The Path Forward?

On Saturday, December 7th, the Movement to Restore Trust (MRT) held “A Community Symposium: The Path Forward” at the Montante Cultural Center at Canisius College. It was just over a year after their first event, “Restoring Trust: A Path Forward for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Buffalo,” which took place on November 28, 2018. (I didn’t realize until now that the first symposium had that similar “path forward titling.)

Unlike the first symposium, which was held at 7 pm, this one started at 9 am. You can watch a video of the entire event via this link: click here.

If you don’t have two hours to spare, here’s my report on the event beginning with the agenda for it:

MRT agenda.jpg

John Hurley got things started by welcoming everyone and noted their “robust agenda” which had been “in flux” given the events of the past week.

At that time, our Apostolic Administrator, Bishop Scharfenberger (henceforth Bishop Ed), took the stage and greeted everyone with these words of welcome:

“Thanks so much, John, it’s a pleasure to be here. I’ve heard a lot of good things about you. It was John’s article that I read last week and I thought had some excellent points and I thought, “I have to reach out to this guy.” Little did I know that he was going to invite me (to this event)!

I’m here primarily because I want to say thank you. Thank you for your heart, for your soul, for your experience, for all that you are and all that you do. I know you’re committed disciples of Jesus. You know and I know that the only way to heal, the only way to bond is in the name of Jesus because He is the ultimate Shepherd and the ultimate healer. Each and everyone of us as a disciple of the Lord has that mission – we’re a mission church. I see this as an evangelical moment or an evangelizing moment. A moment for us to open our hearts to the message Jesus gives us that we’re all intimately loved each and everyone of us.

I know there’s a lot of pain. I know that sometimes pain presents itself first as anger. We can’t deny the fact that there is a lot of anger and frustration. Maybe in our personal lives, but also in those who expect much of us as leaders to be able to help them find a way out of the darkness they’ve experienced. The darkness of fear is absolutely chilling. Remember Jesus tells us that fear is useless – it’s faith that counts. The more we trust in Him – He’s with us and He accompanies us wherever we go.

Now that’s my homily – I didn’t come to preach to you. But I wanted you to know where I’m coming from. That my trust is in the Lord. My favorite expression is “Lord Jesus, I trust in You.” We should always go back to that source. If we do that, we realize that we’re never really alone. Jesus didn’t send us into the word as lone rangers. He commissioned us to work with one another. He founded a Church. And there’s this wonderful cooperation among all the elements of the Church – laity, hierarchy, clergy. We have to find, by opening our hearts to the Spirit, what task it is that the Holy Spirit has for each and everyone of us. In a beautiful way, we each have a role.

I say that very, very broadly because I believe that our victim-survivors – they are our family. They’re part of us. While we don’t want to burden them, they have a tremendous invitation, shall I say, to feel a part of the healing mission. Not only by telling their story, but also sharing the insight and the perspective that comes at times from pain.

I did mention that a way forward is going to be through sacrificial giving. I’m not going to take up a new collection – I don’t mean that in a financial sense, although obviously we need those resources. But it’s when each and everyone of us speaks from our pain – that is the way of the cross. Francis de Sales said that every second of Jesus’ life on earth was a constant humiliation. He was the Incarnate Word of God, but He was underestimated, undervalued, ignored, swept under bus, if you will. Even his own family thought He was deranged. So it shouldn’t surprise us at times that if we bear courageous witness to the Holy Spirit in our hearts, we may be misunderstood, rejected, written off. But that’s not the way God looks at us. Each and everyone of us is a beloved child of God.

One of the Sisters at my grammar school used to say, “Remember that Jesus would have died for you if you were the only person in the world.” I want everybody to hear that and to know that. Particularly those who feel the Church has abandoned them or has not listened or hasn’t gone far enough to meet them where they are. Second thing to remember is that Jesus meets us exactly where we are. Wherever we are on our journey of faith – and there may be non-Catholics or Christians here – we have a God who constantly seeks us out as people. You can go right through the stories of the Gospel and see that Jesus didn’t have office hours. He didn’t say “You can see me as long as you fit into My schedule.” He was constantly being distracted even in the middle of prayer. He constantly went out of the box or out of His comfort zone. We need not be afraid to follow that example the Master set for us. Wherever we go, He goes.

