July 20, 2012


The Philadelphia story

Perhaps only people of a certain age will recall the movie The Philadelphia Story. It was released in 1940, and starred Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and James Stewart. It was nominated for six Academy Awards, and Stewart won the Oscar for best actor.

However, we are not writing about that movie, but rather a different, and sadder, Philadelphia story. We are referring to the decline and severe problems in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia—problems that its new archbishop, Charles Chaput, talked about when he delivered a keynote address at the national Catholic Media Conference held in Indianapolis on June 20.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia has a distinguished history, beginning with its establishment in 1808 along with the dioceses of New York, Boston and Bardstown, Ky. It was the site of the International Eucharistic Congress in 1976.

St. John Nepomucene Neumann, the first American male to be canonized, was the bishop of Philadelphia from 1852 to 1860. During the first three years of his episcopacy, the number of students in diocesan schools increased from 500 to 9,000.

Four of Philadelphia’s archbishops have been named cardinals, including Cardinal John O’Hara, a native of Indianapolis, who was archbishop from 1952 to 1960. Previously, he had been president of the University of Notre Dame, where he is buried in Sacred Heart Basilica.

Cardinal John Krol, archbishop from 1961 to 1988, was probably the most powerful Churchman in the country at the time, especially while he was president of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ conference.

But now the archdiocese has fallen on hard times, and Archbishop Chaput is faced with the problem of turning it around.

As he told journalists at the Catholic Media Conference, the projected deficit for the archdiocese for 2013 is $17 million if nothing is done to change that, and two-thirds of the 267 parishes have operating deficits.

Archbishop Chaput was called to Philadelphia from the Archdiocese of Denver. There, he said, Mass attendance was 40 percent. In Philadelphia, it is 18 percent.

“Our laypeople are angry, and they should be,” he said. They are angry about the clergy sex-abuse scandals, and the lack of financial transparency that seems to be prevalent in many of the large dioceses in the East.

Two days after the archbishop’s talk in Indianapolis, a lengthy jury trial in Philadelphia found Msgr. William Lynn, former archdiocesan secretary for clergy, guilty on one count of child endangerment, but acquitted him of two other charges. Msgr. Lynn was accused of covering up abuse complaints and recommending assignments for some priests who had been charged with sex abuse of children.

To fix the financial problems in Philadelphia, Archbishop Chaput has taken drastic action. His reorganization of the archdiocesan administration resulted in the loss of 40 jobs.

His most drastic decision, though, was to close The Catholic Standard and Times, the archdiocesan newspaper. It had served the Catholics in Philadelphia since 1866, and was considered one of the best Catholic newspapers in the country.

Msgr. John Foley, who earned a master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University, was its editor until he was appointed an archbishop and president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications at the Vatican. Later, he was named a cardinal and grand master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre. He died on Dec. 11, 2011.

The unfortunate state of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia teaches us a good lesson. We in the Church in central and southern Indiana can also be proud of our storied past.

But it is no guarantee of a bright future.

Instead, the example of such holy women and men like St. Theodora Guérin and Servant of God Simon Bruté, first bishop of Vincennes, should spur us on to embrace fully, here and now, the Church’s mission of evangelization.

This sacred task is never-ending. The Good News of Jesus Christ and the life of grace he offers us through the Church have to be proclaimed and shared anew to each new generation.

The task facing us may seem daunting given the relatively large number of non-practicing Catholics.

But the intercession of the saints who have gone before us will bring us the grace that we need to persevere in this mission handed down to us from the Apostles and Christ himself.

—John F. Fink

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