Skip to comments.RELIGION INTERVIEW: Bishop Matthew Clark and a changing church [Catholic Caucus]
Posted on 03/03/2011 7:40:44 AM PST by NYer
Bishop Matthew Clark: As he prepares for retirement, he leads a Diocese vastly different from the one he came to.
On a frigid January morning, Bishop Matthew Clark could be seen kneeling in prayer off in a corner of Sacred Heart Cathedral. Though he is a tall, slender man, he seemed small and vulnerable next to a large stained-glass window with its brilliant shades of red, blue, and purple.
But Clark is hardly a small figure in the Rochester region. For more than 30 years, he has led the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester, through often controversial and difficult periods. As the City of Rochester lost thousands of jobs and its population began moving to the suburbs, the Rochester Diocese changed dramatically, too. Many Catholics no longer live in the city, Clark said in a recent interview, which has precipitated a long and painful process of closing both churches and schools. Clark has taken some criticism for the closings and church consolidations, but they are not unique to Rochester.
There are about 314,000 Catholics in the Rochester Diocese, which includes Monroe and 11 surrounding counties. While there were about 30 schools in Monroe County when Clark took office, there are now 10 elementary schools, one middle school, and four independent high schools - and only 24 in the entire diocese.
How these closings will impact the diocese over the long term is hard to say. But clearly, the traditional model for developing new generations of Catholics isn't as effective as it once was. And new methods for reaching out to Catholics are needed. That will likely be an important responsibility for Clark's replacement.
Catholic bishops are required to retire at age 75. For Clark, that time will come in July 2012."That begins the Congregation of Bishops, which is the process for identifying who will succeed you," Clark said. He has no idea, he said, who will become the area's next bishop. But Clark, who is originally from Waterford, New York, said he hopes he will be allowed to stay in the Rochester region, which he describes as his home.
Clark is often viewed as one of the Catholic Church's less conservative, more inclusive bishops. Women play a greater role in mass, and Clark is welcoming to the gay community, though he remains firmly against same-sex marriage.He doesn't shy away from discussions about the sexual abuse scandals that have shaken the Roman Catholic Church. He obviously wishes the abuses had never occurred because of the anguish they caused to the victims. He also acknowledges that they continue to hurt the credibility of bishops and priests, and it's taking time to rebuild the public's trust, he says.In the interview, Clark talked about the decision to close many of Rochester's Catholic schools, his concerns about a shrinking diocese, and the sex-abuse scandals. The following is an edited version of that discussion.
City: Catholic schools were such an integral part of almost every parish at one time. What happened to cause so many to close?
Clark: If we go back to the beginning of this diocese in 1868, our first bishop, Bishop Bernard McQuaid, was charged as I am with the care of the community. And that community was largely an immigrant community, people starting fresh in a new land that was not always friendly toward their faith. His primary concern was to educate the people so they would remain good and strong Catholics and also good citizens.It was his judgment that this was best done through Catholic schools. When a new parish was established, the first task was to establish a school.Fast-forward to post-World War II America. You had social policy that encouraged people to move out of the cities and to the suburbs. The construction of our highway system invited people to leave the city.Another sweeping change was that Catholics began to join the mainstream in terms of their economic situation and acceptance into society in general. When McQuaid came along, this was a time when "Irish need not apply," so to speak. But then the Irish began to head corporations, become senators, and do everything else in between. So we had immense changes over that period of time.Today's Catholics are making their own choices about education for their children. And many of them with the means to send them to a Catholic school are opting to send them to local public schools and trusting the religious formation of their children to themselves, of course, and to their parish programs.
Paralleling that sweep to the suburbs and the greater educational achievement of Catholics, we also have the truth that what were left in the city were a lot of poor people who didn't have the means to move out. As a result of the out-migration from the city and the in-migration of people who were often not Catholic like those early immigrants, we didn't have the same number of children to fill our schools.
How did you try to manage this? Did you have a strategy to counter the impact of these changes?