I’m here primarily to listen and to see what we can learn today from one another. Thank you, thank you so much just for being here. Thank you for your love. Thank you for your presence. God bless.”

After Bishop Ed’s welcome, which was very well received, John Hurley introduced Michael Whalen, whose reflection can be viewed below:

As always, Mike’s words brought tears to my eyes. His good heart and loving spirit shine through every word he utters. I was particularly proud of him for mentioning that Bishop Grosz and Terry Connors must not escape accountability. Mike did a wonderful job from start to finish – bravo to the Man in the Green Jacket!

Mike’s remarks were greeted by a standing ovation as you can see here…

It made me tear up again to see Bishop Ed embrace Mike like that. Our former bishop never even met Mike let alone give him a handshake or a hug. Mike told me later that sitting next to Bishop Ed all morning was “like talking to my grandpa. He is so easy to talk to and he really listened to what I had to say.”

After Bishop Ed and Mike spoke, there was a very positive energy within the room, which was filled with close to 200 attendees. Then they started the “Overview and Q & A regarding Diocesan Bankruptcy.” Talk about an energy zapper! I’m not exactly sure how long this section lasted, but it must have been at least 25 months… I mean minutes. My notes on this section aren’t that good, so if you’re interested in hearing this part, you can go to the first link on this page and go to the 35-minute mark when the bankruptcy discussion begins. (God bless the lawyers who have to deal with bankruptcy in all of its boring-ness.)

Fortunately, the bankruptcy lecture was followed by an audience participation exercise because we needed to wake up a little! Everyone had one of these lists on their chair:

Qualities.jpg

We were supposed to form small groups and discuss the qualities necessary or wanted in our next bishop. Then each person texted their top 7 qualities – one at a time during 7 rounds of “voting” – to a poll that automatically generated “word clouds” based on the responses received. I must say, the tech part of this was super cool. I was impressed by how smoothly it worked and how quickly the word clouds were generated. Stephanie Argentine – of Listening Session fame – did a great job coordinating this entire segment of the event.

Attendees shared some comments with me regarding the list we were given:

  • Are we talking about a bishop or a CEO here?
  • “Aggressive,” “Dominant” and “Power-Oriented”? Why would those adjectives even be on this list?
  • If you’re going to have a list like this, it should include “Loves Jesus” and “Has strong Marian devotion” and “a man of prayer”
  • I’m a grown man, I don’t need a list of words – I can figure out what words I want to use
  • “Deeply spiritual” isn’t specific to the Catholic faith – that’s a really generic word
  • Continuous-Improvement Oriented is corporate talk – not church talk

(When it came time to vote, I focused on the H’s: holy, honest, hopeful and humble.)

There were multiple word clouds generated during each round. Here are some photos to show you how the process progressed (I didn’t get any pics of the first quality because I was helping my Mom get set up with the phone polling – love you, Mom!):

2nd quality - first pi.jpg

2nd quality second pic.jpg

3rd quality 3rd pic.jpg3rd quality 1st pic.jpg

After the third round, a word that was not on the list began to appear: Scharfenberger…4th quality 2nd pic.jpg

4th quality Scharf.jpg

Bishop Ed continued to poll well in the 5th round as you can see. In fact, he was the top choice of respondents at this point:

5th quality 1st pic.jpg

5th quality 2nd pic

5th quality 3rd pic

At this point, I noticed a little word at the bottom of the screen: LiPuma. I audibly gasped outloud as I almost dropped by phone on the floor. LIPUMA????? Click on his name if you’re unfamiliar with it so that you can learn more about what he’s done (and not done) within our Diocese during his years as a Chancery insider.

Msgr. LiPuma was seated to the left of where I was sitting in the back rows of the middle section:

LiPuma in crowd.jpg

Three of the people in the photo above are current Catholic Center staff members. I can only imagine it was this group that began texting “LiPuma.”

Let me pause here for a brief PSA:

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Multiple priests have told me that “no one plays the game like LiPuma” and “Malone always wanted David to be a bishop.” Elevating LiPuma to bishop would continue Malone’s tactics of complicity and cover-up. No one would be more thrilled by such an episcopal appointment than Malone.

