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Bishop Richard Lennon's Visitation: Why?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jul 13, 2011

Parish closings are a contentious issue. But in the United States, especially in urban areas which once had thriving Catholic populations organized on ethnic lines, they are a problem which has arisen very frequently over the past generation. Still, it surprises me that Bishop Richard Lennon of Cleveland has asked for an Apostolic Visitation to review, among other things, his decisions to close some 50 parishes.

The number is not unusual. The Diocese of Allentown, Pennsylvania has slated 47 parishes for closure, Boston has closed 60, New York has scrapped 31 parishes and 14 schools, and Detroit has closed 16 parishes, to name some of the more noteworthy cases over the past five years. Much of this is inevitable, as populations shift. Sometimes new parishes have been opened in other areas in a diocese, but where Catholic populations are in decline along with vocations, closures can be expected, even if parishioners naturally argue with their bishop over which parishes should go.

In general, despite innumerable appeals from disgruntled parishioners to Rome, the Vatican has either declined to hear such cases or sided with the bishop. This too ought to be expected. The Pope and the Curia cannot realistically manage all parishes and parish properties throughout the world. The Pope puts bishops in place for this and other important reasons and, within broad limits, he simply must trust them.

But very recently, the Congregation for the Clergy has been more active, saying “no” to selected closure plans. As early as 2005, the Congregation stepped into a Boston case to ensure that the assets of closed parishes were not wantonly seized to meet bankruptcy demands. Beyond this, Rome has declined to hear appeals from Boston parishioners whose parishes are being shut down, but the Congregation for the Clergy did intervene in the cases of three parishes in the Diocese of Springfield, Massachusetts. The Vatican also intervened in the case of a single parish in the Diocese of Syracuse, New York, as well as preventing the closure of some churches in the Diocese of Allentown, Pennsylvania.

So in the midst of all these recent cases, Bishop Richard Lennon is trying to close 50 parishes in Cleveland and, as is to be expected, parishioners are not only up in arms but taking their case to Rome. In late June, our Catholic World News service reported that it appeared the Vatican was preparing an Apostolic Visitation for Cleveland, but now we learn that Bishop Lennon himself requested the Visitation.

In the ticklish business of taking people’s familiar churches away, Bishop Lennon may be having some trouble reading the Roman signals, and there is no question that his leadership is under attack in Cleveland—but that is always the case with parish reorganization plans of this scale. In Bishop Lennon’s own words:

While I am confident that I am faithfully handling the responsibilities entrusted to me, I personally made this request earlier this year because a number of persons have written to Rome expressing their concerns about my leadership of the diocese. This visit will be an opportunity to gather extensive information on all aspects of the activities of the Diocese and will allow for an objective assessment of my leadership. I ask for prayers that this process will support the vibrancy and vitality of our Diocese going forward.

This must be viewed, I think, as some sort of a preemptive strike, but it is still a head scratcher. An Apostolic Visitation at his own request enables Bishop Lennon to appear open and more than willing to do what is best, even to the point of providing for a deliberate review of “all aspects of the activities of the Diocese”. But surely he must be rattled to resort to such a strategy. He may be rattled because of the outcry against him, which could be totally unjustified; or he may be rattled simply by the fear that his decisions might not all be in line with the latest Vatican thinking. But despite his demeanor of calm openness, rattled he must certainly be, and here is why.

The last thing Rome needs is bishops who feel they must have an Apostolic Visitation, whether to correct their mistakes, to shore up their authority, or to seize the moral high ground. This is a move that cannot—repeat, cannot—endear a bishop to the Pope unless one defines “endearment” as “at least being willing to let somebody else correct one’s mistakes”. We may welcome improved discipline coming from the Vatican; indeed, most committed Catholics do yearn for a tighter ship. But, trust me on this: The Pope does not want—and cannot run the Church through—bishops who lack the confidence to proceed without requesting major reviews.

That’s why this apparently innocuous and conciliatory request by Bishop Lennon is so thoroughly weird. It convinces me that there is more to this story, something more than a bishop who lacks confidence or is trying to look good. And putting myself in Pope Benedict’s shoes for just a moment, I think that there had better be.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: mcomstoc6740 - Jul. 14, 2011 10:10 PM ET USA

    Bishop Lennon has several consultative groups and he listens. I have just finished a two year term on one of them - the diocesan pastoral council. The problem here is much like that in Austria except that there have been no public declarations. How to deal with this situation is very difficult.

  • Posted by: mcomstoc6740 - Jul. 14, 2011 11:55 AM ET USA

    Perhaps you are not aware of the dissident aspect of life in the Diocese of Cleveland. For years FutureChurch was allowed free rein with at least one pastor included on the board. Since Bishop Lennon came the organization has 'gone underground' so to speak and used a reporter from the Plain Dealer as a catspaw. There are clusters of FC adherents throughout the diocese. I truly believe that Bishop Lennon is an honorable man and I'm glad he has asked for help to save as all possible souls.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Jul. 13, 2011 4:12 PM ET USA

    Perhaps Bishop Lennon should consult his people rather than the Vatican.

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