My concern during my tenure has been the gradual dying of our schools from the inside out. It was like a big pit was being dug, and if you were poor, your shot at a Catholic education was disappearing. So within that framework, we tried to organize within a county system that would invite contributions - well, "invite" is too nice a word - require contributions of different levels from all of our parishes in Monroe County. When I would go to private donors, they would say, "Look, I believe in Catholic education, but don't ask me to give you money for your city schools when you've got two half-empty schools so close to each other." So we went through a very painful period about two years ago when we announced the closings of 13 of our schools. It was done always with the hope that we could preserve the possibility for a Catholic education in this county for those parents who wanted it for their children. And it was my special concern, and certainly not mine only, that we do everything possible to leave the option open for the poor, because it has been demonstrated that the opportunity for a Catholic education can really make a positive difference.We're at a point now that our Cathedral School at Holy Rosary on Lexington Avenue and Mother of Sorrows in Greece are closing for want of enrollment. We are reopening Holy Cross in Charlotte, hoping that the great majority of students from both of those schools will be attracted to that school. The current principal for Cathedral School at Holy Rosary will be the principal of Holy Cross, so there will be continuity for parents and students.What about charter schools? The state has permitted more of them to open, and they don't charge tuition.
Are you losing students to them?
I can't document the impact charter schools have had on our schools. I know that our enrollment steadily declines in the city and across our system. Even when we announced those closings two years ago, we also reduced tuitions, but that did not stem the decline.I cannot say whether the charter schools are drawing a high number of students who might otherwise be with us. The fact is that charter schools are funded by the state, so in that sense they operate a bit like the public schools. But we're excluded by the state constitution from receiving state funds, which kind of puzzles me. In our [Catholic] city schools, the majority of our students are not Catholic.
How many Catholic schools were there in Monroe County?Every parish, just about, had a school.
I would say there had to be at least 30.I would add, just for the historical reference, that what we're experiencing here in Rochester is replicating itself in our sister dioceses: Albany, Syracuse, and Buffalo. I know, too, that Brooklyn and the Archdiocese of New York are going through it. New York just announced that they are going to close 27 schools in June, at the end of the school year. I think it's important that people understand that this is not because of some delinquency or failure on our part. It's just a part of the great cultural shifts of the times we live in. We have to deal with it, because if we don't, it will only get worse.
The maintenance and repairs, not to mention the energy costs, for those buildings has to be astronomical. What have you done with those old buildings? Have you sold them or found a reuse for them?
It varies. Sometimes the schools are part of a larger parish campus, and the whole complex is closing down. In other situations we may have a vibrant parish, but not the school anymore, though we may still have that building.In the former, we try to sell the property. And we're always mindful of the fact that we want that property used for a purpose that in some way honors the dignity of its original use. Very often they will become child-care centers, community centers, and sometimes parishes convert them to meeting rooms and conference centers, things like that. We've also sold to other faith groups.We've talked about Catholic schools closing.
Have the closings and consolidations of city churches been part of same problem?
Yes, it's been pretty much part of the same issue. And we've tried to dispose of them in the same dignified way. Generally, we've been successful, thank God, because you know, even though we closed the building, we're still the owner. And that comes with so many responsibilities.That has to be an unusual real estate transaction, because how many buyers are in the market for a large Catholic church in the city?Sure, that's right. But as we talked about earlier, a lot of people that come into the city now are not of our faith tradition. And some of them are buying our churches. We've had black congregations of Baptist and other faith traditions take them. To us, that's a beautiful thing. We honor their faith, and a space that no longer meets our needs is something that is good for them. At Holy Rosary, which is a very beautiful campus, we're seriously exploring how that may become urban housing through our housing subsidiary with Catholic Charities. They develop fine housing for special constituencies, those who have special needs or need low-rent consideration. It would be a dignified use for that campus, and it could a tremendous contribution to the neighborhood, which needs a shot in the arm.
Guiding this transition probably wasn't anything you could have prepared for, was it?
No, these are not things for which bishops receive handbooks. That's been one of the things that I kept thinking about preparing for this interview: all of the changes in our culture that have happened just here locally. I mean, it's incredible. When I came here, Kodak employed something like 60,000 people in Greater Rochester. And of course, there was no internet. If you consider that the whole world is changing at a swimmingly fast pace, why do we think that the church doesn't have to change along with that? I don't mean in our foundational beliefs, but in how we organize ourselves. It's an exciting challenge, but it's not an easy one. And I don't mean just for the bishop. I mean for all of us.
How does the Rochester diocese grow at this point? Where is the Catholic Church finding new parishioners?
Population growth is flat in the region, and the city is really losing population. Without the influx of migrants here, particularly those from Latin American nations, we'd be going down. These are people who come here for employment reasons or to join their families.It's not much better in the suburbs, because a lot of our young people are moving away. It's always been ironic to me that we have all these fine colleges and universities, but there aren't sufficient jobs here to keep as many young people as we would like.And many of our marvelous young people go off to college somewhere else - the Carolinas, for example - and they're inclined to stay there. We're all rooting for our new governor and other elected officials to help us get out of this difficult time. A better economic situation in Upstate New York would help everyone, including those of us in the faith community.
