The PPC, Part 2

We continue now with an appraisal of the Pastoral Planning Committee, the group of 12 people chosen by the Bishop to re-align the parishes of the Springfield Diocese. In the process many of the parishes were eliminated. The final report of the group was made on August 25, 2009.

On March 2, 2007, George Nolan, one of the group, said that the PPC wanted “…a dialog with the laity…” Mr. Nolan may have wanted a dialog, but those words imply a two-way street.  The listening sessions put in place by the PPC (the sole attempt at engaging the laity) clearly did not resemble a two-way street to most people of the Diocese.

The other initiative the PPC offered to the laity had nothing to do with discussion, feedback or suggestions.  It was, instead, prayer services.

One of the members of the PPC was Carolyn Jacobs. Her comments offer an explanation for this surprising choice, or maybe just a confirmation of the general mood. She said that “We want to create opportunities for people to come together in prayerful reflection — to have a space to ask God to listen to their pain, to listen to their anguish and frustration”. 

Jacobs is a longtime administrator in the field of social work.  Her words strongly suggest that another function of the PPC was to provide a gigantic crying towel — grieving sessions — for unhappy parishioners.  Again, this is a poor substitute for the real thing. Suffering is not dialog, nor communication, nor collaboration, nor deliberation.  It is something different than all those things. It is important in its own right, but, it is wrong-headed and disrespectful to substitute passive “suffering” for the positive needs and goals that were the core of the PPC.

The importance of prayer services crops up again in the Our Lady of Hope lawsuit, where, as we shall see, one of John Egan's lead arguments is that the PPC was made extra special because they prayed before they deliberated.  In other words, they were not just a group of people discussing downsizing. According to Egan, they were carrying out a spiritual function of the Diocese of Springfield, so naturally, this is a protected right under the Constitution of the United States, in case you were wondering. This freedom of religion, in turn, gives the Diocese the right to protect Our Lady of Hope from being declared a historic structure, so that they are able to sell it to the highest bidder without any restrictions that might prevent it from being knocked down and paved over. Or so says John Egan, lead attorney for the Diocese...but let's not get ahead of ourselves.

If we wonder how Jacobs came up with the idea that the parishioners of the Diocese were headed for “pain, anguish and frustration”, we need look no further than the Bishop’s editorial in the same issue of the Catholic Observer as all the rest of these quotes.

His lead paragraph telegraphed that the PPC was on a rather dire mission.  McDonnell said that: “It is a Lenten journey we are undertaking here in the Diocese of Springfield, a pilgrimage that leads us, with God’s help, through our own Good Friday to a Resurrection in Christ.….”. Theological spin is to be expected from an ecclesiastical leader but it is disappointing to reflect on how blatantly the theological card was played.

We’ve said that the PPC ran and hid from public view after the announcements about the formation of the group.  This happens to other ad hoc groups created by Bishop McDonnell. Another example, and a very relevant one to this discussion, is the Diocesan Pastoral Council.

This 16—member group of lay and clergy was profiled in the Oct. 19, 2007 issue of the Catholic Observer. It’s purpose was to help the bishop “… receive the advice of the laity, especially in matters pertaining to the ministry of the church…”, according to McDonnell.

What, according to the Bishop, is this group supposed to do?
They “…bring the insight and expertise of  God’s people to the diocese…”. How do they do this?
The group “…enables the bishop to be more attuned to the concerns of God’s people within the diocese and enables the people of the diocese to become more aware of the many ramifications of the church’s ministry and to participate in that ministry more fully…”

Their first meeting took place on Oct. 14, 2007. The first meeting may be especially important because it appears to have been the last meeting (although there is no way of knowing for sure). At least I, for one, have never heard of any subsequent meetings; of any subsequent announcements; of any subsequent deliberations, or decisions; in short, of anything.  Once again, like the PPC, it is as if they ceased to exist, once the initial announcements were made.  No messages in the parish bulletins, no notice in the Catholic Observer and no notice in the so-called “secular” press.

The only way that this group (Dicosesan Pastoral Committee) has figured into anything since, to my knowledge, was in the context of a radio broadcast on WAMC in which Fr. Chris Maletesta of Dalton was asked by the reporter about representation of the laity in the plans of the diocese. Malatesta defended the structure of the Diocese by saying that representation starts at the parish level (parish councils), moves up to the diocesan level via this group (Diocesan Pastoral Council) and then ends in collaboration with the bishop. According to Malatesta, the diocese is all about input.

It is in this context that we consider McDonnell’s explanation of how the Diocesan Pastoral Committe came about and why it is important. He said that “…the renewed focus on parish pastoral councils has enabled a strengthening of that tremendous asset on the parish level.  The foundation of the deanery councils with representation from parishes has meant that consideration can be given to wider issues facing regions of the diocese. And finally there has come the establishment of the Diocesan Pastoral Council to be at the service of the entire diocese and the wider church.” This all sounds remarkably like the Vatican II initiatives for collaboration and deliberation between lay and clerics. Unfortunately, when we compare these word-pictures to reality, they come up short.

