Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Letter on Sunday

As supporters of Cardinal Edward Egan gradually begin to speak up, for the first time a ranking cleric of the archdiocese of New York gives on-record voice to the sentiments behind The Letter in today's New York Times....
Msgr. Howard Calkins, pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Mount Vernon in Westchester County, said he did not approve of the letter’s harsh tone and anonymity, but agreed with its description of the morale and communication problems in the archdiocese. “I think there is truth in it; that the cardinal has really been an absent figure,” he said.

Monsignor Calkins, who is also vicar of the South Shore Vicariate, said Cardinal Egan has attempted to reach out to priests in recent years, but that generally there has been very little consultation with them on the issues affecting the archdiocese. “I think there’s a feeling that we’re not being heard, even though he did hold a convocation of the priests of the archdiocese in October 2004,” he said.
For the record, Calkins is one of the ten-county archdiocese's 19 regional vicars. Also, in the interests of clarity, the paper presents a more accurate rendering of Whispers' receipt of the document at issue than that published in yesterday's NYPost.

With 35 hours and counting 'til the sitdown at 452, what's been called "the biggest topic of conversation in a LONG time" among the New York clergy is on a slight downtick for the weekend, as Sunday Mass schedules take precedence and all sides brace for Monday morning's emergency meeting of the archdiocese's Presbyteral Council.

At the same time, however, voices have started rising to the defense of Cardinal Egan, whose six year stewardship of the New York church was thrown into its most significant crisis last week with the circulation of the anonymous letter calling for a priests' vote of "no confidence" in the 74 year old prelate. While several priests of the 2.5 million-member archdiocese have expressed grave qualms over the means by which the document's author(s) publicized their concerns since the its initial circulation on Tuesday, only in recent hours have some called the substance and intent of the scathing text into question.

Admitting that "communion is damaged" between Egan and his presbyterate -- a situation which, it should be noted, is by no means particular to New York -- one archdiocesan cleric said yesterday that a key to understanding the prevalent mood is the clash of the cardinal's perceived faults "with the volatile egos of strong-willed clergy."

"Egan is exasperated and the clergy are furious," he says.

Offering the observation that "the most vocal [priests] calling for a vote of 'no confidence' would never tolerate one in their parish," he echoes the Journal-News' assessment that the move could well end up backfiring: "Truth aside, the Letter states that Egan doesn’t care. Then why should he because of this?"

One important point of analysis: it must've been too inside-baseball to make it into print, but in my interview with the Times I made a firm point of noting that the current situation in the Big Apple is but a symptom of a larger cause -- the widespread lack of morale among priests and decline in many places of the bishop-priest relationship, both long-term ripples in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis in the US.

Since 2002, an oft-cited finding among the brethren has been that the bishops' means of approach has evolved into one of, as a New York priest put it, "We are your fathers in Christ, but if there is a 'problem,' to quote one of the guys we succeed – we do not know the man." The consequences of this perception have been manifested in myriad ways, from an unprecedented number of clerics seeking leaves of absence, to burnout, depression, a glut of administrative recourses creating havoc in Rome, etc., all under the umbrella of what many priests feel is a lack of trust and affirmation from above.

In response, more than just a few presbyterates under siege have reached a consensus amongst themselves, agreeing that, in effect, "If our bosses won't stand up for us, then we'll stand up for ourselves." And what's now known as "The Letter" is but the tip of the iceberg of that new reality.

As the latter priest -- surely no fan of the controversial missive -- put it: "Every Bishop should read it as if it was addressed to them."

Buona domenica a tutti; more as it unfolds.

SVILUPPO: The Daily News hones in on the confluence between the council meeting and Kelly funeral. But they're obviously not reading closely enough -- seems your scribe's been ordained a "blogging priest"....

As if things weren't bizarre enough already.

