Sunday, May 06, 2007

"Bishop Crowley, What Went On in Your Head?"

That headline's not an original question, of course -- Ozzy Osbourne's tune about Alistair Crowley, the famed black magician, just came easily to mind.

The Catholic conversation being what it is -- i.e. you couldn't make much of it up if you tried -- in recent years some church activists have followed in the footsteps of Ozzy (the self-proclaimed "Prince of Darkness") and took to viewing English Bishop John Crowley of Middlesbrough in a similar light (or, accordingly, lack thereof). Among other moments of grist for the mill, the bishop's 2005 advocacy of optional celibacy garnered a spate of attention, even moreso his planned celebration of a 2001 Mass to celebrate the silver anniversary of the "friendship and commitment to justice" of Martin Pendergast and Julian Filochowski, a prominent couple in British church circles, for which intent Crowley (who withdrew under pressure at the last minute) was said to be "severely rapped over the knuckles." (Ethics disclosure: Filochowski sits on the board of directors of The Tablet, for which the author of these pages is US correspondent.)

Questions -- and, in some quarters, celebrations -- ensued on Thursday when Pope Benedict accepted the resignation from office of the 65 year-old bishop. Those close to Crowley and a letter to the diocese being read at this weekend's liturgies, however, have disclosed that the impetus for his departure came not from Rome, but from the prelate himself. And not without some difficulty, either; one friend said that Crowley's request of resignation, first proffered around the time of his birthday and 20th anniversary of episcopal ordination last June, had initially been rejected by the Holy See. It was only granted after the bishop emphatically cited the "big toll" the office had, "for some considerable time," been taking on his health.

"Much more than any physical wear and tear," Crowley wrote in his message to the diocese, "it was the growing strain of those responsibilities on my nervous resources which had begun to reach a point where I could no longer adequately cope. With that realisation came also the clear awareness that the diocese now needed someone else with new energy and vision to take on its spiritual leadership.

"Once my health is restored," Crowley said, "I dearly want to exercise my priestly ministry again... but now without those leadership responsibilities I am no longer able to sustain."

A priest of the archdiocese of Westminster, Crowley served for many years as private secretary to the late Cardinal Basil Hume, whose funeral homily he preached when the patrician Benedictine with the common touch died in 1999. Ordained an auxiliary of Westminster by his mentor, Crowley was appointed to Middlesbrough in 1992.

In recent years, he's reportedly been in heavy demand as an Ignatian-style retreat master, a task he'll likely take on with renewed vigor in due course.