Two years after Bishop Richard Lennon
's move to close 50 parishes
plunged the diocese of Cleveland into a ferocious cycle
of reaction from the pews -- which, among other things, saw one of the communities move to form a renegade "independent" parish
with its former pastor late last year -- the head of the 750,000-member Ohio church announced this morning that the Holy See had launched an investigation into "all aspects" of diocesan activities, the bishop citing discontent expressed to the Vatican over "my leadership of the diocese" as the reason behind it.
Saying that the Visitation was taking place at his own request, Lennon revealed that Rome had appointed the recently-retired Bishop John "Mort" Smith
of Trenton to conduct the probe and report his conclusions.
Already on the ground, the Jersey prelate will spend this week in Cleveland gathering information. The chancery said no timetable was known for the process.
A canon lawyer by training who spent significant stints of his priesthood both as a pastor and top administrator in his native Newark, Smith became a particularly well-loved figure
among his people and priests in Trenton, even while overseeing his own difficult rounds of parish planning efforts over 13 years at the helm of the 850,000-member "great diocese," home to the nation's second-largest group of permanent deacons and, invariably over recent years, a notably high number
of priestly ordinands for a mid-sized fold.
Pummeled by the stark realities of drastic location and population shifts, significantly lower rates of Mass attendance and sacramental practice, and sizable net losses of priests, practically every local church in the Northeast and Midwest has been forced to grapple with the triple-shot of decline that's combined to, at best, render the Rust Belt's century-old parish configurations ill-suited to the church's present circumstances there.
In the cycle's two-decade span -- which has seen the Last Mass mark the end of nearly 2,000 parishes nationwide -- dioceses have tackled the new dynamic with diverse approaches that, while all geared toward the same end of thinning burdensome numbers of largely-empty churches, have met with wildly varied reactions depending on the scope and time-frame of the planning effort, the levels of consultation employed in it and, above all, the degree to which diocesan leaders have been able to heal reeling parishioners, who are inevitably made to live with a change often as difficult as it's needed, one that invariably stokes anger, hurt, shaken faith, and worse.
As vicar-general of his native Boston, Lennon oversaw 2005's tumultuous closing of 67 parishes there, which came only three years after American Catholicism's onetime-flagship was rocked by the revelations of sex-abuse and cover-up that sparked the national crisis. The swath of moves did cut fairly, however; among the closings the then-auxiliary recommended was that of his own boyhood church.
Traumatic as the scandals' emergence was, losing the churches made for "the sting people feel," as one Boston pastor pressed into consolidating parishes reflected, adding that it took his merged entity five years to definitively move forward from the scars of reconfiguration.
In a related development, the Boston chancery recently announced plans for a second wave
of mergers which, according to some early estimates, could see the archdiocese's current parish-count of 300 cut in half over the next several years. On the broader scene, while the toll of the closings has already been beyond significant, an equal or possibly greater sweep is likely still to come over the next decade, as the last large classes of priests (the group mostly ordained in the years immediately following the Council) reach retirement age -- a demographic tidal wave that will wipe out a full half, or even a majority, of many of today's active presbyterates in an astonishingly short space of time.
The Vatican's move for an inquest of the Cleveland situation is but the latest evidence of a shift of sentiment on the part of the Roman Curia when it comes to mass consolidations of American parishes. While bishops have long been given a relatively free hand to act in the best interests of their dioceses as a whole -- provided, that is, the procedures used faithfully follow the provisions of canon law -- the Holy See has overturned several closings in Pennsylvania, New York and Massachusetts through the first six months of 2011 after parishioners appealed to the Congregation for the Clergy, a filing known in ecclesial terms as administrative recourse.
Where applicable, the issue of parish mergers and their optimal scope is expected to figure prominently during the US bishops' meetings with the Pope and Curia during the bench's coming ad limina
visit to Rome -- the USCCB's first seven-yearly report to Benedict XVI -- which begins through November and December with the Northeastern provinces of Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Newark.
