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Boston's next Archbishop

By James L. Franklin, Globe Staff, 3/18/1984

First of two parts

 The series
Part One
Boston's next Archbishop

Part Two
A Catholic emphasis in teachings

PRINGFIELD, Mo. -- After Bishop Bernard F. Law becomes the Catholic archbishop of Boston this Thursday, he wants to drive his own car instead of using a chauffeur.

Church officials helping to prepare him for the transition from a diocese with 47,000 Catholics in 63 parishes to one with two million Catholics in 408 parishes, are trying to dissuade him. The issue is just one of the myriad details of the transition, but it is not a meaningless one.

Bishop Law's trademark in this southern Missouri diocese has been accessibility and direct contact with parishioners. He isn't inclined to let his secretaries chauffeur him, even though this would break precedent with his predecessors in Boston.

Boston officials argue that the archbishop-elect, who will personally hold title to the vast resources of the Boston archdiocese, should not take the risk that a traffic accident could somehow tie up those resources in a liability dispute.

"But he regards this (argument* as almost a kind of theological justification for past practices and hasn't decided whether he will be ruled by it," said a Boston priest, an assessment shared by clergy here.

That's a clue that Bishop Law will bring a fresh eye and personalized style to the problems and leadership needs of the nation's third largest Catholic diocese.

"I see a clash between two immovable forces, Boston's tradition and the way Bishop Law likes to operate," said one of his administrators here. "It should be a healthy conflict because both will have to adjust."

Fundamental decisions about the future of the Boston archdiocese will have to wait until after Bishop Law arrives this Thursday and formally becomes eighth bishop and fifth archbishop of Boston.

"It's foolish to think he will show his hand right away," said one Boston priest. "He'll spend the first six to eight months looking around and listening before making major decisions."

Thus the best indication of what kind of a leader he will be, both for his church and in the wider community, lies in the 10 years he has spent as leader of the Catholic Diocese of Springfield and Cape Girardeau, Mo.

The dominant element of Bishop Law's leadership is the strong personal impression he's made, most of all on the members of his scattered flock.

"He'll show up where you least expect him and come up and shake your hand and remember your name," said John T. Jackovic of Sikeston, a predominantly Catholic town in the rich farming area of eastern Missouri.

"We're used to seeing him," said Joan E. Busche of Poplar Bluff in the east central section of the diocese, where Catholics are much more isolated from each other. "In Boston, the bishop may be more distant, but he's been here so often to give retreats for our children, to meet with the parish council that he's part of our experience of being Catholic."

Missouri Catholics "feel great freedom to approach him," said Rev. Edward M. Eftink, superintendent of Catholic schools and pastor of St. Joseph Church in Ozark, near Springfield in southwest Missouri. "They call him at home . . . or go right up to him, and if there's a complaint about the pastor he gets right back to the priest with it."

That relationship was evident in the farewell reception for the bishop at Springfield Catholic High School recently. More than half the crowd of 500 lingered for a final word, a handshake or a hug with the man who has been their pastor for more than 10 years. Many the bishop knew by name, and he stayed until all who wanted had a chance to bid him goodbye, seeming to give full attention to each while gracefully turning from one side to the other in the thick knot of well-wishers and bobbing up to have his photograph taken with a score of impromptu groups that gathered behind him.

"I don't want to spend my life signing autographs. That doesn't leave any chance to be personal," he said when it was over. "I know it can't be the same in Boston because it's so much larger, but I have to find the way to make it personal."

In the almost 26,000-square-mile diocese here, Bishop Law has made it personal by dint of great personal energy.

One reason he is familiar to Catholics here is his practice of spending the whole weekend in a parish when he comes to celebrate the sacrament of confirmation. On Saturday, he leads a day-long retreat for the teenagers who will receive the sacrament, a religious sign of adulthood, plus their adult sponsors. Sunday, he preaches at every Mass.

An even stronger point of contact is the open house he holds on Sunday afternoons when from 2 to 4 p.m. he is available to anyone who wants to talk. And, as one of his administrators points out privately, the bishop is a leader who likes to say yes to requests from his people.

