Cardinal set stage but impact is pending
By James L. Franklin, Globe Staff, 3/6/1989
Second of two articles on Cardinal Bernard F. Law's first five years as Boston's archbishop.
n his first speech to the priests of the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston in March 1984, Cardinal Bernard F. Law promised he would reorganize church government in Boston, hold a synod to set new goals for the nation's third- largest archdiocese and establish an archdiocesan pastoral council.
Five years later, the first two projects are complete and plans are in place to set up an archdiocesan council this spring that will bring together clergy, religious orders and lay people to advise Boston's archbishop about administration of the church.
The problem facing him today is making the new structures deliver on the promise of more efficient, responsive government of the massive church organization, say those familiar with the reorganization.
"In the first five years, we have seen a great many changes -- the appointment of a lay chancellor and a lay editor of The Pilot," said Msgr. Thomas J. Finnegan Jr., pastor of St. Elizabeth Church in Milton and chancellor under Cardinals Richard Cushing and Humberto Medeiros in the late 1960s and early '70s.
"The changes reflect the church of today, by establishing new offices like those for black Catholics and for worship, in the new Presbyteral Council and new parish councils," said Msgr. Finnegan. "These changes are considerable, even in a five-year period, and they may need modification, although none appear to be set in cement. I pray for his health in dealing with all of this."
Lay people hold 10 executive posts, including chancellor, that five years ago could only be held by priests. Nine women -- five religious sisters and four lay women -- hold positions ranging from cabinet secretary to agency director to seminary faculty.
They fill slots in a thoroughly revamped church government. Five years ago more than 50 of the nearly 90 archdiocesan agencies reported directly to the archbishop. Now every agency reports to one of seven cabinet secretaries who coordinate planning.
Cardinal Law has added another region to the archdiocese, dividing the 410 parishes and missions into five large groupings. In each, he is represented by an auxiliary bishop and four or five vicars, priests who help coordinate ministry for groups of about 17 or 18 neighboring parishes. There have been reorganizations of Catholic Charities, Catholic hospitals, the prison ministry and the fund-raising office.
Giving has lagged behind the rate of inflation in the last dozen years, but the dollar amount increased by 50 percent within two years of Cardinal Law's arrival and is expected to double, to about $10 million, by June, the end of the current fiscal year.
Most important in the eyes of the cardinal and his closest aides, there has been a three-year process in which everyone in the archdiocese, from parishioners to bureaucrats, and, in the case of ecumenical affairs, officials of other religious bodies, had input in the archdiocesan synod that finished work last fall.
"If you want to know what the cardinal thinks about the life of the church in our culture at this time, read the synod documents," said Rev. Peter V. Conley, rector of Holy Cross Cathedral.
"The documents did arise from the people, with a great deal of variety," said Father Conley. "But at the end he read and edited and appropriated to himself all those documents. There is something there about present policies, long-term goals, social problems like racism -- really there's nothing missing there."
Philip F. Lawler, the first layman to edit The Pilot since it became the official newspaper of the archdiocese, said the synod will make a great difference in the archdiocese.
"First, the synod called for establishment of parish pastoral councils, which will be a very important step in getting lay people more involved in the pastoral mission of the church," Lawler said. "Second, the message that comes across in the synod documents is that the church should be evangelical, welcoming people of all different descriptions, who have sometimes felt as if they were somehow second-class members."
Those who work with Cardinal Law credit his personality and administrative style with producing a healthy ferment. "He's an enthusiastic person, who likes new ideas, who basically is open to new things," said Rev. Michael Groden, director of the Planning Office for Urban Affairs.
"Basically, he is an upbeat person," Father Groden said. "He even kids about it himself. . . . If a problem is long-term, it almost confounds him -- he is impatient. If it can be fixed quickly, he is the first to want to do it."
In concept, Cardinal Law's restructuring of church government is on a par with the best in other Catholic dioceses, observers say. "He put in place just the kind of system a bishop has to set up for a big diocese," said a priest outside the archdiocese who has watched the reorganization.
"But who you put into the various offices is the next step," said the priest. "And all the people who are loyal and who maybe can work with each other in the chancery can't always get to first base with people outside the chancery."
That view is shared by some Catholic leaders in Boston. "A very serious flaw could be the caliber of people in some positions," said one experienced church administrator. "When you have someone like the cardinal who doesn't like details, you need a detail person, but when the detail person is small- minded, everything can get chopped down."