1. McDonnell says that the parish pastoral councils are strong.  Big fib.  Where they exist, they are weak, and they do not exist in many, if not most, parishes.  For example, mine.
2. Deanery councils are unknown to most lay Catholics, and certainly have nothing to do with the day-to-day comings and goings of believers.  The statement that “deanery councils have representation from parishes”, if meant to suggest communication and broadcasting of information at the parish level, or, if meant to suggest open channels of communication from parish to diocese, is false.
3. “consideration of wider issues facing regions of the diocese”, the other prong of the Bishop’s remarks, hints at what is really happening. It is not about empowering parish representation. It is always about centralizing, always about the top leading the bottom, and always in the direction of fixing corporate problems.  For these reasons, it is not about true representation of the People of God.

The Bishop’s explanation about the relationship between the wider church and Diocesan Pastoral Council implies that this is a permanent group, one that will outlast the PPC and other ad hoc groups.  Is this true?  As with so much in the organization of the Diocese, there is no way of knowing.  Secrecy, even when there is no apparent reason, continues to be a very high value. An official policy of secrecy about “internal affairs” at the chancery also numbs the inclination of the faithful to be curious and ask questions, and perhaps that is the whole point.

Assuming that the DPC group is permanent, there is yet time and there may be some good that comes out of this group. However, against this hope, we have to be realistic and reflect on what the creation and disbandment of the PPC has taught us.

The analogy that comes to mind is not a noble one.  It’s as if the brown-nosing group of kids on the grammar school playground (and every playground has them) were interrupted at play, separated from the other kids  and summoned to the principal’s office. Bypassing the elected student council, they are appointed to serve as a proxy student council for a certain length of time for a certain purpose - after which they are returned to the playground to blend back in with the rest of the kids.  I suggest “brown-nosing”, but you could reasonably substitute “Kool-aid drinker”, “enabler” or perhaps “collaborator” (the not-so-nice kind).

Jacobs, Butler and Nolan, as representatives of the PPC, are responsible for the final form of their recommendations and decisions.  But,  far from being a logical and organic result of a true deliberation readily accepted by their brothers and sisters, the final decisions appeared instead to fellow parishioners like death sentences, which indeed they were for many of the parishes involved.  The bad news was kept under wraps until the last possible minute, then lobbed like so many bombs into Sunday services, to be was announced from the pulpit.

Thus the campaign ended in "shock and awe" rather than something resembling a conclusion of a cordial conversation.  There were widespread reports of pastors tearing up while they delivered the news. Some suggested that this was a good acting job and while that may have been true in a few instances, it’s not hard to believe that some pastors were genuinely blindsided. One wonders why they continue to put themselves in such compromising positions, but that’s a question for another day.

Let’s look a little closer at the Bishop’s editorial of March 2, 2007, already referred to. The language of the editorial underlines the virtues of loyalty and acceptance and suffering as a means to an end: namely, salvation. It does not equate acceptance of the PPC or of the Bishop’s wishes as the path to salvation, but then again, it doesn’t have to.  By conflating the organizational needs of Corporation Sole with the salvation mission of Jesus Christ by even a little bit, the Bishop’s editorial has the desired effect.

It sets up a conflict for the traditional Catholic, who wonders, “how can I stand in the way of what the Bishop wants to do, if the Bishop’s job is doing the will of Christ?” This conflict, for the traditional Catholic, will always be decided in the Bishop’s favor — and I suppose that was the whole point.

But,  a pilgrimage or faith journey bears no relationship to a corporate re-structuring or downsizing. The higher, and the genuine goals, are always tied to the canonical Diocese, while the civil, legal paraphernalia is always tied to Corporate Sole. This is not to say that closing a church must always be a “bad” thing and keeping it open always a “good” thing. 

But, the way these things have been done in the Springfield Diocese is hypocritical and wrong.  We’re expected to go around holding our noses and pretending that “this is the best we can do” in terms of governance.  How strange, and how utterly pathetic.

To this theological spin we can add a psychological spin from Jacobs, an economic spin (from the Mullin Report), a democratic spin, from Msgr. Bonzagni, and a legal spin, from John Egan, Esq., lead attorney in most of the diocesan lawsuits.

We have covered most of  these recently, but the democratic spin advocated by Bonzagni deserves some elaboration.

In the fog that surrounds the chancery, their organizational structure is not to be questioned, even when it leads to a truncation of civil and human rights such as free speech and due process that most Americans take for granted and would not forgo under any circumstances.  That may explain why Msgr. Bonzagni has been so adamant that “representative”, “fair”, “open”, and so on, are the hallmarks of the PPC and of the listening session programs. To quote Bonzagni: "We empaneled a Pastoral Planning Committee with representatives throughout the diocese."

He says these things because he understands the power of words. Priests get very good training in rhetoric.  Nevertheless, we need to stand on the integrity of words. It is always wrong to misrepresent and mislead.

Bonzagni needs to be reminded that “representative” means that someone is typical of a group, and speaks for a group interest.  A lay person hand-picked by church officials and appointed to a ceremonial post is not a “representative” of the laity simply because they are a lay person.  On the contrary, such a person would be representative of the clerical culture, if anything. And that is what the PPC, the DPC, and the listening sessions amounted to. They seem now, many years later, to have been nothing more than attempts to make the laity more like the clergy, when the whole idea was supposed to be a “working together” of clergy and laity.

phew, I'm tuckered out!

NEXT POST: we talk about the recent lawsuit that Bishop McDonnell brought in order to force residents living near Our Lady Of Hope church to drop their attempts to create a historic district to protect that church.