For a fuller picture of the scene, albeit one from outside the confines of the secular presbyterate, here's a valuable perspective from a religious priest living and working in the archdiocese of New York. The archbishop may not be their direct superior, of course, but as religious clergy are almost at parity with their diocesan counterparts there in terms of numbers, it's an important viewpoint to consider:
I have a fair amount of contact with the clergy of the Archdiocese of New York and also in the Brooklyn Diocese. The pastors and parochial vicars are good guys, but many of them cannot see objectively what Cardinal Egan has done.

First of all, all the complaints in the letter you posted are old complaints. In my opinion, there is no basis for any of them except the complaint that the Cardinal does not like dealing with the press. That is true. Maybe it would be better to have someone who deals effectively with the media, but each archbishop is allowed to be different from the previous one. However, does he get any credit for not wanting to grab the headlines, as some bishops are prone to do?

Consider just one of the complaints, the oldest one of all, the way he changed the personnel at St. Joseph Seminary in Dunwoodie. The priests object that he was peremptory. But most of the priests knew the seminary was dramatically overstaffed and nothing had been done about it either before or after Bishop Egan's arrival. Had the Cardinal followed the traditional managerial route, he would have appointed a rector who would have made the big changes and taken all the heat. Instead, he went to the seminary himself and announced what would happen. He was straightforward and direct, and he took the criticism. He did not ask someone else to stand in for him. Yes, his action was draconian, but there is no way to be nice when you're making big changes. Had he called each faculty or staff member into his office one by one, people would complain that he had an a priori agenda. Yes, he did, but it was clear that action was needed.

In my view, much of what has many in the presbyterate upset is determined by the cardinal's mandate to get the finances of the Archdiocese in order. As you know, the finances were in complete disarray. The priests of the Archdiocese should have been embarrassed about the size of the annual archdiocesan deficit prior to the cardinal's arrival. The cardinal clearly had to get the finances in order and, in order to achieve this, he had to act decisively. The seminary was but one of many areas. He took forceful action, but, whatever the modus procedendi, he would have been severely criticized. Once this happened, this was practically nothing the Cardinal could do to find favor with many priests. He has met with them in formal and informal settings. No, he usually does not meet with them individually. I applaud this in an age when all leaders are encouraged to be prudent so that a person with whom one meets does not go out afterwards and claim something was said when in fact it was not. Any good high level administrator should have his right hand person in the room to make sure that all the information is on the table and to make sure there is adequate follow-up afterwards. It's prudent and wise to have another priest in the room, but this practice grates a number of the priests.

The Cardinal visits two parishes a month. He interacts with the laypeople at the parishes as well as in larger events. I have been at Masses (one of them was for all the directors of religious education in the Archdiocese) at which he preached and the people clapped at the end of the homily. He greets people before the Mass and stays around after the Mass to chat with people. He is an excellent fundraiser, much more effective than his predecessor. He raises money that gets used by the parishes and the pastors.

Yes, each priest, were he the Archbishop of New York, would have a different style and perhaps a radically different agenda. But Egan has been a very good Cardinal Archbishop in extremely difficult circumstances. On a number of occasions in his letters, St. Paul tells us we should be subject to one another. Priests are supposed to be subject to their bishop. The letter asking for a vote of no-confidence should be terribly embarrassing for all priests. It certainly is for me.
SVILUPPO 2: Calkins in this morning's Post: "Egan 'has been aloof and removed from our life and I think we have been the poorer because of that'" -- expects letter, etc. to come up for discussion at next monthly vicariate meeting on Wednesday.

In a first, the paper also broaches the question of the succession: Dolan and O'Brien "on the short-list"; Myers, Mansell, DiMarzio "also in the running".... O'Brien and Mansell both being natives, onetime O'Connor auxiliaries -- and, so it's said, on the terna the last time around.

Long Island jumps in, as a Newsday columnist -- terming the letter a "scathing rip" -- muses if the controversy will "make the New York cardinal less autocratic - or more? And will Rome extend Egan's mandatory 75 retirement age?"