Farewell Fr. Flavin

Some people may know that Fr. James Flavin, Director of Pastoral Care of Priests for the past five years, is moving on to a new role outside of the archdiocese at the St. John Vianney Center in Pennsylvania, which provides psychological care and counseling for behavioral health issues.  We thought we would take this time to bid him farewell, and his departure also brought to mind the idea to highlight a couple of the many real problems faced by priests.

First we cover Fr. Flavin and then the problems.

Fr. Flavin’s new role

Below is the email sent out in late March.  The going-away party was just last week, so that is why we waited until now to share this.
To:
Sent: Monday, March 28, 2011
Subject: RE: Fr. James A. Flavin appointed as Director of Clinical Services at St. John Vianney Center (Downingtown, PA)

Good afternoon,

On behalf of Cardinal Seán, I am pleased to announce that Father James Flavin, Director of Pastoral Care of Priests for the past five years, has accepted an offer to serve as Director of Clinical Services at the Saint John Vianney Center in Pennsylvania effective July 1, 2011. Father Flavin’s ministry to priests of Boston has been invaluable. He will now bring his gifts and talents to the service of the larger Church community in the United States.

Father Flavin wishes to share these words with his brother priests:  “Brothers, it has been an honor to work with you so closely these past five years. I am grateful to Cardinal Seán for the privilege to care for my brother priests during a critical period in our lives.  Needless to say, this ministry has been intensive but very rewarding.  The position at Saint John Vianney is a great opportunity.  I have worked closely with the staff there, I believe in the mission of Saint John Vianney, and I think that I can make a contribution to the care of priests and religious who go there for therapy. I am sure that my experience at Saint John Vianney will give me additional insights and talents to bring back to the Archdiocese of Boston, my home and the presbyterate I am honored to be part of. I welcome the offer of this position.  I thank Cardinal Seán for allowing me to accept it.  I ask for your prayers and support as I move onto to this next assignment.”

With Fr. Flavin’s new assignment this summer, our priest services group is already working on a plan to continue Fr. Flavin’s work.  Father Foley, Episcopal Vicar and Secretary for Parish Life and Leadership, is assisted by Father Michael Medas, who serves as Director of Clergy Personnel. Fathers Foley and Medas are dedicated full-time to the care of the clergy. Fathers James McCune, Edwin Condon and Brian Clary assist with clergy services. In addition, Mary Hanlon, RN, coordinates medical evaluations and care for our priests, and we are establishing a working relationship with a priest-psychologist to make recommendations for the psychological care and counseling of priests.  The priests and lay staff of the Clergy Office will continue to provide pastoral care and support for our priests, as well as on-going formation, personnel-related services and general assistance to the clergy on behalf of Cardinal O’Malley.

Please join me in congratulating Fr. Flavin and in offering our prayers for his ministry.

Fraternally,

Rich

Very Reverend Richard M. Erikson, Ph.D., V.G.
Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia
Archdiocese of Boston
Pastoral Center
66 Brooks Drive
Braintree, MA  02184

We realize that Fr. Flavin, like anyone in the sort of role he has occupied, has his supporters and critics.  Priests are human and subject to human failings and his role has been to try and help them in whatever situation they might be. BCI hears many positive things about his compassion and contributions in that role.  As most people know, priests may need care and counseling for any of a variety of issues: sexual abuse, sexual addiction, alcoholism, depression, anxiety, or some other issue. These issues can affect priests, religious, bishops, even archbishops.

Loneliness

With the shortage of priests, many diocesan priests face excessive workloads and live alone or work in relative isolation from other priests. Psychologists agree that the problem of loneliness can be prompted or exacerbated by a stressful, hectic schedule that is not conducive to adequate self-care. Pope John Paul II (1992) addressed the issue of loneliness in the priesthood in Pastores Dabo Vobis (I Will Give You Shepherds):

There is a loneliness which all priests experience and which is completely normal. But there is another loneliness which is the product of various difficulties and which in turn creates further difficulties. With regard to the latter, “active participation in the diocesan presbyterate, regular contact with the Bishop and with the other priests, mutual cooperation, common life or fraternal dealings between priests, as also friendship and good relations with the lay faithful who are active in parish life, are very useful means to overcome the negative effects of loneliness which the priest can sometimes experience”. [227]

If and when the current Pastoral Planning process ever concludes with some form of parish reconfiguration and consolidation–and assuming the committee does not lose too many more members who see it going nowhere fast–the intent is to have several priests living in a rectory, rather than one priest living alone.