A former administrator warned that while Cardinal Medeiros may have kept too much control in his own hands, so that "everything ground to a halt after a while," Cardinal Law has delegated so much responsibility "that I'm not sure anyone is in control."
Cardinal Law has put much energy into visiting parishes, trying to make his presence felt in a huge archdiocese.
"Maybe we don't feel as much impact as in the beginning, and people out here feel very removed from Boston anyway," said Rev. Paul J. McLaughlin, pastor of Immaculate Conception Church in Marlborough. "When the cardinal came for the 75th anniversary of our school, people really were struck by him personally. We had 1,000 at the reception, and people were very happy with the fact he took so much time. And that has had a lasting effect."
But it is far from certain whether all the new offices, documents and organizational charts will change the lives of the people and priests in parishes.
"A lot of credit should go to the organizers for the way the synod worked," said Rev. John F. O'Donnell, pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Cambridge.
The synod made many recommendations for improving parish life, recommendations affecting worship, education and outreach. One result may be, however, that pastors feel overwhelmed by the added workload.
"It seems as if it is all coming down on our heads," said Father O'Donnell.
Seeking answers in faith's context
When he was bishop in Springfield, Mo., prior to becoming archbishop of Boston five years ago, Cardinal Bernard F. Law met with a group of men and women for weekly prayer and discussion.
It has not been the same in Boston, where he serves 1.8 million Catholics, about 45 times as many as in Missouri, Cardinal Law said in an interview at his Brighton residence on the eve of a trip to Rome this week to take part in high-level discussions between American bishops and Vatican officials, including Pope John Paul II.
"I have not been able to get together a group, but I have invited some individuals to come here for Mass and breakfast -- sometimes someone who has recently sustained a loss or someone I've come to know in the archdiocese," he said in an interview.
"I never anticipated that things would be the same here," the cardinal said. "You do the best you can do in the time you have. . . . As long as you do that and have good people around you, you don't get overwhelmed.
"That doesn't mean I have all the answers, and that doesn't mean I think it is possible to live my life without making mistakes. In a sense, the worst thing is not to make mistakes but to worry so much that you are immobile."
One potential source of worry is the shrinking number of priests available to staff parishes. Currently there are 879 active priests serving the archdiocese, including 208 in administrative posts or other special ministries. Of those priests, 498 have been ordained 25 years or more. There are projections that the number of active priests will drop by 40 to 50 percent by the year 2005.
The cardinal's first response to such projections is hope. "I pray for God's grace in the lives of individuals," he says. And he notes that in other periods, during the French Revolution, for example, the Catholic Church also faced dramatic declines in the number of priests, and "the church not only survived but in a matter of a few decades saw a renaissance, the beneficiary of whose fruits we are today."
At the same time, he said, changes in the archdiocese are allowing lay people and religious sisters to play a larger role in church life, "not because of a shortage of priests but because it is right and proper because of the calling they have by reason of baptism and confirmation."
"We are not just a voluntary organization," Cardinal Law said. "We don't just come because we happen to agree on everything but because we are people of faith, a faith that has a claim on us, whether convenient or inconvenient."
As he often has in the past, the cardinal described the church as countercultural. But he added that the freedom "in our culture . . . is also a great blessing."
He contrasted US society with that of Cuba, where he met last week with church leaders, diplomats and President Fidel Castro.
There the church still does not have access to public communication or schools, he said. Among the hopeful signs for church life there, the cardinal said, was a recent speech in which Castro said he hoped the church would play a role in ethical issues concerning the family and abortion.
Regarding those issues, Cardinal Law said he knows the church's teachings are not always easy for its own members to accept. "When I preach I hope I communicate all the church teaches, even though some points are more difficult to grasp and to live than others," he said. But he added that he does not see such teaching "as a litmus test" for church membership.
"I'm not in the business of cutting people out," Cardinal Law said.
Asked about the possibility that the Supreme Court will allow legislation restricting but not fully prohibiting abortion, the cardinal said he and the church "can't barter away lives."
"If only 25,000 are killed it is better than 50,000, but it is still a horrendous evil," he said. "I cannot ever foresee that the church could champion legislation that would allow the taking of innocent human life, any more than legislation that would allow racial discrimination on alternate days."
This story ran in the Boston Globe on 3/6/1989.