Wednesday, September 08, 2010

"White Thunder" Hits Spokane: Amid Bankruptcy Hurdles, Wash. Church Set A-Blase

After years of buzz listing him for seemingly every vacancy to arise on these shores, Friday saw Bishop Blase Cupich installed in Spokane as the new head of eastern Washington State's 90,000-member church.

Sure, the highly-regarded prelate's new posting might lack the prominence of some of the spots for which his name's popped up in recent years -- Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, nearby Seattle and his native Omaha, to name just four. Yet in the end, one of the most competent and effective (and, indeed, tech-savvy) members of the Stateside bench was called to trade in the Black Hills of South Dakota for one of the moment's most challenging assignments for an American bishop... a tall order which, it could be said, only he bears the skill-set to tackle to its best possible result.

Long a leading "conference man" and currently the US bishops' lead hand on handling the fallout of the sex-abuse scandals, Cupich inherits a local church intensely affected by the crisis' wake. In 2004, the Spokane church filed for bankruptcy under the weight of some 180 claims filed against it. While the diocese agreed to a $48 million settlement in 2007, fresh lawsuits have continued to pile up, and the week of the installation saw the sting of Chapter 11 return to the fore as reports indicated that $1 million fund set aside for the newer filings had been depleted -- a development which, if the diocese fails to find another way of raising the added funds, could see the forced sale of as many as ten churches selected as further collateral, including the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes. (The sale call would be made by the bankruptcy's court-appointed trustee.)

Given the Indian name wakiya ska -- "White Thunder" -- by the Lakota people of the Rapid City church, it bears noting that Cupich's inaugural messages against the rough backdrop packed a considerable pop... so much so that the rousing, sustained ovation given his Vespers talk last Thursday night was loud enough to make its way back to these offices (along with the Native American drumming that kicked off the festivities).

Described by one op as an "impressive and hopeful" talk -- and another as "a hit out of the ballpark" -- here's the key portion of the Thursday homily (emphases original).

* * *
We gather for Vespers. It is a pause at the end of a day to give thanks for blessings received, and to pray that God will see us through the darkness as night falls upon us. This Vespers Service also serves as a vigil, in anticipation of the new chapter the Catholic community in eastern Washington begins tomorrow. And so, let us be attentive and vigilant to what the living God has to say to us this night.
He speaks to us through the words of Paul, originally addressed to the Colossians as they faced severe trials, persecution and internal division. Those words now reach across the ages and have something to say to us:
We have heard of your faith and love… and from that day we have not ceased praying for you that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding to live in a manner worthy of the Lord.
We need to hear Paul’s encouraging voice tonight, for there are other voices, sometimes even within ourselves, which reduce our mission and identity to the very public challenges and criticisms we face: the menacing financial and legal strains that continue to beset us, the loss of trust with those we serve, and the public shame inflicted on us all by the irresponsible behavior of a few who betrayed their calling and harmed children. But God tells us through Paul that we are more than a diocese that has suffered bankruptcy, we are more than the failures of nearly 30 years ago, and we surely are more than the sins of the very few.

He knows of your faith and love… and so do I. From the brief visits I have already made in eastern Washington State, I have seen and heard of your faith and love at the St. Vincent de Paul store in Dayton; at the houses for battered women and the homeless sponsored by Catholic Charities; in the sacrifices you make to educate children in our schools; in the refreshing and generous faith of our young seminarians; in the tireless dedication of our priests, religious and lay parish leaders, whose presence lets parishioners know that God’s love is everlasting; and in the care of the sick and dying by the Sisters of Providence.

I too have seen your faith and love in people I have met: a family as they care with devotion and joy for a severely impaired adult daughter; parents, though grieving a child lost in a tragedy, who have become even more generous; and a young man, confined to a wheelchair, who prepared a beautiful wood carving just to make me feel at home here.

I am convinced that just as our commitment to healing of the past must be resolute, ongoing and firm, so too must be our sense of mission for the future, a mission, as Paul puts it, “to share in the inheritance of the holy ones, by bearing fruit in every good work and by growing in the knowledge of God.” In the long run, it will be our commitment to the mission of Christ that will sustain us as we continue the work of healing the past.

That is why we need to be attentive and ever vigilant to God’s words of encouragement whenever they come. They will keep our focus and mission fresh. They will balance and steady us in otherwise uncertain times and unchartered waters. And, above all, they will keep us from falling into that most diabolical of temptations, discouraging self-pity.

I learned this one early morning in the dark winter days of 2002. I was scheduled to make a one-day round-trip from Rapid City to St. Paul for a seminary board meeting. As I stood in the long line waiting to go through the security check, a TV monitor overhead was broadcasting a morning talk show. The host and his sidekick were recounting the interview they had the day before with Father Andrew Greeley of Chicago. “He was an okay guy,” the host said, “not like all the other Catholic priests who abuse and harm kids.” My heart sank. My head bowed in shame. I could only imagine the stares of everyone fixed on me at that moment, as though a bulls-eye had been painted on my back. That made for a heavy day, a painful day. As others have said, I did not sign up for this.

Sitting on the plane for the return trip that evening, a flight attendant, an African American woman, approached me and asked: “Are you a Catholic priest?”

Oh, I thought, she must have seen that bulls-eye on my back. “Yes,” I responded, “I am.”

“Well,” she continued, “I am not a Catholic, but my brothers and I grew up in New Orleans and the priests and the sisters were so good to us. If we couldn’t pay, we were still welcome. If we didn’t have the proper clothes, they gave them to us. If we didn’t have lunch, they fed us. So we all decided a long time ago that whenever we come across a sister or a priest, we would say thanks. So thanks, Father, for what you do.”

You could have knocked me over with a shaft of Washington winter wheat!

Surely she was testifying to the enormous reservoir of good will and social capital which our priests and religious have built up over the years. But even more so, her message was the same as St. Paul’s: We have heard of your faith and love … and from that day we have not ceased praying for you to bear fruit in every good work and grow in the knowledge of God. On this vigil night, we should attend to this Word of God and let it encourage us.

It is a Word that calls us to be attentive to the many ways God is gracing us in this time to bring healing to the past and to steady us to take up again the mission of Christ. You can count on me joining you in doing just that. For you see, I share Bishop Skylstad’s excitement and now know, it is a blessing to be your bishop.
...and here, in full, the following day's Installation preach:

...and, for those who'd like to see it, the Mass in full -- held at the athletic center of the Jesuits' local hub, Gonzaga University...

PHOTOS: Deacon Eric Meisfjord/Inland Register