Depression

BCI found the comment about “regular contact with the Bishop” from the Holy Father’s letter interesting.  For reasons already written about here at Boston Catholic Insider, we are not sure Cardinal O’Malley is inclined to have regular one-on-one contact with the presbyterate.  He is known to be shy and has acknowledged that. A Boston Globe interview when he was elevated to Cardinal in 2006 broached the subject of depression (“I often hear people say…you seem depressed by the job.”).  If you are a paid subscriber to the Globe, you can read the interview here, but if you do not subscribe, you can see the interview freely accessible here.  We offer an excerpt below:

Q: How do you cope with the controversies and the scrutiny?

A: Well, I’m just getting used to it I guess. As I said when I came, eat those powder milk biscuits for shy people.

Q: Do you think your physical or mental health has been affected by this job?

A: (laughter) Well, I don’t think so, but I may not be the best judge of that.

Q: I often hear people say they think you’ve lost a lot of weight or that you seem depressed by the job. Do you see either of those as being the case?

A: I don’t think so. I think that sometimes the problems weigh heavily upon me, but I don’t think I’ve been depressed. Depression, I think, is when you’re depressed and you have nothing to be depressed about. (laughter). When I’m depressed, I have something to be depressed about. If you know what I mean.

Q: I’m sure you recall, there was that clause in the letter, I think it was last fall, maybe it was two falls ago, in which you talked about sometimes wanting God to call you home. How should people understand that?

A: That reconfiguration was so much fun (laughter) that – I don’t think that was a cry of depression. I think it was trying to share with people the pain that I was experiencing in this process. But I think I still have my wits about me.

Q: How do you think your leadership style and your personality are suited to or stretched by being archbishop of Boston?

A: Well, I’m a good listener, and I think that the priests and the people appreciate that. I believe in delegating. I think in a diocese this big that needs to be done. But this is a very large diocese and I’m still learning.

Looking back on the last 5 years since that interview, there is quite a lot to be gleaned from those comments and others in the interview. We already knew he is a “listener.”  Has the “delegating” served the archdiocese well?  Are the right people in-place for him to delegate to?  Is the Daughters of St. Paul situation that dragged on for 5 years and resulted in a legal complaint an example of “delegation”?  Is it really “delegation” or is more like “abdication” in some cases?  Is there a lot about what is happening in the Boston Archdiocese that still gives the Cardinal something to be depressed about, or are we past that now?  Do those close to the Cardinal support and protect him, or do they take advantage of any of the human weaknesses he has revealed?

There are 3 intended takeaways from our post today. Good luck to Fr. Flavin, pastoral planning should ensure that priests’ well-being is an important consideration, and we need to pray for all of our priests and religious, our Cardinal and the future of our archdiocese.

17 Responses to Farewell Fr. Flavin

  1. Former Employee says:

    Good for Fr. Flavin, I know him by reputation alone, and that reputation is that there are a number of kids from Dorchester doing well in life because of his trips over to the Ryan Playground during his first assignment….including Marky Marky, who I heard has returned to the Church after some time away.

  2. DHO says:

    I have had the privilege of meeting Fr. Flavin on many occasions. He is a good man and a good priest. Blessings to him.

  3. "Just Wondering" says:

    I have heard about Fr. Flavin’s great work in the Diocese, particularly with his Priests. He will be sorely missed. But I’m “JUST WONDERING” — WHEN WILL OUR BISHOP HEAR THE WORDS OF POPE PAUL II, ESPECIALLY “REGULAR CONTACT WITH THE BISHOP”? When will our Bishop stop travelling around the world and travel within his Diocese to meet, greet and speak with his own Priests? As I said, “I*m Just Wondering.”

  4. Sheila says:

    I worked with Fr. Flavin. He’s a stand up guy who you can count on to do the right thing. He did great things while at 66 Brooks and he’ll do well in Philly. Good luck!

  5. Disappointed Priest says:

    Fr. Jim Flavin is a good man that has done his best to help guys that experience the problems mentioned in the post. While this new assignment is great for him, it leaves NOBODY to be concerned about priests. Fr. Jim struggled mightily to help men in an environment that practices a “If there’s anything wrong with the guy, get rid of him” mentality. To whom do we turn now? Father Tom Foley? Yikes.

    • Former Employee says:

      They would be better off turning to a secular source than him.

    • DBP says:

      Fr. Jim Flavin is “getting out of Dodge” by accepting this new position; given his love of the priesthood and his compassion for priests, he couldn’t continue carrying water for the Foley-Connolly-Erikson troika that seems hell-bent on decimating the Boston presbyterate, as you say in your post. I know he had been made to feel like the proverbial red-headed step child in his dealings with that group, and the stress on him personally must have been unbearable.