But I am telling you right now, LiPuma will be made a bishop over my dead body. LiPuma is a huge part of the problem — he was in the Chancery for 25 years!!!! The absolute LAST thing we need is LiPuma in leadership ever again. Bad enough that he’s the Chairman of the Presbyteral Council, the primary advisory body of priests. Bad enough that he wrote a letter on behalf of all the priests in support of Malone when many of the priests did not agree. Bad enough that he was made the rector of the glorious Our Lady of Victory Basilica. ENOUGH. NO MORE. NO LIPUMA. NEVER LIPUMA.

But LiPuma continued to appear in the word clouds:

6th quality - lipuma big

6th quality lipuma again

Fortunately, we were able to get “NotLiPuma” trending in response:

6th quality - not lipuma

6th quality lipuma not lipuma

But by the last round, it was clear the LiPuma crew was still going strong… his name was one of the top 3 choices at one point:

7th quality lipuma

We responded back:

7th quality not lipuma

7th quality not lipuma big

As nauseating as it was to see LiPuma’s name in so many word clouds, it taught me an important lesson. There are still people out there who think someone like LiPuma would be a viable episcopal candidate. They’re either ignorant, uninformed or blinded by loyalty/friendship toward him (or the hope of being close to a future bishop!). But on the flip side, there are people who are not ignorant, uniformed or blind — who voted “NotLiPuma” as soon as it became necessary. But ultimately, the LiPuma/NotLiPuma situation was saddening to me – it showed yet again how divided and polarized our diocese is in many crucial ways. (I also wondered what Bishop Ed thought of the whole back and forth about LiPuma. It was a little embarrassing, to be honest. But hopefully it alerted Bishop Ed that he should look into the matter!)

Fr. Bob Zilliox was up next and shared some of the great work he’s been doing within his parish: (Fr. Bob was on 60 Minutes last year and was also on the panel at last year’s MRT Symposium.)

“As a victim-survivor myself, I think of one of the great spiritual writers Henri Nouwen, who wrote a book entitled The Wounded Healer. Over the years, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to work with individuals who’ve gone through abuse whether it was sexual, emotional, physical or spiritual. To journey with them. Coming to St. Mary’s as a wounded healer myself, I tried to the best of my ability to help that parish heal. In doing so, it has allowed me the opportunity to listen, to open my doors to those who want to come and share stories. I could understand where they were coming from.

Here we are looking forward with hope especially during the Advent season. Hope that we can continue to heal, to collaborate, to work together. Like the work I’ve done with my Parish Council to put together a Strategic Plan as to who are we as church. To empower the laity as I did a year ago when we first gathered in this magnificent space. And when I opened the doors of our parish to a victim-survivors group to allow them a forum to come and share their stories, to listen to one another, to reintegrate with the larger community, to know we are here for them, to journey with them, to walk with them and to help them continue the healing process. So there are success stories… whether it be in re-energizing parish life, in new evangelization and catechesis, the program for priestly formation, forming our young adults and families through human, spiritual, personal, and moral formation. To empower the laity to exercise their prophetic role. This can begin in the parish. I tell my parishioners: “It’s your parish – not mine.” Just as St. John the Baptist said time and again – my role is to lead you to Christ and in all humility get out of the way and let Jesus and the Holy Spirit do the rest. This is the model I’ve tried to instill in my parish since I arrived and we have seen success. Is there still a long way to go? Yes. I think of the Chinese proverb –  the longest journey requires the first step to be taken. I believe we’ve taken that step at St. Mary’s and that, gathered here this morning, we take that step as a diocese.”

It was wonderful to hear Fr. Bob explain some of the reasons for his hope. He has accomplished so much good at St. Mary’s by ministering to that grieving community with candor and courage.

Given that this is already quite a lengthy post, I am going to skim over the rest of the event. Nancy Ware, a member of the MRT Organizing Committee, gave some remarks to kick off the audience discussion about “Parish Engagement.” She wanted everyone to talk about things they are doing within their parish that have been successful and that other parishes could implement. During this group discussion period, we were supposed to write our ideas down on a postcard that Stephanie collected to “capture” the information.

John Hurley and Bishop Ed gave closing remarks as the event formally ended. Bishop Ed was again very well received by those in attendance. I should also note that during both group discussion periods, Bishop Ed circulates throughout the room introducing himself and talking to various people. If nothing else, Bishop Ed is much more personable and ready-to-engage than his predecessor ever was.

