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Spotlight Report

  Brian McGrory  

Let faith take its course

12/13/2002

Here's what's at stake on the blessed day when the Vatican announces that Cardinal Bernard F. Law has been summoned to a bureaucratic post in Rome: the revival of faith.

Not just faith in the Catholic Church, though certainly some of that, but faith in authority, faith in the guiding institutions of life, faith in one another to do the right thing, even if it takes too much time. And ultimately, faith that practicality and common decency shall overcome everything else.

It will not mark any sort of victory, the day he finally takes leave of our town. Rather, it will be a day of communal relief, a day to salve the past and beckon a future that can only be better than what we've had. It will mark a day for good people, regular people, to take measure of where they've been and consider where they need to go.

For nearly a year now, and arguably much longer, the cardinal has represented not the cause, but himself, burning through tens of thousands of dollars on publicists, accountants, and lawyers, and dedicating countless hours of energy in a futile attempt to salvage his beleaguered name.

There has been no leader, and dwindling numbers of followers. The once breathtaking flow of philanthropy to Catholic causes has receded to a barely palpable trickle. This cardinal's church inspires not hope, but disgust, and who in their right mind wants to contribute to an institution like that?

The suffering has been widespread, beginning with the victims and their families and extending to the poor and the infirm who aren't getting the help they need from a church that can no longer afford to provide it. Ultimately, it shatters the faith of the rank and file, and brings a taint on even the purest soldiers of the cause.

Be clear and be warned, the misery doesn't end with the cardinal's departure. Jim Post, president of the Voice of the Faithful, said yesterday that the healing process could take a full decade or more. And the always sage Catholic philanthropist Jack Connors said he and others like him will be watching closely to see who will be called on to replace Law.

''It's time we open all the windows and clean out the place and let the fresh air do what it does,'' Connors said.

Will it happen? Maybe, but not until this cardinal leaves town.

At the most basic level, the cardinal's resignation will allow the church to inch back toward a mission that was lost amid the stories of coverups, legal maneuverings, and child rape. His departure will allow the church to talk again about feeding the hungry, clothing the needy, soothing the sick, and comforting those in their dying days.

Over the last year, entire perceptions have changed, from priests as community pillars to priests as predators, from the church as virtuous to the church as venal. It used to be a badge of honor to have been an altar boy; now it's a cause for parental concern. The full damage, the collateral damage, may never be known.

But with the cardinal's resignation, disgust will evolve toward hope. The front-page headlines will be focused not just on the moral and financial bankruptcy of the archdiocese, but on the hopeful work toward a solution. The sordid past will inevitably give way to the optimism for something new. It's simply the way of the world.

The city knows it deserves far better than what the church has given it, and it knows too that the church is better than where its grossly failed leaders have taken it.

Maybe it really will take a decade for trust to be fully restored and faith to be completely revived. But as soon as this cardinal is gone, be assured that rank-and-file Catholics will be allowed the hint of virtue and the larger community a sense of justice.

It will not be a time to celebrate. But it will be a time to honor the human capacity to overcome.

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com.

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 12/13/2002.
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