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Bishop Law sees a teaching mission

By James L. Franklin, Globe Staff, 1/29/1984

ev. Paul Clougherty watched Friday as Bishop Bernard F. Law's motorcade pulled away from St. Ambrose Church in Dorchester. The church had been destroyed by arson Tuesday, hours after Boston had learned that Missouri Bishop Law would be its new Catholic archbishop.

"There's a link," said Fr. Clougherty, pastor of the ruined church, "between his mission in the archdiocese and the future mission of this parish."

In a wide-ranging interview last Thursday at his former seminary in Ohio and throughout his first visit as Boston's archbishop-designate, Bishop Law demonstrated that his mission will be to build the morale of priests and people and make a firm but attractive case for the teaching of his church.

The bishop spoke of the hope of resurrection to the parishioners and neighbors outside the church ruins in the Fields Corner section of Dorchester and said later that seeing the crowd there "convinces me the church is alive and well in the Archdiocese of Boston."

Later he told students and faculty at St. John's Seminary in Brighton, "Boston has a tradition of great, great priests, and you're part of that. I ask you to join me in your own enthusiasm and your prayers to increase the ranks."

As the bishop left a Friday afternoon press conference to walk back to what will be his new residence after his return March 22, one Boston priest said, "This is the best I've felt in 14 years as a priest."

Although Bishop Law has spent the last 10 years as leader of a missionary diocese in southern Missouri, he has carried major national responsibilities for the Catholic Church in the United States and it appears his Boston work will be shaped decisively by the experience.

Later the bishop talked about the responsibility he felt as a member of a committee of bishops working on encouraging American bishops to pray together more often and go on retreats together, activity that the bishops themselves have credited with making possible the writing of their pastoral letter on nuclear weapons.

Another national responsibility of the future Boston archbishop is watching over the movement of some former Episcopalians into the Roman Catholic Church.

One of them is John Haas, a former Episcopal priest who teaches moral theology at the Brighton seminary. Haas is among the roughly 60 clergy and hundreds of former Episcopal parishioners who have asked to keep some form of common identity as Anglicans as they become Roman Catholics.

The Roman and the Anglican churches (including the Episcopal Church in the United States) have now grown very close, and it is a sign of Vatican confidence in Bishop Law that he was appointed to facilitate the entry of the former Episcopalians without jeopardizing ties between what are often described as "sister churches."

In addition to the genial smile and a body language conveying a wish to be in close touch with those he is with, whether an individual or large audience, the 52-year-old churchman is a determined spokesman for his church.

"It wouldn't solve all our problems, but a lot of energy is dissipated in wishful thinking and vain pressuring," he said of news media reaction to the church's position on a range of issues.

"If only there would be a way of convincing some of the news media that they simply will not wake up and find the church has changed its position on abortion, on discrimination, on artificial birth control, on the ordination of women to the priesthood, on the indissolubility of marriage, then I would think we would get on with it more easily."

Though he says he is aware of the difficulty some have in accepting the church's position on issues, Bishop Law speaks of Catholic doctrine as requiring people to stretch.

"If we were a little bit more open to the mystery of the church, we would be freer, because the truth shall make you free and sometimes the truth is encountered in a different way."

It's not always possible to speak the truth in sentences of three to five words, he said, saying that "the reasoning and complexity" behind the church's stand is more important than the conflict provoked by the stand.

That is why the Catholic Church is sometimes a reluctant ally on issues, he indicated. "We all get caught up in an issue and we can begin to lose perspective," Bishop Law said. "That issue may be primarily moved along by persons who have other agendas, other principles and we can suddenly find ourselves tied in with a whole agenda that is not ours, or we may begin to impose another frame of reference on church realities."

As he did during his visit to Boston, the bishop made it clear that he believes that "women are equal to men and to deny that is a sin -- it needs to be confessed."

The church, Bishop Law said, "has an obligation to espouse vigorously the cause of the dignity of women, the rights of women," particularly in fighting economic discrimination against women. And he said he believed women should be among those who head diocesan offices, as they have in the Springfield diocese -- which would be a major change of policy if adopted in Boston.

But he hastened to add that "at the same time, I also believe with all my heart that the church is right in saying that only men can be ordained to the priesthood.

"Both statements are right," the bishop said. "We have to live with the paradox and work through it."

The teaching of the Catholic Church, he said, "is clear and consistent. We have to teach in a way that is sensitive to the pain. . . and the maturity of the individual, and to encourage the individual.

"But the fact remains that abortion is a sin. . . that racial discrimination , any discrimination is a sin. The fact remains that artificial birth control is wrong, is a sin. The fact remains that sacramental marriage is a sacred reality that no power on earth can dissolve."

Despite the clarity of doctrine, "that doesn't mean you don't love the person having difficulty with the teaching," Bishop Law said.

He cited the need for better preparation of couples preparing for marriage and the need for "good support systems throughout marriage," including the making available of counseling services "when the inevitable tensions arise."

Also mentioned were a need for "credible" natural family-planning programs and services to make annulments possible for divorced couples where such a decree is "merited."

Responsible pastoral action means helping people "to live out faithfully the demands of the Gospel. . . of the spiritual teaching of the church," the prelate said.

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 1/29/1984.
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