You talked about the Catholics who were the early Catholic immigrants to this country, most of them bringing their faith with them. What does it mean to be a Catholic-American today? Who are they?
I think they are everyone - from the CEOs of some of our most prestigious corporations to something like a third of the US Senate and God knows how many state legislators, to the poorest of the poor who risk everything to come here to harvest our apples. The economic and educational extremes are all represented. One of our concerns, sort of a subset of the question you're asking, is that middle group - the mass-going population. They are not there for us the way they used to be. That's not peculiar to either our faith tradition or our diocese. But it's something a lot of us are dealing with.Certainly that happens because people may be discontent with us about something. Maybe they think we're dinosaurs and out of touch. But I think some of it has to do with people being so busy. There are just so many demands on our time.
Are the reports of a shortage of young men entering the priesthood correct?
Right now, we're older and fewer in numbers than I think is good for us. I think the next few years will be very challenging for us to fully and adequately supply the priests to carry on the ministry in our parishes. Having said that, we're doing all right for now [in the Rochester Diocese]. There is no parish church that we can't provide sufficient priests for mass on Sunday, and in most cases, masses through the week. But we need to beef up our numbers in the years ahead. And I'm pleased to tell you that right now, we've had a very nice uptick at that earlier stage. This year we have about 17 students studying theology in preparation for priesthood, which at least doubles the size over what we had two or three years ago. And we have prospects for the following year for possibly four or five more. Now understand, these men are not yet ordained. But we have what I will say is a pleasing critical mass of young candidates on the way. And I have to say that is encouraging.
Becoming a priest isn't really a career in the traditional sense, so how do you recruit candidates for the priesthood?
You're right; it is a different process. We don't do it by promising fabulous vacations, high wages, and bonuses. You appeal to the deeper yearning in the fellow to serve people, to serve the Lord, to live a life of prayer and service to the community.It's a beautiful journey, a beautiful, life-giving vocation. But sometimes it's hard for young men to connect to that concept. Many people enter into a field that they discover later isn't right for them. And you don't have to join the priesthood to serve God and your community.
So how do you help someone make this choice with confidence?
It begins in the heart of that candidate. And for those priests who work with him, there is the very challenging task of discerning - and I use that word specifically - if this is the right way to go. Am I doing this for the right reasons? You always have to have some personal motivation and drive, no matter what you do. But in this case, that has to be compatible with what the church asks of you. So you need to know: Is this my generous heart wanting to become part of something larger? Can I use my God-given gifts in this desire to serve? Remember, that is the mission of the church. And this is a process that goes on right up to ordination. In our tradition, it's the bishop who ultimately calls you to ordination. The writing is very explicit: "I have consulted with those entrusted with your training, and they recommend you highly. I concur with their judgment, and I call you to the order of priesthood." Now that gets you there. But then the fun begins, because the call is not something definitively wrapped up when you're ordained. Yes, it's a deeply significant moment. But from that moment forward until you die, you're responding to that call. I describe it as the call with the small "c." Part of the excitement of these years to me - though they've been painful and challenging at times - is that you've got to say "yes" to that small "c" in a thousand different ways while the world is swirling around you. And it isn't the way it was when you first started. But I have been in the position more than once where a priest came to me and said, "This isn't what I thought it would be." And that always brings sadness to me, because something was missed.
Have the sexual abuse scandals that rocked the Catholic Church also hurt recruitment of priests?
It's hard to answer that question. Before they emerged, and for a while after that high point of attention to them, we were in a valley for vocations. We're now nine years beyond that crucible time. I have to stop and say that all of us wish that this never happened. And God forbid that it should ever happen again. But I do think it damaged and diminished the teaching authority of bishops. I think we've lost the confidence of some people. I have to assume in some potential priest candidates it snuffed out the smoldering wick. But others seem to understand that this doesn't define priesthood. And in the ashes of it all, God has given us a new life, a resurrection. I hope that's the case.
There was a period of time following the scandal when there was some question about whether gay men should be allowed to become priests. What's your view?