* * *
Named to Cleveland in the wake of his hometown tempest, repeating the tough task on a proportionally-larger scale proved even more brutal for the 64 year-old bishop -- a mathematician and self-trained canonist whose hard-charging, sometimes brusque style lends itself to making tough calls, but at the same time allows Lennon to be effortlessly portrayed as the proverbial "bad cop." Accordingly, while it was intended as a gesture of solicitude and support, the prelate's practice of celebrating the final Mass of the shuttering parishes -- most of them in the city's once-bustling ethnic bastions, now largely a shadow of their former selves -- has made for some ugly incidents, as one congregation walked out
when the bishop began to preach, shouting from the pews elsewhere led to a mid-Mass argument, and Lennon reportedly confided that he had likewise been cursed at and spat upon
by irate members of the affected communities.
Given the tensions, the city's paper of record said that bishop was accompanied to the parish "funerals" by uniformed and plainclothes police.
Though the Clevelander said he requested the visitation on his own, it is exceedingly rare for Rome to make an intervention of this sort into the life of a local church.
Before now, the last time an American see was examined on-site is believed to have taken place in 1983, when concerns over Seattle Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen's handling of several major areas of church life -- including liturgy, formation of seminarians, ministry to gay and lesbian Catholics and the tribunal -- brought the appointment of then-Archbishop James Hickey of Washington as apostolic visitor. Two years later, the findings resulted in the appointment of then-Fr Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh as auxiliary to Hunthausen while stripping the archbishop of much of his authority as Rome gave Wuerl ultimate jurisdiction over the hot-button areas examined by Hickey and his team.
The tension wrought by the move served to short-circuit the arrangement after little more than a year, and with a coadjutor subsequently named, Hunthausen retired at age 70 in 1991.
Elsewhere, the most recent high-profile visitation of a single diocese was the 2007 calling of an inquest into the Australian diocese of Toowoomba after local parishioners complained to Rome over an enduring illicit use of the Third Rite of Reconciliation -- i.e. general absolution
without individual confessions -- outside of emergency situations, and Bishop William Morris' note in a 2006 pastoral letter
that, in light of the rapidly declining number of priests, "several responses have been discussed," among which, he said, the church was being urged to consider the ordination of women and married men to the priesthood, as well as accepting the validity of ministers from other Christian communities to perform Catholic rites.
After the Holy See dispatched Archbishop Charles Chaput OFM Cap. of Denver to survey the scene firsthand, years of discussions between the Curia and Morris culminated in February when the Pope removed the Queensland prelate from office. In response, the bishop said in a letter
to the diocese that, despite Vatican officials calling for his resignation in six separate instances
, he refused, as leaving the post voluntarily, he wrote, "would mean that I accept the assessment of myself as breaking communio,
which I absolutely refute and reject."
Back to the shores of Lake Erie, though, the message first released to the Cleveland clergy early this morning, here below is Lennon's announcement in full:
Acting on the request of Most Rev. Richard G. Lennon, The Holy See has asked Most Rev. John M. Smith, Bishop Emeritus of the Diocese of Trenton (N.J.), to visit the Diocese of Cleveland.
Bishop Lennon said, “While I am confident that I am faithfully handling the responsibilities entrusted to me, I personally made this request earlier this year because a number of persons have written to Rome expressing their concerns about my leadership of the Diocese. This visit will be an opportunity to gather extensive information on all aspects of the activities of the Diocese and will allow for an objective assessment of my leadership. I ask for prayers that this process will support the vibrancy and vitality of our Diocese going forward.”
Bishop Smith will be in Cleveland this week. Following the conclusion of his visit, Bishop Smith will submit a report to The Holy See; no timetable has been announced.
...and lastly, for a snapshot of what the place will find in its Roman inquisitor, Smith's closing remarks from a May Mass in Trenton marking the emeritus' golden jubilee as a priest:
Suffice it to say, all this gives "Mortification" a whole new meaning.
PHOTOS: Gus Chan/Cleveland Plain-Dealer(2)-30-