Editorial: Leader of WMass Catholics seeks to reconnect with faithful

Last modified: Friday, February 12, 2016

As an inspiring Pope lifts Catholic hopes worldwide with his call for inclusion and justice, the leader of the Springfield Diocese is using a Lenten tradition to reach out to disaffected Catholics. He is calling for the spirit of renewal, and forgiveness, to permeate the church in western Massachusetts.

Whether he succeeds depends on follow-through.

In a remarkable pastoral letter distributed this week, Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski apologizes for a lot of things. Most notably, he says that pain “still echoes” over clergy sexual abuse, an injury that may feel fresh again because of “Spotlight,” the movie about the Boston Globe’s discovery that the church systematically concealed the truth about molestation and shuffled abusive priests to unsuspecting parishes.

Bishop Rozanski’s institutional mea culpa, expressed in a 2,300-word letter called “The Wideness of God’s Mercy,” seems heartfelt. He asks forgiveness from victims of clergy abuse, their families and friends “and all those scandalized by the Church’s failure to protect our young people and for any lack of diligence in responding.” While the bishop goes on to list several reasons people have distanced themselves from the church, the top complaint, no doubt, is clergy abuse. “There are many people hurting in our Catholic community from the pain caused by our past failures as a diocese, as well as the grievous actions of some who ministered in our church,” the bishop says in the letter, made public Wednesday.

Church leaders have apologized before — and those who represent victims of clergy abuse are right to call not for more words but for actions. After reading the bishop’s letter, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) challenged him to seek justice in cases of past abuse.

Indeed, when the bishop refers to “any lack of diligence in responding” to abuse, it suggests a willingness to become diligent — and SNAP this week identified ways the diocese might win back public trust.

The group urged the diocese to provide information about the whereabouts of two priests who, despite allegations they molested young people in Springfield, may remain in church service elsewhere. The group also asks the bishop to post announcements in every parish asking people with information about improper conduct by priests to call police.

The bishop’s letter is nuanced enough to allow that healing won’t come easily. It will require that the diocese regain trust through actions, as well as resolutions.

Citing the days of reflection linked to Lent, the bishop calls for a time of evangelizing. Quoting Pope Paul VI, who led the church from 1963-1978, Rozanski said that work means “bringing the Good News into all the strata of humanity.” But as the bishop acknowledges, the Good News must come to terms with bad news — some of it stemming from the diocese’s own actions.

After apologizing for clergy abuse, he expresses regrets for the “very real hurt caused by this diocese’s pastoral planning process” that closed churches throughout western Massachusetts a decade ago — in part due to fallout from the abuse crisis — and cost many long-time believers their spiritual homes.

And beyond that, the bishop reaches out to those who felt shouldered out of the church for racial or cultural reasons, for their sexual orientation or just because they are women.

How did Rozanski come to this place of penance? Thank social science for some of that, because the church conducted a survey to map how area Catholics feel about the institution. The bishop cites statements gathered in that research — and some are sobering.

More connecting and less correcting, one person said. Don’t “tease” former parishioners back with promises that won’t be kept, others said. Close the “huge gap” between what priests do and what people need.

People want a deeper connection to the church. Many feel lost. Others are so busy earning livelihoods and raising families that religion is squeezed out. Gay Catholics feel intentionally excluded. And women feel discounted. As one woman asked, “When is the church going to accept us as equals and value our opinion? They don’t even ask our opinion nor do they seem to want it.” Rozanski insists this gap can be closed. “We need to evangelize those who were once, but are no longer with us: We need you, we need your presence, your gifts and your talents,” he wrote.

The bishop took an important step this week to show he is listening to legitimate criticisms of his church. It will be far harder to change the culture of an ancient institution.

But with the reform-minded Pope Francis at the top, there may be no better time to try.


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