I know some magnificent gay priests. If they are openly gay in terms of living a lifestyle that is incompatible with their basic commitments, we have to intervene.But I have always tried to be open to such candidates. There was, as you know, a lot of attention given to that by the Holy See [the Vatican] over the years, and one of their statements left the impression that under no circumstances could a person of gay orientation be ordained a priest. And that's not so.If a person's sense of himself as a gay individual inevitably leads him to campaign against the church's formal teachings or live a lifestyle that is upsetting to the community or scandalous, such a person would not be an apt candidate for the priesthood. But if a person understands that and lives a lifestyle that is compatible with what we ask of all of our priests, then I'm happy to receive them. We're in this extremely difficult period of time.
We're in two wars; we're climbing out of a devastating recession where millions of Americans have lost their job or home. And we seem to be so divided along political lines. As a spiritual leader, what worries you about all of this?
Disconnection - losing our sense of community. I think the fruits of that show up in partisanship and taking ideological positions that become more and more rigid. There's this sense that I have to defend to the death my way of looking at something. But when you do that, you lose the capacity to negotiate, to understand differences, and mend fences, and ultimately try to achieve something in common. I'm afraid we're going to lose that if the trends that I see continue. And that would be devastating to the human family.I think we have to be much more humble in our strongest convictions, with the realization that no one of us possesses the whole truth. No one of us captures reality perfectly. We can always learn from one another.I'm not taking pot shots at one political party or another. They all say we're in a terrible situation and that we have to work together to come out of it. Well, let's hope and pray that happens. But that's not going to happen unless everyone loosens their grip a little bit.There's a wonderful spiritual tradition among the Jesuits. St. Ignatius wanted his followers to always be people for others. There's an enormously freeing bit of wisdom there, because looking at the other you find yourself." />
Retirement .... next year!
I can’t wait till he’s gone. The church around here is a koombya love fest.
He really does not get it. Not at all. The root cause of the problems never ever crosses his mind.
You'd think upon some reflection (and maybe upon reading the interview in cold print) he'd think that maybe . . . just maybe . . . he was going at this the wrong way. But I guess if he hasn't figured it out by now . . . .
Dear Lord, please send your Church good and holy priests! and bishops!
What exactly does that mean?
It means that he’s not saying what he means. He wants to be ‘inclusive.” To him, it seems, the issue of a candidate for the priesthood having disordered feelings for the same sex is, apparently, to be glossed over in most circumstances. I would respectfully submit, on the basis of this alone, it is good that he is retiring. Without any intent to denigrate, I truly think that one of the deepest reasons for the shrinking of some dioceses is directly tied to progressive practices and innovations. This gentleman has still served Our Lord. And yet, perhaps not very well.
It means he’s still in open defiance of the Vatican, which recognizes that homosexuality is a symptom of a psycho-sexual disorder which impairs one’s ability to grow amidst the rigors of chastity.
No, lefties, that doesn’t mean all those with homosexual tendencies go straight to hell. It simply means the priesthood isn’t their vocation. I believe a good priest is a hero; I also recognize that, as Mother Angelica put it in a recording I saw this morning, “we’re all called to the vocation which leads us on the most certain path of salvation.” Maybe someday I’ll be a permanent deacon. Maybe someday my kids will be priests and nuns. I just know for me, married life was the source of necessary spiritual healing, through my wonderful loving and loved wife.
And no, folks... gay sex isn’t a source of spiritual healing, either.
Thank you. I think that’s an excellent explanation, and very kindly said.
Thanks, dangus. I believe that we agree.
Wasn’t Fulton Sheen Bishop of Rochester?
What a sad 180.
He has been a wrecking ball to Holy Mother Church for decades. May God repair his destruction.
Saying the diocese he’s leaving isn’t the same he inherited is an understatement. The one he inherited had been having an explosion of diocesan priests: 404 in 1980, up from 350 in 1970, against a national trend of imploding numbers of priests. No doubt this was partly the result of former Rochester bishop Fulton Sheen (1966-1969; emeritus until 1979). By 1990, it was down to 303 diocesan priests.
The same is true in the RC Diocese of Albany. Hubbard retires a few months after Clark. Their successors will need decades to rebuild both dioceses.
He may never figure it out. He truly believes he is following the dictates handed to him at the time of his appointment by Pope Paul VI, at the recommendation of Archbishop Jean Jadot.
Somebody who shrinks his diocese dramatically is "inclusive"! If he were any more inclusive, there wouldn't be anyone left!
Oh. The opposite of conservative is "inclusive". No spin here.
I know some magnificent oxymorons.