Musings on the Future of the Archdiocese of Boston: Episcopal Leadership

Events of the past week or so and emails received from a number of people have led Boston Catholic Insider to reflect on the future of the Archdiocese of Boston. We think this post could be one of the more controversial ones of our blogging tenure, but also a very important one that had to be written.

The appointment of a Boston priest to be Vicar General in another diocese brought to mind that the current Vicar General in Boston will likely be moving along soon, and will be replaced by someone new. That presents opportunity.  If the 5-year term of the current Chancellor which expires in a few months is not renewed or if he should decide to leave on his own, that key position will also be filled with someone new. That too presents opportunity. Even with a cabinet leadership team and archdiocese split by differing ideologies, the tragic death of the person who was leading the “Catholics Come Home” initiative reminds us of how people from differing ideologies can still come together on occasion.

We are an archdiocese where only about 12-15% of Catholics go to Mass weekly.  The number of priests over the past several decades has declined dramatically along with that decline in Mass-going Catholics. We are an archdiocese where 40% of parishes are operating in the red, and the clergy and lay pension funds are under-funded by hundreds of millions of dollars–yet millions of dollars are wasted annually from central administration.  Morale in the presbyterate and amongst Pastoral Center employees is generally not all that upbeat, Catholic hospitals have just been sold off, Catholic schools are closing, and the Catholic identity of those schools that remain open is eroding. We are an archdiocese that is divided. In the interest of transparency and exposing the truth to faithful Catholics, this blog has reported on deception, corruption, wasteful spending, and breaches of fiduciary responsibility that objectively do not belong in the Catholic Church.

In view of these crisis-level challenges, it is the opinion of this writer that to face and overcome these challenges and become a stronger Church in Boston (free from the divisiveness we experience today), we need a few things.  First and foremost is prayer, and for each person a personal relationship with Christ.  Second, is a commitment to the truth. And third is strong leadership.  This last area is our focus today.

In terms of overall archdiocesan leadership, perhaps a new vicar general and/or chancellor will help, and we plan to share thoughts on what is needed today for these positions as well as how an effective search might be conducted. But before going there for these two roles, after prayerful consideration we felt that we would be remiss to not share something that discusses the sort of leadership we feel is needed by the Archbishop of Boston going forward.

What you are about to read was shared with us last year that was written by somebody else, not BCI.  It is an excerpt from a longer document, “Crisis and Reform in Boston,” apparently written between the time when Cardinal Bernard Law resigned (December 2002) and when Bishop Sean O’Malley was appointed Archbishop of Boston (July 2003).  We do not know who wrote it or who has seen it.

Nonetheless, much of what was described in the document written about seven years ago still seems like it applies today.  It describes in some ways the author’s view of the ideal Archbishop of Boston to address the crisis in Boston.  We were especially struck by the passage about the archbishop needing to “be the pastor of the pastors”  and by the very last sentence.  Though it could be argued that no one person necessarily possesses this entire combination of characteristics, nonetheless, we still invite Cardinal O’Malley and his trusted advisors to reflect on this:

To Teach, To Sanctify, To Govern

To respond to these problems in Boston, the next Archbishop must be a man:

+who grasps that this crisis is about faith in and fidelity to the Lord Jesus Christ. True reform is impossible without a direct challenge to the various false religions now in competition with revealed Truth. The next Archbishop must take nothing for granted and be prepared to engage in the New Evangelization almost as a First Evangelization, beginning with his presbyterate. To do this will require both clear and persuasive preaching of the truth and effective and direct refutation of error.

+whose life is blameless. If there are any scandals or habitual sins in his life, the…priests whom he must discipline will find them and use them in the media to destroy him.

+who is not afraid to be hated. Responding to the crisis in Boston will require the effective use of sanctions and discipline, and this will make the next Archbishop a man reviled by some.

+who is not afraid of controversy. There is no way to reform the Church in Boston without public controversy, some of which will be bitter and vitriolic. A man who runs from conflict cannot reform this Church. The Boston Globe will doubtless continue its campaign against Catholicism in various ways, and the next Archbishop must be prepared to be a stumbling block, not a media darling. And the internal opposition from Boston College will be even more crippling to any effort for reform.

+who is a radically obedient disciple of Jesus Christ. An Archbishop who is more conscious of the power and prerogatives of his office than of the dignity of his Baptism will make himself an object of public ridicule. He must be prepared to live a simple, evangelical life and to speak always in clear, evangelical language. The legalistic evasiveness and psychological jargon so common in the public utterances of many bishops can have no further place in Boston.

+who is a priest in every part of his being. An Archbishop who prays and celebrates the Holy Eucharist in a way that draws others into the heart of the Paschal Mystery will lead lasting reform by priestly example. A man without great integrity of life and faith, of personality and action, will not be able to sustain the sacrifices that must be made for genuine reform.

+who is an evangelist. Boston does not need a manager, a financier, or a consultant for an Archbishop; Boston needs a prophetic preacher of the Gospel who can convince other people of the truth of God’s Word because he both knows and believes it himself.

