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Challenges Facing Cleveland's New Catholic Bishop

See Also:
Cleveland Catholics Install a New Bishop
(Feature Story)

St. John's Cathedral was filled with incense and music, as the Sunday night prayer service followed rituals that date back hundreds of years. The hundreds of people in attendance sang along in celebration, intoning songs and prayers that many have known since childhood. But, the church that they grew up with is facing unprecedented changes. For instance, according to numbers from the Official Catholic Directory, the Cleveland Diocese lost 24% of its Diocesan priests between 1991 and 2004.

Ralph Wiatrowski: Part of it is we live in an age when permanent commitments are not terribly popular.

Father Ralph Wiatrowski is Chancellor for the Cleveland Catholic Diocese.

Ralph Wiatrowski: When you talk to someone about dedicating their life to the church, basically it can cause them to back off of that.

While church officials puzzle over ways to attract new blood to the priesthood, they are also faced with the continuing problem of population shift. As city parishioners have moved to the suburbs, a number of urban churches and religious schools are finding it hard to stay open. Michael Tevesz, who directs Cleveland State University's Center for Sacred Landmarks, says the aging buildings are hard to maintain.

Michael Tevesz: The neighborhoods where they are located are, by and large, not as prosperous as they once were. You remember what happened to the price of heating your home this last winter? Well, you can imagine what impact that has on the finances of a parish that has to heat a church like that.

And this isn't just an issue in the center city. Diocesan Chancellor Ralph Wiatrowski says changing demographics made for some hard choices in his own Lakewood parish. After a significant drop in attendance, the decision was made, last year, to merge three church schools.

Ralph Wiatrowski: ...Because so many things have gotten so expensive, in terms of teacher's salaries and benefits and such.

Joseph Kelly of John Carroll University's Religious Studies faculty says the Cleveland Diocese has made an heroic effort to keep church schools from shutting down.

Joseph Kelly: They have kept a lot of those buildings open to offer an alternative to students in Cleveland. And by now, very few of those students in those schools are Catholic, because most of them are African Americans, and only 3% of African Americans are Catholic. So, they are struggling mightily to do that and they must depend, of course, on suburban congregations to help.

Incoming Bishop Richard Lennon stirred controversy in Boston for his role in the closing of some parish schools and selling church property to help pay down massive debts in the Archdiocese. Cleveland State's Michael Tevesz says that, often, bottom line realities work against the preservation of older buildings.

Michael Tevesz: It's very easy to point fingers and say, "This person should never have made the decision to close this place." Well, suggest a viable alternative - something that makes sense economically. It's difficult. It's very difficult.

Tevesz adds that Cleveland is unique among big city dioceses in not establishing a formal program to close financially shaky buildings. Chancellor Ralph Wiatrowski says that was a deliberate decision.

Ralph Wiatrowski: Bishop Pilla's reasoning has always been that, if a parish is to be closed, it's a decision that needs to come from the people. So, some of those have led to the combining of ministries, like schools, or in a few cases, parishes.

John Carroll's Joseph Kelly says the costs associated with keeping buildings open and paying higher teacher's salaries are the obvious challenges that face the contemporary Catholic church. But, he adds that an even more fundamental issue lies below the surface.

Joseph Kelly: Many young Catholics are growing up without the role models that my generation sought. So, whereas my generation considered priests and nuns indispensable to Catholic education, this generation doesn't see a role for them, and there's no sense that there's something missing.

He says that change is slowly redefining the church and how the faithful relate to it.

Joseph Kelly: I don't envy any Bishop his job today. It's a very difficult thing.

After last night's service at St. John's, many attended a reception for the new Bishop at the Galleria. Parishioner Louise Cox watched as he spoke with the faithful and posed for pictures.

Louise Cox: We're at a pivotal point, and we either have to be positive and go forward. If we start to be negative and just think about what we used to be, not much will be accomplished. But, I have great hope for Bishop Lennon.

Richard Lennon is due to be installed as Cleveland's new Bishop in a ceremony that starts at 3:00 this afternoon. David C. Barnett, 90.3.