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By His Hands

Bishop Lennon has provoked his flock and angered Rome, but Cleveland's most important Catholic isn't about to start changing now


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"There's something in the water of the St. Charles River that makes Boston antagonistic to ethnic parishes. You look at the churches he closed -- Polish and Hungarian and Irish and Slovak. That's classic Boston hogwash that he brought to Cleveland."

Patricia Schulte-Singleton, the former president of the Endangered Catholics group and a member of the reopened St. Pat's in West Park, says that certain types of closings are acceptable.

"When a parish is in financial distress and a community decides they are no longer viable, that's okay," she says. "But it's not someone on high saying 'I'm dissolving you.' For someone to say 'I'm dissolving you,' there needs to be criteria. And those were not followed."

For a rocky period between 2010 and 2012, many of the 800,000 Catholics in the region believed that Bishop Lennon wasn't the "leader of people" his office demanded. During that time, the most famous letters of his tenure surfaced. They weren't letters by the Bishop himself. They were written by priests and concerned Catholics calling on Rome to forcibly remove Lennon from his post.

"There is no joy in Cleveland," wrote one priest. "Ministry has become a burden for so many of us. We live in fear of retaliation if we are vocal. Desperation has pushed me to a point beyond fear. Please help."

Another had this to say after Lennon abruptly shut down a pastoral planning office while several of the 11 parishes scheduled for reopening struggled with finances and logistics:  

"The feelings of dismay and outrage at this latest senseless move on the part of Bishop Lennon only serve to fuel the flames of distrust and suspicion that make it more and more difficult to see how he can ever be an effective leader in this diocese."

It wasn't just the parish closings. It was the way he was reopening them -- a process that dragged on for 6 months last year -- with the hopes, some speculated, that they'd fail again.

Rome had ruled decisively that Lennon failed to follow procedural and canonical regulations.  

"It was a WWE smackdown," says Peter Borre.. "I challenge anyone to show me in the history of Catholic America where 11 Bishop's decrees were reversed. It's never happened before."

And Rome deals very heavily in symbolism, he says.

"It was enormously significant that they all were signed and sealed on the same day. Rome said we're reversing you 11-0."   

Despite the rebuke by the Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy, and the historic nature of the reversal, Borre says the decision shouldn't be viewed as a major precedent or landmark in the Catholic Church so much as a one-time edict, albeit a forceful one.

"Unfortunately, I think it's more a function of Lennon's failure in Cleveland."

Lennon could have appealed the reversals, but chose not to. Borre speculates he would have faced even more humiliation had he "saddled up" and hired a canon lawyer. He also says there still might be changes in Cleveland. Cardinal Bernard Law was a papal elector (and Lennon's chief protector) in Rome, but he surrendered that office when he turned 80 in November, 2011. With new papal appointments still in flux, there could be major changes in the hierarchy forthcoming.

"The issue of what will happen in Catholic Cleveland remains open," he says.   

For her part, Patricia Schulte-Singleton says that it's been a difficult journey with the Bishop, but her parish is finally beginning to forgive.

"I do admire and respect him," she says. "It's an incredible job that he had to do, and I think he did the best he could with the information he had."

Joe Feckanin, of St. Casimir, says that the relationship has become awfully quiet since his parish reopened in Slavic Village.

"He's leaving us alone," Feckanin says. "He's been slam dunked and now he's underneath the radar. But we're not getting any assistance from the diocese. There's no pastoral staff. The people are doing all the work."

The most frustrating thing for Feckanin and others is that, because of enduring tensions, parishioners don't feel Lennon is proud or even pleased with the vibrancy in their churches. Quite the contrary:

"At the installation masses, I never heard him thank the people for their strong faith. I never heard him say that he was happy."


Despite frequent moments of almost grandfatherly warmth, no one could accuse Bishop Lennon of excessive cheer. It seems almost antithetical to the super-serious character of Catholic high leadership.

And despite disgruntled or embarrassed moments at the parish installation masses last year, he's newly enthused by the election of the pope at mass today.  


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