More Winds of Change from Rome

by Michael Sean Winters

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Roma locuta est. In two separate announcements this morning, the Vatican announced that it had selected Bishop James Johnston, previously Bishop of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, to be the next Bishop of Kansas City-St. Joseph, and that both Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago and Bishop George Murry, SJ, of Youngstown, have been appointed as fathers to next month’s synod on the family. Sacred Heart of Mary Sr. Maureen Kelleher was also named as an auditor.

I do not know much about Bishop Johnston, but his bio has some interesting details. He has supported the Catholic Worker movement in his previous assignment. He worked to build Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri. Bishop Johnston also served on the USCCB Committee on Child Protection, so he will be familiar with, and presumably committed to, the pledges the bishops have made to the people of God but sometimes ignored regarding child protection. On the other hand, he over-reacted when Mercy hospital announced earlier this year that it was extending benefits to legally married same-sex couples. To be sure, that was before the Supreme Court ruling on the issue, but I still find his words a tad histrionic.

Whatever his past experiences, it is the future that must define his present circumstances. Bishop Johnston goes to a diocese that has been broken in almost every way a diocese can be broken. His predecessor Bishop Finn was divisive from the moment he arrived, and the divisions only seemed to get worse as he continued as that diocese’s bishop. He was sacked, ultimately, over his conviction for failing to report child sex abuse by a member of his clergy, the only U.S. bishop to be so convicted. Yet, he stayed on, apparently unaware that he, of all people, could not begin the healing process the diocese so desperately needed. To say that there was a breakdown in trust between bishop and people would be an understatement. Bishop Johnston is inheriting a mess. He is well advised to spend the first months of his tenure listening, listening and more listening.

The synod appointments are significant in every way. +Cupich has been on Pope Francis’ radar screen for some time now; otherwise he never would have been appointed to Chicago last autumn. And, at last November’s USCCB meeting, +Cupich was elected as an alternate to the synod by his brother bishops, showing support for him among the brethren as well. But, the bishops balanced their nomination of +Cupich as an alternate by also selecting San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone as an alternate. +Cordileone also serves as chair of the ad hoc committee for the defense of marriage, one of the central topics at the synod, so one would have expected that Rome might appoint him too. Alas. Pope Francis instead selected Bishop George Murry, a fellow Jesuit, and one of the few African-American bishops in the country. Murry served as Secretary to the USCCB so he is well respected by his peers, considered a pastoral moderate on hot button issues. He came to the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies' “Erroneous Autonomy: A Conversation on Faith & Solidarity” conference in June at the AFL-CIO. In fact, I think the only picture you can find of +Cupich and +Murry together was at that event, standing next to AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. That will make some of our friends on the right go ballistic.

More importantly, both +Cupich and +Murry are the opposite of a culture warrior; they are churchmen. Both, also, have the kind of accessible personalities that have earned them high marks for pastoral care. They are not clericalists in the least, known for their commitment to consultation, balanced in their statements on contentious issues. These appointments are wonderful. The U.S. delegation is now more balanced than it was by a long shot.

The appointment of Sr. Kelleher is also significant. She was one of the founding members of NETWORK, the social justice lobby founded by women religious and currently led by Sr. Simone Campbell and, also currently, out on the bus in their annual “Nuns on the Bus” tour. NETWORK was singled out for criticism in the doctrinal assessment of the LCWR approved by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Now, one of the founders has been singled out for an important role at an important synod. Who says things never change in the Church?

Next week, Pope Francis will step foot in this country for the first time in his life. But, somehow, he has found effective means of gathering information about the state of the Church in the U.S. and how we desperately need to move past our defensive, culture war crouch. He has recognized the need to hold bishops accountable, appoint bishops who are pastoral and churchmen, not ideologues and culture warriors, and he has taken steps to heal the rift between women religious and the bishops and the curia. Not bad for the first two years!





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