+who is not captive to Irish clericalism. Any priest who is bound to the “tribe” of Boston’s Irish clergy will be absolutely incapable of reforming the presbyterate.

+who is willing to make the Church smaller in order to make it larger. The cancer of dissent has created an (until now) invisible schism which has already made the Church in Boston much smaller than it appears to be. The next Archbishop must be prepared to acknowledge this fact (with canonical sanctions when necessary) and then preach the Catholic faith in its fullness and integrity. For this to happen some institutions may have to be abandoned, and some persons will have to be shown the consequences of their ideas, but absent such honesty, there will be no reform in Boston.

+who understands the essential and intrinsic connections among doctrinal clarity, moral probity, and ecclesial order. The disintegration of ecclesial life now unfolding in Boston is the result of the effective sundering of these three legs of one stool by the guild of dissent among priests, lay catechists, and theologians. Restoring the integrity of ecclesial life, therefore, will require the next Archbishop to restore in public and effective ways the connections among faith, life, and order, and such restoration will be impossible without directly dismantling the guild of dissent.

+who can be the pastor of the pastors. The Archbishop cannot be the pastor of every parish in Boston; he must be the pastor of the pastors, and he must make his highest priority the pastoral care of his priests and the recruiting and training of future priests. To reform the presbyterate, he must be personally involved on a daily basis in teaching his priests…in exhorting them, encouraging them, correcting them, and when necessary reproving them. He must also be directly and personally involved in selecting and forming seminarians for priestly ordination. While he will, of course, need help in such work, these tasks simply cannot be delegated to anyone else.

+who has a clear and authentically Catholic vision of the sacramental economy as a coherent whole and as the essential means for unveiling the eternal Plan of Salvation for God’s people. The liturgical, doctrinal, and disciplinary fragmentation and incoherence of the past thirty years have obscured from sight the intrinsic order and beauty of the sacramental economy and made much more difficult the task of teaching revealed truth. The next Archbishop should be a priest capable of elucidating for his priests and people the internal logic, immeasurable beauty, and divine wisdom of the Logos tou Theou.

Reasons to Hope

The Faithful

The lay faithful of Christ in Boston continue by the hundreds of thousands to “believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God”. These people deserve a shepherd willing to make personal sacrifices for the Gospel, and they will respond with heroic generosity and courage to his stewardship if he proves himself to be a fearless preacher and a genuine priest.

Young Priests

Despite the chaos in the Church and in large measure because of the witness of Pope John Paul II, many of the men ordained in the past 5 years are obedient disciples of the Lord Jesus and faithful priests of the Church. These young men will have to assume the burdens of leadership at an early age, and if they perceive in their next Archbishop a true father in God and witness to Christ, they will move heaven and earth to help him reform the Archdiocese of Boston.

Wavering Priests

Notwithstanding the decades of dissent, unchastity, and mendacity, many priests of Boston still hear the voice of God in their conscience and are yearning (even if unconsciously) for a prophet to come and lead them out of slavery to sin. A bold man of  God in the Chair of the Archbishop could ignite a divine spark in the hearts of those priests and bring them through conversion back to the grace of their ordination. The witness of such men would be a powerful force for reform.


A providential opportunity is at hand in Boston—a rare moment of grace when dissent, confusion, degeneracy, and chaos can be challenged and overcome by the Word of God. For this opportunity to be seized, though, the Church in Boston needs a bishop who is not bound by clerical custom, tribal instinct, or personal fear. Given the causes of the crisis in Boston, business as usual will lead to disastrous consequences. The next Archbishop of Boston can and should be a bold disciple of the Lord Jesus who can bear powerful witness to the Resurrection of Christ and the truth of the Catholic faith; he must be a confident and persuasive teacher of the Gospel and a skillful shepherd of souls. Such a man in Boston, precisely because of the acute crisis and the public attention focused there, could help lead a true and lasting reform of the entire Church in the United States.

The next Archbishop of Boston should not be a “safe” candidate selected by the usual means from among the conventional candidates. Such men are largely responsible for the sorry state of the Church today; one more of that sort will not lead us out of crisis into reform. Boston needs an Archbishop who will teach, sanctify, and govern his people and priests with the courage, conviction, and confidence that come from personal conversion to Jesus Christ and a life-changing decision to follow Him in the Way of the Cross. For true reform to take place, the next Archbishop of Boston cannot be a chancery bureaucrat, an office manager, or a dialogue facilitator who understands his task as the mediation of internal disputes between “liberal” and “conservative” Catholics; he must be a passionately effective evangelist because he is first a thoroughly converted disciple of Jesus Christ.

3 Responses to Musings on the Future of the Archdiocese of Boston: Episcopal Leadership

  1. […] Comments from several readers on our last post, and one reader in particular, lead BCI to repeat part of a BCI post from January of 2011. It was entitled, “Musings of the Future of the Archdiocese: Epispocal Leadership.” […]

  2. […] Comments from several readers on our last post, and one reader in particular, lead BCI to repeat part of a BCI post from January of 2011. It was entitled, “Musings of the Future of the Archdiocese: Epispocal Leadership.” […]

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