      I find it interesting that those who have known Fr. Foley the longest (from his seminary years until now) and who presumably know Fr. Foley the best are asking themselves quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

      With apologies to St. Paul, “So Foley, Medas and Erikson remain, these three. And the worst of them is….”

  6. Jerry says:

    Father Flavin is a wonderful priest and human being.
    It is a terrible loss to both priests and laity.

  7. DepartingPriest says:

    After decades as a priest I’m seriously considering leaving ministry because the church in Boston has abandoned the Gospel. It wouldn’t recognize the essential message of Jesus if He Himself delivered it. It is reliant on the “latest and greatest” “programs” to solve constitutional problems, wastes huge amounts of money on ineffectual bureaucrats, presents itself more as a social agency than a spiritual community, and uses its priests as expendible buffers.

    You really have NO idea how truly inbred, ineffective, inconsiderate, political, and indifferent are the institutional structures of this diocese regarding its priests. Priests have learned to avoid speaking the truth candidly in meetings with diocesan officials because they will not be listened to. The voices of the informed and intelligent are watered down by those less so. It’s a bizzare exercise in the “town meeting” format that keeps the truth at bay.

    Honest, open conversation with true give and take has not been possible with nearly all diocesan officials, clergy and lay, since before Cardinal Medeiros’ time. It should be clear by now that Cardinal Sean, however kind he may be, is constitutinally incapable of reaching out and having an actual conversation with any of his priests. He has buffered himself behind clergy-bureaucrats, many of them with second-rate intellects, whose affability hides their real intention to hold on to power and to spread it among their friends. One need look only at which priests receive the “plum” parishes and trace their appointments back to someone currently in power.

    But the problem doesn’t stop there. The gross indifference of the Catholic laity toward its priests, treating them as middle-managers useful only for their individual needs, is also driving away priests. Many laity are not open to having a relationship of brotherhood and love with their clergy. Part of this is the clergy’s reponsibility, as many priests try to protect themselves from character assassination, witch-hunts, blogging, inneuendo, and blatant uncharity coming from some of the members of their parishes. I have heard first-hand of cases where people working in the pastoral center have done in a pastor behind the scenes and have still held on to their jobs. It’s no wonder that many priets appear removed from their parishioners’ lives, but then, when was the last time most priests were invited to someone’s home for a visit?

    The diocesan and parish systems are broken beyond repair. Those who think celibacy and holiness of life are the only answers are kidding themselves. Priests are human beings with human needs and those human needs are not being met by an institution that talks out of both sides of its mouth. It does no good to blame the bishops. As soon as that mitre is put on his head, within two years, an otherwise compassionate man usually becomes occupied with everything BUT pastoral care. Proactive one-on-one communication with priests, except when there’s a “problem”, is almost non-existent. Priests soon learn to shut up, keep their opinions to themselves, act loyal, and not make waves….all to wait until they are 75 and can finally retire and receive some sort of stipend so they don’t have to live in poverty. Sorry, God does not want that for me. Better for me to live in poverty, but truly free as Jesus promised.

  8. "Just Wondering" says:

    “Parting Priest” please before you make a final decision talk with Bishop Hennessey. He always has Priests on his mind and does all he can to help them. “Just Wondering” if you will let him help you!!!

  9. Bostonpadre says:

    Departing Priest, my heart goes out to you — it is not an easy decision or move to make. As a deacon I was raped by a priest in the parish (Sacred Heart, Roslindale)in August 1970 just 9 months prior to ordination. I reported to my deacon supervisor, but nothing happened. I’ve since learned that he was diagnosed in 1957 s having a psycho-pathological personality and was STILL playing around with mentally ill teen aged girls. I rationalized that I was a bigger and better person than my perpetrator, and that the little good that I could do would offset the evil I had experienced. I did the “Irish thing” and just lived with it.

    In the Fall of 2001 I experienced a flash back. In December 2001 I told my family for the first time. Then in January 2002 (not aware of what had been brewing in Boston) I decided to contact Law and bring the situation back to him — I no longer felt that it was my problem — it belonged back with the Archdiocese. It took FIVE MONTHS to get an appointment with him.

