web version of last week’s cover story about the dramatic and unilateral changes being imposed on the Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., diocese by the new bishop, Robert Finn, than calls began to come in inviting NCR (and in some cases, repeating past invitations) to visit other dioceses to do the same kind of reporting. It’s no surprise that the story resonates widely (we’ve sold out the first press run and we’re reprinting additional copies of the story to meet the demand). Catholics in many other places, in varying degrees, are experiencing the same distress over seeing distinguished programs and ministries of long standing discarded on the whim of one man, often new to the community and about whose choice as leader the community had no say.

One of those places, of course, is Rockville Centre, N.Y., where the bishop is William Murphy. He has proven adept at avoiding any accountability for his part in the sex abuse cover-up in Boston, where he previously served under Cardinal Bernard Law, much less for his actions in Rockville Centre, where a grand jury previously issued a scathing report of the church’s handling of the scandal. The story in this week’s issue recounts efforts by that diocese’s priests to pay for a professional mediator to settle the long dispute between Murphy and Long Island Voice of the Faithful, a group Murphy won’t allow to meet on church property ( see story).

Most of these issues, whether involving how money is used, how the scandal is handled or the imposition of sweeping changes unilaterally, all seem to fall eventually under the heading of accountability. None exists where bishops are concerned. Such a situation is possible because of the secretive and separate clergy culture that has evolved over centuries. I risk sounding a repetitious bore, but those two words -- accountability and culture -- have a lot to do with the organizational problems pressing on the church today. Accountability and its twin, transparency, require considerable administrative and pastoral skills; they require leaders who wish to cooperate with the whole community, not a sliver of it; who trust laypeople and are not suspicious of them; and they require pastors who serve the church’s entire mission, not an ideology or a single spirituality.

-- Tom Roberts

National Catholic Reporter, May 19, 2006

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