"At times he puts us pastors on the spot," said Rev. Philip Bucher, pastor of Immaculate Conception Church in Springfield, of the bishop's personal dealings with parishioner requests. "That has its good points and bad points. It stretches us in our ministry -- and at times you can get a little angry."

One result, acknowledged another pastor, is that priests sometimes buck decisions up to the diocesan level rather than risk being second-guessed by the bishop.

Staff members say Bishop Law has been decisive in dealing with problems among his clergy, not hesitating to remove a pastor with alcohol or emotional problems.

Lay people, priests and diocesan staff described the bishop as a flexible, even "intuitive" administrator. "He's a strategic leader, more an Eisenhower than a Patton," said Terry Meek, a Springfield Catholic businessman.

The bishop is open to others' ideas, and if his first reaction is negative, "you can present the proposal again and if the arguments are strong enough, he will hear you," said Fr. Eftink.

The bishop's own ideas have resulted in programs such as a "floating Catholic college" to bring university-level courses to the religious professionals and lay people in the largely rural diocese, a nationally recognized program to train lay people to help prepare couples for marriage, an expanded Catholic health care ministry, and regular wedding anniversary celebrations across the diocese.

"He's a dreamer, a visionary and at times not that practical," said Fr. Bucher, one of the senior priests of the diocese. "It's all overwhelming unless he has a good core of people around him who take the suggestions for what they're worth."

One of those ideas resulted in a pilot program in which volunteers were trained to visit persons convalescing at home after a hospital stay, partly to help bring medicine and groceries but most of all to make real the idea of the parish as an "extended family," said Sister Stephanie Miller, vice president of St. John Hospital and a planner of the program.

"Originally his dream was that anyone within the geographic bounds of the parish would be served," said Sister Stephanie, a member of the Sisters of Mercy of the Union. But in the year of practical planning it took to set guidelines and convince pastors to allow a trial of a program that used lay people to supplement the clergy's usual pastoral visitations, "we had to put his vision in a box," said Sister Stephanie. For the sake of practicality the trial was confined to two parishes and served only members of the parish.

"But without his involvement and openness, we could have been practical for 10 years without anything happening," she said.

Bishop Law "is a high-energy-level person who thrives on activity," said Fr. Eftink. "I think he'll continue to do his own thing and let someone else clean up any messes."

He "likes to insert himself into situations," said Robert G. Lee, editor of the Mirror, official newspaper of the Springfield diocese. The result is that "if you ask for an opinion he's likely to give you a decision."

Yet one major development in the diocese doesn't fit that decisive mold.

While Catholics in the eastern end of the diocese had been strong supporters of Catholic schools, those in the Springfield region were less interested. Springfield Catholic High School in particular had suffered from staff turmoil and declining enrollment.

Bishop Law recruited Sister Mary Raynald Blomer, a School Sister of Notre Dame he had known for her work in Cape Girardeau in the west of the diocese. Although there were few of her order in Springfield, the bishop convinced Sister Raynald to take the job, despite her initial resistance and that of her order.

Five years later enrollment has risen from 130 to more than 200, the high school has won accreditation, and a lay-instituted campaign is raising $3.5 million to build a completely new school plant to house 500 students.

"The bishop wanted to put the school on a firm footing," said the principal. "I said I would come only if I could run the school, and he's let me do that."

Sister Raynald gets credit for the school's educational turnaround, but the long-range future is being decided by lay leaders, who proposed the major expansion.

"If Bishop Law had just said that we're going to build a new high school, it was unlikely he could have gotten it off the ground," said Robert Vienhage, former chairman of the Catholic school board here.

But standing back while other leaders in the church take hold of a problem and develop plans is a new skill for Bishop Law, say those who know him, one they think the energetic prelate needs to practice.

"He has to learn he can't do it all himself," said Fr. Bucher. "He has a struggle with sharing leadership."

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 3/18/1984.
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