Church Needs Priest-Parishioner Partnership

By Dick Ryan
Newsday [Long Island NY]
May 15, 2003

If there is a depressing malaise in the Long Island Catholic Church now, it is not because of Bishop William Murphy alone.

And if the morale is at a draining new low among its priests, it is not simply because of the bishop of the Rockville Centre Diocese, who probably has moments when he wishes he were back in Boston with his beloved Red Sox.

Especially after he received a letter at the end of April from the board of directors of the Long Island Voice of the Faithful telling him, in no uncertain terms, that "you are confronted by organized, prayerful resistance . . . we will pray for our Church that she will survive your tenure as our Bishop . . ." The letter came this close to asking for his resignation.

But, since Murphy is the bishop of the diocese, Catholics must continue to respect him and accept him as their bishop despite all the fallout over the abuse scandal, his new mansion and his ongoing feud with Voice of the Faithful or anyone else who questions him. Supporting him financially, however, is another matter. But, even while respecting both his position and his person, there are a few things that both the priests and the people must do if the church on Long Island is ever to drag itself out of its current morass.

The priests, for instance, must begin to show more collective guts, less timidity in the face of conflict or controversy within the church and much less concern about their careers in pursuing bigger and better titles.

For their part, Catholics must develop a new understanding of "church" as both family and community, a new sense of independently loyal belief in themselves and their church and a new spirit of deep, down-to-earth suburban holiness within the home and with each other so that things like racism are seen as adult abuses as despicable as child abuse and that both mediocrity and good intentions are for losers.

If both priests and lay people were to accept that there is an unconscionable lack of leadership in the church today, they might begin to embrace their place in a unique new partnership, an unprecedented new coalition between priests and people that could be the first hopeful change in the structure of the church for the next century.

The solution to the crisis of leadership in the church is not going to come from the diocesan newspaper or the people on Telecare. And this is not to espouse even the clumsiest rites of revolution but rather to embrace all the possibilities of a natural evolution within a church that, over the centuries, manufactured its own elitist culture of bishops and cardinals as a far more aristocratic club than a bunch of grubby Galilean fishermen.

But neither priests nor people can do it alone. They need each other in good times and bad. They need this new odd coupling of shepherd and sheep, both leading the way, that would be unique in the history of the church. And action, and attitude, on both sides, must replace complacency, fear of the risks, the comforts of mediocrity and the Catholic penchant for talk, talk, talk and still another meeting.

And finally, if Catholics and their priests are to be truly "catholic" and "church" in the most profoundly honest meaning of those two words, they must first avoid the two extremes of being obsessed with Bishop Murphy and his behavior or ignoring him as just another statue in church or part of the furniture. Instead, they must forgive him for some of his stubborn truculence in the face of so much pain.

And they must be tolerant of the man and his own approach to the job and accept the fact that he is here for the duration but only as the symbol of a fading culture in the church. And then they must move on - into a hopeful future that, in a resiliently emerging new church, will be molded by the people and their priests as a prophetic team rising above the ashes of the sex-abuse scandal.

Dick Ryan of West Islip is a columnist for Salt, a monthly Catholic newspaper. James Klurfeld is off.


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