Monday, July 20, 2009

"Orthodox But Tolerant"

It might be the dead of July, but the week does bring a big event on the circuit as Archbishop-elect George Lucas takes the reins of the 220,000-member church in Omaha on Wednesday... and with it, the chair of Catholic Mutual, the largest insurer of Stateside dioceses.

The latest yield of the "Pharaoh Effect" that's come to dominate the storyline of recent appointments on these shores, yesterday's local World-Herald profiled the new arrival in Cornhusker Country, who completed the seven-hour journey from Springfield behind the wheel of his "trusty Ford Taurus":
In the Land of Lincoln, the popular Lucas was widely regarded as a humble pastor and able administrator, a kind and steady hand in troubled times for the faithful and clergy of the Springfield diocese. As bishop, he confronted a nasty sex scandal mostly inherited from the previous bishop, and guided the local church through such challenges as a declining number of priests and shifting demographics in Catholic schools and parishes.

Lucas’ history in Illinois and his native St. Louis provides a glimpse of what the future could be like with him as one of Nebraska’s major religious figures, the leader of northeast Nebraska’s 220,000 Catholics.

Published accounts and interviews with more than two dozen people suggest that Archbishop Lucas will be theologically orthodox but tolerant. He has preferred gentle guidance to loud denouncements.

Unlike a handful of U.S. bishops, Lucas hasn’t threatened to deny communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians or to church members with dissident views. But he has made official church positions clear in direct conversations with such politicians as Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., as well as in his diocesan newspaper column and other formats.

Lucas closed a few parishes. He consolidated Catholic schools in Quincy, Ill. He also rejected a proposal to consolidate Catholic schools in Springfield after parents opposed it. But he directed schools and parishes in Springfield to work together more on planning and marketing and to otherwise cooperate.

Officials at a Catholic hospital and a Catholic college in Springfield described Lucas as supportive but not controlling.

The closest thing to a recent controversy with either came this spring. Lucas’ official diocesan newspaper published an article about a U.S. bishops’ committee ruling on the Japanese healing art of Reiki. The committee ruled that the practice is un-Christian and not supported by science. The Hospital Sisters of St. Francis, who own St. John’s Hospital in Springfield, read the article and stopped teaching Reiki.

The nuns retain a high opinion of Lucas.

“He’s been very supportive,” said Sister Ritamary Brown, assistant administrator of St. John’s. “He’s vitally concerned about the well-being of his people. He’s been a very steadying influence on the diocese.”

The diocese needed steadying. Lucas was named to replace former Bishop Daniel L. Ryan in 1999. A scandal was brewing over rumors of sexual misconduct by Ryan, including that he had used male prostitutes.

It got worse before it got better. The Springfield diocese faced lawsuits stemming from two priests’ sex abuse of minors in the 1970s and 1980s. The diocese in 2004 paid more than $3 million to settle sex abuse lawsuits.

In late 2004, the Rev. Eugene Costa, then-chancellor of the Springfield diocese, was beaten in a park by two young men who said he had solicited sex from them.

In the wake of Costa’s arrest, Lucas named a panel in 2005 to investigate clergy misconduct. He hired a former federal prosecutor, Bill Roberts, to lead the probe.

The panel’s 2006 report found that Ryan, though he denied it, and a handful of priests had engaged in sexual or financial misconduct. Lucas initiated steps to remove Costa from ministry. He put two other highly placed priests on indefinite leave of absence. Ryan was removed from public ministry.

Lucas followed the panel’s recommendations to set up a hot line for any future reports of clergy misconduct and to refer criminal allegations to law enforcement.

Roberts, who in January worked for the Illinois Legislature in the impeachment of Gov. Rod Blagojevich, said in an interview that the Springfield probe was no whitewash. He said Lucas wanted as complete an investigation as possible....

While he directly responds to questions about the scandal, Lucas prefers happier topics. During his tenure, the diocese started a permanent deacon program, expanded lay ministry and began an adult catechism program that has 8,000 students. The diocese had a successful $24 million capital campaign. Lucas launched a major restoration of Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Springfield. He often spent entire weekends at parishes, saying all the Masses and talking with all comers.

Through it all, Lucas remained calm and happy, friends said.

“If he were a captain of a ship, you would never see him flustered, no matter what kind of storm was blowing,” said the Rev. Richard Chiola, a Springfield pastor. “He likes things calm. He likes people to be able to work together, to deal with tough things but without creating more anger and chaos.”

A Jesuit scholar in St. Louis, the Rev. John Padberg, said “Omaha really lucked out” when Pope Benedict XVI named Lucas archbishop in June....

Thursday night in Springfield, more than 500 people attended a farewell prayer service and reception for Lucas. People waited in line for up to an hour to shake his hand.

While there were hard feelings about some hard decisions Lucas made, he was beloved in Springfield, and people are sorry to see him go, said Kathie Sass, spokeswoman for the diocese.

A goopy grilled cheese sandwich figures in one of Sister Claudia Calzetta’s telling memories of Lucas.

Students cooked dinner for Lucas a couple of years ago on one of his many visits to Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where Calzetta is Catholic campus ministry director.

It was Ash Wednesday. As usual, Lucas said Mass, delivering a well-prepared homily in which he related the Scripture to the students’ lives. As usual, he stayed to eat with the students and talk about whatever was on their minds.

“The sandwiches came out a little flat, with cheese dripping off the sides,” Calzetta said.

Lucas paid no mind. He simply ate the sandwich and focused on the students.

“He never comes off as pretentious,” Calzetta said. “He’s a gentleman, and a gentle man.”

Lucas confirmed the dinner anecdote, then quipped, “Now I’m going to get a lot of grilled cheese sandwiches in Omaha.”

“That’s George,” said the Rev. Richard Stoltz, a New Melle, Mo., parish priest who’s been friends with Lucas for some 40 years. “He’s plain as an old shoe, and what you see is what you get.”