Monday, May 16, 2005

PHILADELPHIA DIGEST: Changes, Changes, Changes

Can you feel it in the air?

Well, if you are a Philly clansman, you can. It's May -- flowers sprouting, the smell of Chrism on the hands of new priests, and the skittishness behind the scenes. There's some changin' in them thar hills!

Unlike most dioceses, Philadelphia (ever the traditional) issues the bulk of its pastoral assignments in one fell swoop every year at the end of May. We do this because the Holy Father told us to! He didn't, but that's always the excuse for everything.

The church here reflects its secular milieu well. In its politics, sports, business and neighborhood cultures, Philly is a city so aversive to change that the sheer thought of it leads to an epidemic of hives. This isn't just an "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach -- it's more like "Even if it is broke, so what? Don't fix it; it's the way it's always been, my grandfather broke it 75 years ago and it means a lot to the family to keep it that way."

As an example, tomorrow is the Democratic primary for the election of judges here. The money and corruption involved would easily be enough to make Cardinal Law blush. Is it any way to responsibly elect a judiciary? Of course not, but it's always the way it's been, and we must be faithful to our traditions, even the criminal ones, mustn't we now? If anyone went to jail over it, oh well, they just played too high a hand. That's Philly for ya.

Well, ever the outlier among Philly boys, I love changes time. People who should have the serenity of faith get all kinds of freaked out. (Consider, too, that a foreign trip for most Philly people is New York.) But Pottstown? It's only an hour away, you can still get Channel 6 (our legendary ABC affiliate) there.

So we've established that everybody gets nuts. A big explanation for this is that they don't know what's going on. Well, at least they don't now. The late 90s was fun....

Under Bevilacqua, the appointments used to be determined over a series of months. But, starting in around '97 or '98 -- POOF! -- around May 10, everything would leak out three weeks before it went public. This went on for a few years.

But how? Well, regardless of how, the Cardinal hit the ceiling that phone lines in rectories everywhere were being blown out on a Saturday morning because the word was on the street.

The really funny thing is -- I guess this is a by-product of striving to be a good brother and clansman, and knowing the system -- every year, starting around the end of January, I start getting phone calls from the guys. "I don't like [Pastor's name here]. We're not getting along and I need to be at [assignment name here] -- the people are just great." If I had a dime for every time it happened.... But all I can do is listen, and do what little talking around I can -- sometimes, not even priests realize the pressure the board is under. It's a tough job, and the grass is always greener on the other side.

However, especially in these days, might it not go a long way to restoring credibility if we had a layperson or two of exceptional character on our priest personnel boards? I don't have the character for it -- give me enough Hoegaarden and a nice dinner and I'll send anyone anywhere, I realize this -- but there are laypeople out there who instinctively know and understand the church and are pretty well-briefed when it comes to the members of their diocesan presbyterates, the qualities and drawbacks of each.

It doesn't really help the church when the people who are ultimately served at the parish level have no say over who would best serve them -- that is, no say until they run the guy out of the parish and cause a whole boatload of problems. Nick DiMarzio (known to the cheeky as "Nicky Thug") had a layperson on the board when he was bishop of Camden. I don't know if he's done the same in Brooklyn, but Joe Galante promptly returned the board to an all-clerical one. (As Galante has a strong, uber-competent religious woman as his counsel and liturgical MC, he is forgiven this.)

I'd like to get everyone's mind on this. It is another one of those changes which need no revamping of law, but would help the church more than all the PR money in the world.


On a final note, as I write this I'm watching my successors march into Franklin Field -- the 249th Commencement of the University of Pennsylvania is underway. A year ago tomorrow, I made the victory lap around the nation's most legendary track on my own graduation day, so it's a moment of great pride and reminiscence. (I must add that, at my recommendation, our speaker was my favored Christian thinker of our time, Bono, lead singer of U2 and close friend of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin.)

I love my faith and cherish its traditions. But just as much, I am devoted to my alma mater's mission of pursuing rational thought free from the ravages of clerical control. Its values and influence on my work has, I believed, served me well. If I can pass that on to others, or at least get them thinking in a way they didn't before, better still.

Whatever the case, Hurrah for the Red and the Blue!



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