    I remained in ministry (I had been retired from the Navy Chaplaincy and was now at the Washington Hospital Center in DC.) By December 2005 I could no longer rationalize around the actions of the hierarchy in dealing with the crisis. I sent O’Malley a FAX at their hotel in Washington during the USCCB meeting. I was contacted 2 weeks later by Richard Lennon who asked to meet with me. I flew to Boston not knowing what I was walking into. Within 10 minutesLennon had the offer on the table. I applied for medical disability or retirement. I was informed that I was too young to retire and that any retirements from the Archdiocese had to be approved by the secretary of state! I agreed to go out on medical disability. I was a bit “put off” that a priest struggling with staying in ministry would not be offered a few minutes with the Cardinal — but then again, it was Boston.

    I notified Archdiocese of Washington DC of the fact (they already knew I was a victim of abuse) and worked with them to step aside in June 2006. In April 2006, on Tuesday of Holy Week, I “preached” my message at noon Mass in the hospital chapel. Within hours I was reported to the Archdiocese and my faculties were removed. I was called “accusatory.” They did not contact me prior to their decision; they had not contacted Boston; they just pulled their “authority” switch and I was gone! I felt like I did that night in August 1970 on the bed as I was being raped.

    The whole “system” of the church is outdated and has no heart. The hierarchy buys into the “structure” of Rome and becomes blind to the needs of the local faithful.

  10. DepartingPriest says:

    Dear Just Wondering:
    I have spoken with Bp. Hennessey. I believe he did what he could. The system is stacked against anyone who does not fully support the system. Bp, Hennessey unfortunately became part of that system when he agreed to be ordained a bishop. He now is impotent to change it. He and many other bishops are good men who want to change the system from within. It is, however, like trying to get a ranging alcoholic to stop drinking. The Catholic church is a sick family system and only when the codependence and dysfunction are addressed will it change to be more compassionate, more accepting of others as God has created them, and more open to structural change in governance of the church that is not de fide (in other words nearly all of the structures we have apart from Holy Orders are man-made).

    My heart also goes out to Bostonpadre. I am not surprised at his story. Whistle-blowers in the church are almost ALWAYS accused of scandalizing the faithful, of being disloyal and accusatory. So deaf are the ears and blind are the eyes of those in power that they cannot begin to acknowledge another’s pain, for then they will have to acknowledge their own.

    I have been contacted proactively by only 3 fellow priests since I left ministry. Such is the “brotherhood” of priests. Many of the rest, I prefer to think, are afraid, rather than indifferent to my situation. Many priests are afraid to face the reality that they too, in their silence and in their enabling of church structures, are often being complicit in the dysfunction that is the institution/bureaucracy of the church. They continue to function to serve their people. In that way they are like battered wives of alcoholic husbands who “keep the peace” at any price for the sake of the children, and keep getting battered and bullied. But you can hear their silent screams in their sexual acting out, food addictions, substance abuse, depression, workaholism, lack of intimate relationships, and other emotional issues. The happiest priests I’ve met are those who are able to compartmentalize their lives sufficiently so that they needn’t look at the unpleasant aspects of the church while they minister to their people, or at least live more normal lives on their days off and vacations. More power to them! It does not for me, for I strive after integration of all apects of who I am with what I do. Keeping secrets just won’t do. Anything short of that, for me, is not of God.

  11. "Just Wondering" says:

    Dear Departing Priest: I cried when I read your response. I only wish there were more I could do for you. My heart aches for you and you will be in my prayers. May the God whom you honor and trust fill your heart with His Son’s Peace, Joy, Love and Healing Presence and guide you in your decision.
    Peace, Brother. “Just Wondering”

  12. A Priest says:

    I am also very sorry that Departing Priest is departing, he sounds like a wonderful priest and person and we shall miss him as we miss any of the brothers who are out of ministry. I agree with a lot of his points and he will be in my prayers.

  13. DepartingPriest says:

    Thanks to all for your kind words and prayers….the worst part is trying to find a job in this economy, but I trust God has something in store for me eventually. It pains me that the church to which I committed myself has almost disappeared under a veil of defensiveness, fear, retribution, and mistrust.

  14. Han Solo says:

    DepartingPriest:

    If you leave the priesthood, you will be letting the Boston Chancery win…

  15. DepartingPriest says:

    Dear Han,
    Actually if I leave the priesthood I will be getting my life back. I can no longer function in a dys-functional church. The Chancery (now strangely known as the “pastoral” center) will have lost one of its most well-rounded, educated, skilled, talented, experienced, and intelligent priests (yes, I have a positive self-image)…I hardly think that is winning.

    If by winning you mean politically, yes, let them win. They will always win the game of power and Jesus has plenty to say about religious leaders in power and what happens to them. Let God judge.

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