Thursday, May 29, 2008

On the Trail

Another day, another event....

This Thursday finds the circuit moving to the heart of the Heartland, as Bishop Richard Pates formally takes the reins of the diocese of Des Moines. Yet while more than 2,500 packed into San Fran's St Mary's Cathedral for yesterday's ordination of Bishop Bill Justice, today's Mass installing the 65 year-old former Twin Cities auxiliary will take place in the 18,000-seat Hy Vee Hall, a local landmark.

Once a cherished aide of the then-Apostolic Delegate Archbishop Jean Jadot for six years back in the 1970s, the ninth head of the Iowa diocese of 91,000 succeeds the beloved Bishop Joseph Charron, who retired early last year due to the effects of an inflammatory rheumatic disorder. In an unusual add-on, attendees at the open-to-all liturgy are being asked to bring a donation of money or food for the poor.

Festivities began earlier tonight with a Vespers service in St Ambrose Cathedral. Homily snip:
On this eve of my installation as the ninth bishop of Des Moines my mood is reflective. It hearkens back to those moments of intimacy that Jesus shared with his close friends on the eve of his death and the birth of the Church when he prayed not only for them but us as well.

On that occasion Jesus spoke of his relationship with the Father and the Spirit and that what he was about was not to end in the here and now. But it was to be extended into eternity. The means of arriving at this desired goal was to remain connected with him and remain in his love. And we manifest love for him by doing what he commanded. His command is to love one another and to remain faithful in unity. If we live in such a way we are assured that the spirit, the very spirit of God dwells in us.

Like Paul, we recognize that all are given gifts for the benefit of all in order that God’s desire – our sharing in his love - might be experienced as widely as possible. Thus, I look forward to exercising ministry with you in the Spirit as Jesus envisioned it....

Constituting the Church of Des Moines are all of us who have been initiated into the life of the Lord Jesus, profess the one faith and are emboldened to strive to be light and salt for the world in which we live. We thus stretch the unity and love that we experience in community to all. May our commitment to this vision intensify in the days ahead.

The Church of Des Moines seeks to be in relation with all, our fellow Christians, all believers, citizens of this city and Iowa, political and business leaders and those who enhance cultural life. Count us as partners in the pursuit of the common good, social justice, the uplifting of the human spirit. Let us work together to fulfill our human potential for the benefit of all.
At the end of Vespers, Pates announced that he had asked Msgr Stephen Orr -- the diocesan administrator during the interregnum and longtime vicar-general before that -- to continue as his second-in-command.

"In his inimitable and appreciated candor," the incoming bishop also noted that Orr responded by saying "I will do whatever you want, but I have been doing this for 16 years – so somewhere along the line you might keep that in mind."

* * *

Looking forward for a minute, late next week (i.e. two more ordinations and a Golden Jubilee away) will finally see Day One for the new head of Arkansas' statewide diocese, Bishop-elect Tony Taylor of Little Rock.

The more vesturally-inclined might still be fixated on why his appointment-day press conference saw everybody in house cassocks as opposed to the usual suit-up, but the challenges soon to face the 53 year-old bishop-elect are even more pressing, many driven by a booming Latino influx that's seen Razorback Country's Catholic population more than double over the last decade... not to mention all the little things that tend to pile up after an almost 25-month vacancy of the bishop's chair.

A Rome and Fordham-trained scriptural theologian who led a 95% Hispanic parish in Oklahoma when he got the call, the first Sooner elvated to the episcopacy since 1972 -- when John Sullivan (later bishop of Kansas City-St Joseph) was named to lead Nebraska's diocese of Grand Island -- Taylor will be ordained a week from today in Little Rock's Convention Center by his former ordinary, now metropolitan, Archbishop Eusebius Beltran.

With an eye to next week's events, Arkansas' political weekly gets an impressive jump-start on the coverage with a lengthy profile of the state's seventh bishop:
Taylor's first words to Arkansas, at the announcement of his appointment as bishop, were in Spanish: “El humilde heredará la tierra.” “The humble shall inherit the earth.”

He continued, in English, to explain: “Jesus' preferential love of the poor and marginalized was courageous, not timid, and so must we also be if we are to be his faithful servants.”

Taylor went on to say that, while individual priests in the Arkansas diocese had spoken out about immigration issues, administrators here have generally avoided the issue. That would change, he said, adding: “I certainly speak out very clearly about what the gospel says about human dignity and human rights.”

Last year, Taylor joined the archbishop of Oklahoma City and nine other priests in signing a “pledge of resistance” to Oklahoma's HB 1804, a law that suspends or revokes business licenses of employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants and makes it a felony to transport or shelter them.

In a statement of “defiance” addressed to Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry, the archbishop and priests wrote: “Our faith tradition instructs us to do good to all peoples. There is no exemption clause for those persons who do not have documentation of their citizenship status. We will not show partiality to those who are in need of humanitarian assistance.”

For Taylor, his decision to sign the “pledge of resistance” was never in doubt. “Our lives are not compartmentalized,” he says. “It's not that we have one part of our life that's where we live our faith, and another part that's outside our faith. Our lives are a whole.”

Indeed, the whole of the new bishop's life, since his birth in Texas in 1954, might be seen as preparation for the challenges that now await him in Arkansas.

As the oldest of seven children, he was close to his grandparents, two of whom were converts to Catholicism. His father's mother had been raised a Protestant, and his mother's father was born a Jew.

“Each of them had paid a price for their conversions, in terms of rejection by their families. It made religion not so taken-for-granted in our family.”...

Taylor was ordained in 1980, at the age of 26. Back in Oklahoma he found a growing need for masses said in Spanish, as Anglo parishes there began absorbing new Hispanic members. He learned that the church served not just as a spiritual base, but “as a home” for people separated from their native lands and families.

