Bishop Calls Lent a 'Time for Healing' but Few Attend Mass to Foster Reconciliation

By Michael Paulson
Boston Globe
March 6, 2003

Bishop Richard G. Lennon yesterday told a sparsely attended Mass at Boston's Cathedral of the Holy Cross that he knows many Catholics are "shattered" and "discouraged" by the church's handling of sexually abusive priests, but that "now is a very acceptable time for healing."

About 200 people attended the Ash Wednesday Mass, which marked the start of Lennon's first major initiative, a program of prayer services throughout Lent aimed at fostering reconciliation in a church riven by scandal. Lennon, named apostolic administrator after the resignation of Cardinal Bernard F. Law, had asked each of the 362 parishes in the archdiocese to send five people to the Mass, which would have generated a crowd of 1,810 participants.

Lennon, surrounded by bishops and priests who, like him, were clad in the purple vestments of Lent, appeared unconcerned by the low turnout. He is planning to visit each region of the archdiocese over the next five weeks to hold regional prayer services aimed at healing the wounds caused by the abuse scandal.

But some priests said the Lenten program has not caught on with rank-and-file Catholics, and that it was never realistic to think a midweek Mass in Boston, even at such a moment in the life of the church, would draw a large crowd.

Neither was the event a major draw for protesters, a fixture for a year outside services at the cathedral. About two dozen demonstrators - a low turnout given that the protest was sponsored by five organizations - gathered in the rain at the cathedral, saying the Lenten program is ill-conceived. And two people inside the cathedral rose and stood with their backs to Lennon as he delivered his homily.

Lennon spoke for nine minutes and his observations were quite general, touching on the spiritual themes of Ash Wednesday and Lent, which is a season of penance in which Christians prepare for the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday. Lennon did not offer an apology for the church's conduct, nor did he detail what had gone wrong.

"We know that the events of the past year and several months have shattered and upset, dismayed and discouraged many, many, many members of our community," he said. "In a very special way, during these days and nights, our minds and our thoughts are asked to be with those who are the victims of sexual misconduct."

Lennon said some victims had joined in the Mass, and the church's liaison to victims, Barbara Thorp, read one of the readings during the Mass.

"Now is a very acceptable time for healing," Lennon declared.

Several priests contacted yesterday seemed to be unaware that Lennon had asked them to send participants to the Mass; others said they hadn't given the program much thought. Some said it was impractical to comply with the request because Ash Wednesday falls on a weekday when many people have to work, and because many parishes are located a significant drive from Boston.

One priest said he had thrown the program in the trash because it arrived too late and was offensive to some people who think it is bishops who should be repenting, not laypeople. Other priests said Lennon's Lenten program was so obvious it didn't require much action by them; they had planned to pray about the crisis in the church during this season of penance anyway.

"The news of the program was mailed too late for most parishes to change their orientation - I had to push just to get the bishop's statement in my pre-Lent bulletin," said Monsignor Dennis F. Sheehan, pastor of St. Paul Church in Cambridge. "And I'm not sure that I understand what the outcome is intended to be. They're asking for healing and reconciliation, when my impression is we need to keep asking for forgiveness, and they're not the same thing. I'm not sure we're ready for healing and reconciliation."

But Sheehan gave Lennon credit for trying, saying, "He is a man who is trying to take some real pastoral initiative, and I don't envy him."

Monsignor Peter V. Conley, pastor of St. Jude Church in Norfolk, said Lennon's program "is well-intentioned, but Ash Wednesday is a work day, and it's almost impossible to ask people to travel 10, 15, or 25 miles then."

And the Rev. Bernard P. McLaughlin, pastor of St. Gerard Majella Church in Canton, said the program was not making much of an impression.

"This is a chaotic situation, and they're almost flailing to find something to get them out of it, but I just don't see that they have any grasp of a way to exit the whole thing," McLaughlin said. "There's nothing wrong with those things [prayer services], but a lot more has to be done. There's a lot of distress out there still, and they just don't seem to know where the whole thing is going."

The Rev. Joseph M. Hennessey, pastor of St. Joseph Church in Kingston, said attendance at communal events is less important than personal prayer.

"It's not so much the external signs, but more the internal idea that we as a community, and as individuals, need to engage in acts of penitence, for our own sins, and on behalf of everyone, in recognition of the sins that have taken place amongst us," he said.

Lennon, who was appointed by Pope John Paul II after Law stepped down as archbishop three months ago, has offered communal and individual prayer as part of his approach to the church crisis. He is also attempting to negotiate a settlement to pending legal claims by alleged victims of abuse, and to make budget cuts to cope with the church's dire financial situation.

Participants in yesterday's service welcomed the focus on prayer.

"I think he's got a quiet confidence, and that if people will pause and listen, he's the right man for the job," said David W. Zizik of Sherborn, who attended the Mass with three other members of St. Theresa Church. "I'm very encouraged by his prayerfulness and attention to detail."

Among those in the assembly was Raymond L. Flynn, the former mayor of Boston and US ambassador to the Vatican, who said he was saddened by the low turnout, but heartened by Lennon's call for peace in the Middle East.

"That was sad - that was disappointing," he said. "I've been going over there since I was a kid. I used to go with my mother on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and there'd be 1,500 people there. But it's just a sign of the times. People are caught up in the hustle-bustle of society."

Outside the cathedral, protesters held signs reading, "Give up lies for Lent," and "Give up delaying tactics for Lent."

"I'm here every Sunday in abject protest of what goes on inside these walls, and I believe Lennon and Law are exactly alike," said Richard Orareo of Boston.

Kathy Dwyer of Braintree, who said she is a victim of abuse by a priest, held a sign saying, "Bishop Lennon: you forgot to tell your lawyers about your Lenten healing program."

"It's an insult and it's patronizing - the hierarchy of a church, which has allowed and supported the abuse of countless children, now is asking everyday Catholics to pray," Dwyer said.

And Ann Hagan Webb, a leader of the local chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, declared that "prayer without action is empty and even harmful."

In addition to praying for victims of sexual abuse, Lennon urged those assembled, as well as those watching on Boston Catholic Television, to pray for peace in Iraq. Pope John Paul II had asked Catholics around the world to pray for peace on Ash Wednesday.

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 3/6/2003.


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