In closing, I would like to say something about the “envisioning session” regarding the qualities we’d like to see in our next bishop. To my mind, it would have been more productive to create a list of bishops whose leadership qualities are ones we would be looking for. Granted, there wouldn’t be a very long list, but I think that would be more useful to the Papal Nuncio than a list of “top qualities” to describe a desired bishop. (I should have stated earlier that the top qualities generated at the Symposium will be summarized in a letter sent to the Apostolic Nuncio (Christophe Pierre) within the next few weeks, according to John Hurley.)

To be honest, our next bishop has most likely been selected at this point. Multiple sources have indicated that Buffalo has risen to the top of the list of vacant sees within the United States. There is a confident rumor that our next bishop will be named by Easter. If that’s the case, his name is almost certainly already known to the Pope, the Nuncio and the man himself. It takes time to work out the logistics of such an assignment (especially in terms of taking care of the bishop’s existing diocese) so they would not waste any time making their selection especially with Advent and Lent – the Church’s busiest seasons – looming. All of this is a long way of saying that I felt as though the word cloud exercise – albeit well done and interesting – was ultimately a waste of time and tech.

I also want to include these post-Symposium quotes from Bishop Ed that appeared in this article from the Buffalo News:

Scharfenberger called his conversation with Whalen “wonderful.”

“I thanked him because I believe that our victim survivors are an essential part of our mission,” he said.

He also said he initially found the prospect of coming to Buffalo to sort things out as apostolic administrator “kind of terrifying,” but he has been heartened and surprised ever since.

“Ever since I’ve come here, I’ve seen nothing but goodwill, fidelity, a desire to help, and I’ve seen it all across the board,” he said. “I believe that is the story of what the Buffalo people are, both within the faith community and beyond.”

He said he knows he’s in a honeymoon period and that as hard decisions are made, not everyone will be happy. He also said he would move with deliberation — not haste — in making decisions about bankruptcy and addressing demands to cut ties with those who have been accused by survivors of covering up abuses.

“It does sometimes get to a point, like in the case of Bishop Malone, where regardless of what a person may or may not have done … that sometimes it just becomes an obstacle moving forward that that person cannot really be in a position that they’re in,” he said.

He added that the diocese will have to undergo restructuring that creates more accountability, but the process must be both organizational and spiritual.

“People did unholy, bad things – evil things,” he said. “And the only way to eradicate evil is to return to holiness and to return to God.”

Love that last line… returning to God and to holiness sounds like the ideal formula for restoring trust and finding that previously elusive path forward.

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A Great Loss & A Strenuous Month

Please keep Bishop Scharfenberger and his family in your prayers today as they mark one month since their mother returned to God.

According to an article in Albany’s diocesan newspaper, The Evangelist, Bishop Scharfenberger used to talk with his mother nearly every day and visit her weekly. It quotes her as saying the following when he was ordained Bishop of Albany in 2015:

“I can’t actually explain it. It sort of takes my breath away. I brought my Kleenex. … It was completely astonishing for us. We are thankful forever. I never anticipated anything like this. It’s almost beyond imagination.”

Reading about Bishop Scharfenberger’s Mom reminded me that we never know what’s going on in someone’s life behind the scenes. Yes, he’s a bishop so it’s his “job” to overcome personal challenges for the good of his people. But he was a son long before he was a bishop and the loss of one’s mother is life-changing, by all accounts. Even if she’s nearly 100 and had a good, long life!

Bishop Scharfenberger has had quite a month…

  • Lost his Mom, celebrated her funeral Mass and buried her
  • A few days later, he headed to Rome for the NYS Bishops’ ad limina visit with Pope Francis
  • Found out he’s coming to Buffalo as Apostolic Administrator (not exactly the best news ever)
  • Came down with what sounded like a bad cold or virus (from what he said at the press conference)
  • Made it to Buffalo after a snow storm in Albany and took questions from the media for over an hour

We’ve been conditioned toward cynicism here in Buffalo, but I think we should give our temporary shepherd credit for his emotional and physical stamina.

May his mother’s soul rest In peace. And may her son get some rest after quite a strenuous month.