In the late 1980s, Oklahoma's archbishop interrupted Taylor's pastoral work to send him to Fordham University in the Bronx, to earn a doctorate in biblical theology. Taylor focused his dissertation on the parables Jesus told about the relationships between servants and their masters. In his own life, he says, “I like to tell people that, if Jesus is the shepherd, I'm the sheep dog — at the service of the flock and at the service of the master.”

For the past 19 years, Taylor has served as a pastor in Oklahoma City, first founding a new parish made up mainly of young suburbanites, and most recently, at Sacred Heart, the city's second-oldest parish, a church that had been declining, but which has experienced renewed vitality as its membership has grown and become 95 percent Hispanic.

“The two parishes are different in socio-economic terms,” Taylor says, “but the human element is largely the same. They have the same dreams for their families. They bring similar talents to the community.”

During this time he learned to balance the demands of his priestly life through friendships with other priests and sports. Racquetball became his favorite. A longtime opponent describes Taylor as a fierce and untiring competitor.

In addition to his pastoral duties, Taylor served as vicar of ministries for the archdiocese, a role in which he oversaw personnel issues regarding priests. About a fifth of Oklahoma's Catholic priests are themselves immigrants, having come mainly from India, with a few others from Africa. Most of the foreign-born priests work in smaller, more rural parishes, he says, and many have special needs arising from homesickness and isolation.

Taylor says the situation in Arkansas is similar. Nearly a fifth of the 53 priests serving the Little Rock Diocese also have come from abroad; in this case, however, most are from Africa, and a few from India.

(Forty-four priests from religious orders also serve the diocese, and the clergy are assisted by 95 permanent deacons.)

As a pastor, Taylor believed that the poor and those with the greatest need had the greatest claim on him. As Oklahoma moved towards passing one of the harshest anti-immigrant laws in the country, the “sheep dog” became an outspoken immigrants' advocate.

“The church does not engage in party politics or support candidates,” he explains. “But we do have an obligation to speak the truth as we see it with regard to moral issues. Social issues have an impact on public policy, and that's where politics and morality touch. It's my responsibility to do what I can to make sure that public policy is well informed.

“An example would be that we have certain God-given, inalienable rights as humans that do not come from the state. They come from God, and the state does not have the power to deny them.

“We saw this in the civil rights movement. Rights that come to us as human beings, the state does not have the authority to impede. That's the current issue today in terms of immigration. The state has the authority to establish borders for the common good, but it does not have the authority to prevent the right to immigrate when circumstances require.

“For example: Parents have the obligation to provide for their children, and if they cannot do so in a way that's in keeping with their basic human needs, they have to do so in whatever way they can, and that includes emigration.

“Another thing is that people have a God-given right to participate fully in the life of the community where they live. So people who immigrate must not be relegated to second-class status where they live, where they work, and where their children are being raised. That would argue against having an extended permanent resident situation, rather than a citizenship option.

“These are topics on which the teaching of the church is not ambiguous. My role is to express as clearly as I can what the teaching of Jesus has to say about these and other moral issues. But as far as specific legislative solutions, that's not my role.”
A blogger on a Catholic website, noting that Taylor had chosen Jesus' words “The humble shall inherit the earth” as the motto for his bishopric, wrote: “Sounds like liberation theology to me.” The reference was to a school of Christian thought, popular especially in Latin America, that views Jesus Christ as both Redeemer and Liberator of the oppressed. It regards political activism to achieve justice for the poor as an appropriate part of the Christian mission.

Officials of the Catholic Church have rejected some elements of liberation theology — particularly those that are viewed as reflecting a Marxist ideology. Taylor says he also rejects those ideas.

“Marxist analysis is predicated on a world view that is contrary to the world view of faith,” he says. Though he embraces the belief that “God has a special love for those most in need,” he says he's regarded as being “pretty traditional as far as church teaching goes.”

In that regard, Taylor says he opposes laws that permit abortion and the execution of criminals. Taylor served as priest and confessor for Eric Allen Patton, who was sentenced to death for murdering a woman, Charlene Kauer, in 1994. He was with Patton when he was executed in 2006.

In a sermon delivered three days later, Taylor described the experience of witnessing Patton's death, “a death which occurred on Aug. 29, the day we commemorate the beheading of John the Baptist, another man killed in cold blood by the state, just like Jesus and the two criminals executed on either side of him on Good Friday, 2,000 years ago.”

Early last year, as the Oklahoma legislature neared passage of the law known as HB 1804, Taylor organized a workshop for members of his parish to “let them know what they might expect and dispel false rumors. Initially, there was a lot of fear.”

He adds, “We also reinforced the commitment among parishioners who are citizens to take the concerns of their brothers and sisters with them when they go to vote, and to remind the citizen-children to look at how your parents are treated, so that when you get to be 18, you be sure to vote.”

Some of the parish's Hispanic members did join the flight from Oklahoma that has spurred some efforts to repeal parts of HB 1804 out of concern for industries — especially agriculture — that experienced a resulting shortage of workers.

In Taylor's parish, however, most Hispanic families stayed put, though he says, “I think people have put their affairs in order. They have firmed up who their children should go to if their mom and dad aren't there when they come home from school.”
At his first public appearance as bishop-elect, Taylor said his first reaction to the call informing him of his appointment was, "Oh my gosh!"

What he said was his second thought was a bit more profound: "What's going to happen to my parish?"

As of last report, a horde of buses making the five-hour trip from Sacred Heart to next week's ordination are near-capacity.

PHOTOS: Diocese of Des Moines(1); Diocese of Little Rock(2,3)