Friday, April 18, 2014

Editorial: (Newark) Archbishop Myers should kneel more often

Alfred Doblin, editorial page editor
The Record
April 17, 2014

LAST YEAR, Pope Francis made headlines for washing the feet of inmates at a juvenile detention center. Not only did the pope break with the Holy Thursday tradition of the pope only washing the feet of 12 priests, Francis included women and Muslims.

This Holy Thursday, the pope traveled to a home for seniors and the disabled. Again he broke with tradition. The washing of feet is symbolic of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. While it is common in parish churches for priests to wash the feet of men and women, that was not the case in Rome until Francis.

If Pope John XXIII opened the windows of the Church, Pope Francis is smashing them. And back here in New Jersey, Newark Archbishop John Myers is installing double-pained glass ones in the 3,000-square-foot extension to his 4,500-square-foot weekend house in anticipation of his retirement.

I had an opportunity to read what appeared to be a form letter to a former contributor to the archdiocese. Myers wrote that he hoped this former donor would reconsider his decision not to contribute because of the negative press Myers was receiving about his retirement home.

Having spent a decade in and about the chanceries of three Catholic dioceses, I know a crisis when I see it and I know crisis management. Such a letter is not generated for one complaint. And while Myers may hope this particular crisis fades, that is not likely. You cannot hide a 7,500-square-foot mansion.

As the season of Lent comes to an end this weekend, Myers has an opportunity to change the perception that he is oblivious to everything Pope Francis has said and done in his short pontificate. Myer’s Easter sermon would be the ideal time to announce the archdiocese will sell his mansion.

Recently, the archbishop of Atlanta reacted to the public outcry over his new residence and said he is considering selling it. Myers has not even given local Catholics that much. Perhaps Myers imagines his retirement differently than most bishops of his stature. There will not be a parade of cardinals, archbishops or heads of state coming to his 8-acre estate. And even if they were, this is not medieval Europe; this is 21st century New Jersey.

I don’t know Myers personally, but I know his type. I have seen prelates with a predisposition for the lavish trappings of a Church era gone by. They enjoy being called “your Excellency” and they like the food, wine and attention of formal affairs. And they believe they are entitled to these things, so they bristle when challenged.

The archdiocese has tried to deflect debate about Myers’ mansion by informing the public that much of the house expansion is being paid for by the sale of another archdiocesan property. The spin is supposed to make us focus on how little new money is going toward the lavish house rather than how much money that could have been used for other things is going toward the lavish house. The archdiocese doesn’t get that the problem is the mansion, however it is funded.

For all the bad press Myers has received over the house and over his handling of sexual-abuse cases involving clergy, he could still retire with some respect if he just acknowledged he has made mistakes. Most people are reasonably forgiving, particularly when someone retires. Admitting a 7,500-square-foot retirement home is both unnecessary and wasteful on Easter Sunday would open floodgates of goodwill throughout the archdiocese.

The victims of sexual abuse will not forget – nor should they. That wrong cannot be righted by Myers at this stage. But it does not have to be compounded by insensitivity over something as non-sacramental as a mansion. Such a house is a symbol of everything that created the clergy sex scandal, that the institution is more important than the people the institution was created to serve.

As a Catholic, I always found it hard not to be moved by Holy Thursday services. The washing of the feet is a small part of the narrative that leads Catholics through the final days of Lent to Easter, but it is a moving part of that narrative – for the spectator and, I assume, the participants.

As a priest and bishop, Myers has to have participated in this symbolic act many times. Yet it would appear the meaning of what he has done – of humbling himself to the people he shepherds – has been lost on him. Nowhere in the Beatitudes is a sentence that reads, “Blessed are the retired bishops, for they shall have a mansion in New Jersey.”

Pope Francis continues to surprise with impromptu sermons and acts of humility. Rather than send out form letters to Catholics who have stopped sending checks, Myers should change his form. Kneeling on Thursday is meaningless if you cannot bend the other six days of the week. Myers has a choice this Easter: Be a man of God or a man of the house.

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