Monday, September 14, 2015

Troubled Philadelphia Catholic diocese welcomes Pope Francis' late September visit

Peter Smith
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
September 13, 2015

The pipe organ thundered during Sunday morning Masses as worshipers gathered inside the grand Basilica Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul in central Philadelphia.

Outside in the hot August sun, artists and others were busily preparing an eyeful for Pope Francis’ visit here in late September.

Their project: building a makeshift grotto and displaying tens of thousands of strips of cloth in which individual visitors have written their prayers, many in English or Spanish, asking for the welfare of their families, friends, immigrants, the homeless and the hungry.

“Hopefully this will give voice to those who otherwise may not have a voice,” said Meg Saligman, the local artist coordinating the project, who said some 30,000 prayers have been contributed.

And some of those prayers are for the Catholic Church in Philadelphia — which by all accounts will need it, and not just amid the bewildering logistics of hosting the largest public events of Francis’ first visit to the United States. Francis’ appearances will include an outdoor festival on Sept. 26 and an outdoor Mass the following day.

Philadelphia is one of the cradles of American Catholicism, an immigrant gateway that weathered deadly anti-Catholic rioting in the 19th century and became home to the first American parochial school system and pioneering saints Katharine Drexel and John Neumann.

But more recently, the city became the dateline for some of the most devastating revelations of sexual abuse by priests in the world.

Grand jury reports in 2005 and 2011 found that cardinals and other clerics shifted numerous known abusers from one unsuspecting parish to another. A priest in the archdiocese’s hierarchy is behind bars for his conviction for keeping a known abuser in a parish setting where he could and did molest again.

Compounding the archdiocese’s troubles were an embezzlement conviction in 2012 of a chief financial officer involving nearly $1 million.

Then there are more systemic problems plaguing many older dioceses in the Northeast, including an aging and shifting population.

While the archdiocese says its Catholic population has remained stable since the turn of the century — one of the nation’s largest at about 1.4 million — its rates of school enrollment, baptisms, confirmations and church weddings are plunging, and numerous parishes and schools have closed.

“We had an ugly time in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia,” acknowledged Archbishop Charles Chaput, who took office in 2011, in a recent speech to the Religion Newswriters Association. “...Nearly everybody in the church was angry about something.”

He said the archdiocese has been able to stabilize its finances and other structural issues, but that “doesn’t automatically fix its spirit.”

He described the upcoming papal visit, to be preceded by a major international Catholic gathering, the World Meeting of Families, as offering a chance for a “turnaround moment that renews the spirit.”

But not without controversy. Liberal Catholic groups have complained that dissenting voices on issues of marriage and sexuality are being excluded from the World Meeting of Families. Archbishop Chaput has said the church isn’t going to provide a platform for opponents of church doctrine.

Francis has upheld church teachings that preclude sexual activity outside a marriage between a man and a woman, but he has taken a conciliatory tone, famously answering a question about gay priests: “Who am I to judge them if they’re seeking the Lord in good faith?”

Stephen Seufert, state director of Keystone Catholics, which advocates for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons in the church, hopes for more of the same in Francis’ visit. “There’s room for a lot of different opinions on the LGBT issue,” he said. “One of the long-lasting effects is that he’s going to open up dialogue.”

In his talk to the religion newswriters, Archbishop Chaput, a staunch culture warrior, sought to pre-empt any media story line contrasting “a compassionate Pope Francis versus conservative American bishops.”

The archdiocese, he said, puts far more money and people to work fighting poverty than to opposing abortion. He said he hopes Francis sees the church’s charitable efforts while also seeing “the gravity of the challenges we face on family life, marriage, human sexuality and religious freedom.”

Those challenges also include convincing the Catholic flock itself on such things. Majorities of Philadelphia Catholics, for example, say same-sex marriage and abortion should be legal, according to surveys by the Public Religion Research Institute.

The archdiocese recently instituted a requirement that parents in Catholic schools sign a memo of understanding that the schools reflect Catholic identity and that the archbishop has final say in matters of church law. Earlier this year, a teacher with a same-sex spouse was fired at a private Catholic academy not directly under the archdiocese’s purview.

Archbishop Chaput said Catholic leaders need to be “open and loving but at the same time confident in what the church teaches.”

In interviews at the cathedral between Sunday Masses, worshipers said Francis has already had an impact on the local church, citing his tolerance and recent encyclical urging environmental protection in the face of global warming.

“He’s done a lot in terms of bringing the church into the modern age because of his stance on climate changing and homosexuality and taking a more accepting tone,” said Joe Benci, 25, a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania.

Added Sierra Vandendries, 24, a dental student at Penn: “I feel like we’re having a religious awakening regarding Catholicism in the city, which is really exciting.”

“Just the fact that they call him the people’s pope is fantastic,” said Philomena Stephen-King, 54, a greeter at the cathedral and a social-service caseworker. “He’s very inclusive and down-to-earth.”

But there were also cautions that there will be no quick turnaround from the archdiocese’s scandals.

“There’s no way to apologize for what happened to those kids,” said Mr. Benci. “It was a very horrible thing. Hopefully the church can move forward and be more vigilant and catch these things before they happen.”

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