Bishop’s Letter of Apology Is a Model for Catholic Reconciliation

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Bishop Mitchell Rozanski

In a pastoral letter released Ash Wednesday, a Catholic bishop apologized to those hurt and alienated by the Catholic Church, including lesbian and gay people.

Bishop Mitchell Rozanski of Springfield, Massachusetts, addressed his Lenten message to those outside the church, as well as the diocese’s Catholics. Writing about the Jubilee Year of Mercy now underway, the bishop said he should “first apologize and ask your forgiveness” before asking anything of the letter’s audience. Among those to whom Rozanski apologized are:

“[Those] who have distanced themselves because they feel unwelcomed. The reasons here can vary, but key among them are race and cultural differences, a sense of gender inequality as well as sexual orientation.”

The bishop admitted that many Catholics hurt “from the pain caused by our past failings as a diocese, as well as the grievous actions of some who ministered in our Church.” Rozanski apologized, too, to victims of clergy sexual abuse, the first formal apology from the diocese, and those whose parishes were closed during recent consolidations.

Bishop Rozanski’s apology to lesbian and gay people is progress, particularly when one considers that he harshly criticized marriage equality in August 2014. As a newly appointed bishop in Massachusetts, which legalized equal marriage a decade before, Rozanski told a reporter that marriage equality contributed to society’s disintegration like crime and substance abuse.

So how do we evaluate Bishop Rozanski’s apology?

Admission that intense and painful marginalization have been experienced by LGBT Catholics, their families, and many others in the church, is a first step too many Catholic leaders cannot or will not make. In that sense, this is firm progress upon which bridges can be built and reconciliation can occur.

But in another sense, this apology is only a first step. Will Bishop Rozanski now encourage LGBT parish ministries? Will churches host educational workshops on gender identity issues? Will the bishop meet with LGBT Catholics and hear their stories?  Will he still work against equality for LGBT people in the civil arena as he has done in the past? If the letter is not backed by concrete actions which restore right relationships and pursue reconciliation, the apology will become ring hollow.

There is a third angle, however, and it is what I find most notable about this letter. Michael O’Loughlin of Crux explained:

“The letter’s tone was dictated by a questionnaire the Diocese issued last fall, which drew over 3,000 responses from both current parishioners and people outside the Church, Rozanski said. Many responses evinced concerns about the Church, but also a desire to reconnect with the Catholic faith, according to Rozanski. . .

“The survey also included comments from LGBT Catholics who are committed to their faith but feel alienated by the Church’s long-running battle against extending legal recognition for same-sex marriage. . .The church’s position has not changed, Rozanski said, but he included welcoming language in the pastoral letter in the hopes of winning back those Catholics.”

Rozanski admitted there is “much truth to these honest reflections” submitted to the survey, quoting several at length in his letter, including this from one respondent:

” ‘The gay community feels that they aren’t welcome. They don’t want to espouse another religion; therefore, they don’t attend church at all. Hopefully, a special outreach could be done to them.’ “

Refreshingly, Rozanski also acknowledged that many efforts for the New Evangelization are not substantive renewals but stylistic gimmicks. When marginalized Catholics return, they find nothing really changed and given this, the bishop concluded:

“Understandably this is a daunting task, but one we must challenge ourselves to undertake. We must make our parish communities places where people want to worship, meet Jesus, and form community. We must put the love of God foremost in all our efforts. We must walk beyond our parish boundaries, without fear, to demonstrate the faith we celebrate in liturgy takes form in the reality of the world around us.”

This effort of reaching out really is challenging if done correctly. Dialogue demands all parties be vulnerable, that they be open to receiving criticism and acting upon that criticism. Catholic officials and even local communities are frequently unwilling to do this.

But the model employed in this letter’s formation — of soliciting honest input from local Catholics, including those who are alienated or no longer practicing and then responding to it — is a way forward. It is very much in keeping with Pope Francis’ pastoral style. It is a model that every bishop should replicate in their dioceses: listening, discerning, apologizing, responding.

Lent is the perfect time to repent and turn away from sin, like the sins of exclusion and prejudice. May these forty days lead more bishops to act like Bishop Rozanski — and may there be more letters like his come next Ash Wednesday–and before then, too–as fruits of this Year of Mercy.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

13 Responses to Bishop’s Letter of Apology Is a Model for Catholic Reconciliation

    • Albertus says:

      Bishop Rozanski apologised to Catholics “who have distanced themselves because they feel unwelcomed.” I do not like the wording of this kind of apology: he should have written: ”I apologise to Catholics whom we have distanced from the Church because we made them unwelcome”. In other words, in a true apology, the apologiser takes the responsibility for his bad deeds, and does not put the blame upon the ”feelings” of the one who has been wronged! Apologies that begin with ”I apologise IF you feel that you have been wronged…”, seem more an insult than an apology.

  1. Friends says:

    Wow! Rozanski happens to be our bishop — here at the UMass Cardinal Newman Catholic Center in Amherst. I’ve seen him informally touring the building. I do believe that he’s genuinely teachable, and that the Holy Spirit is giving him some “special treatment”. The Springfield diocese had a history of sexual abuses and cover-ups under his immediate predecessors, one of whom was eventually defrocked — as well as the ill will generated by closing much-loved neighborhood parish churches. Here’s a primer on the Bishop Maguire and Bishop Dupre travesties:

    http://www.cbsnews.com/news/ex-mass-bishop-implicated-in-abuse-cover-up-dies/

    While it continues to be my position that NO priest or bishop controls your soul or your conscience, Rozanski does seem to have the political savvy to recognize that compassionate and genuinely humble leadership is truly the only way to go — if the stampede to the exits (especially by younger Catholics) is ever going to be reversed. Clearly, the “Francis Effect” is being felt out here in the hinterlands of the Commonwealth!

  2. Thomas says:

    Now if only the USCCB could think this way. This is the sincere practice of being a true shepherd, a pastor.

  3. Kathleen says:

    Sorry friends, there is no lighted pathway clear for me to return to the Catholic Church until the harmful writings about same sex couples and lgbt people are torn out of the CDF papers and the catechism and thrown in the trash. Maybe its a start that the bishop issued an apology, but welcoming people with one hand while hiding the writing hand doesn’t work for me. When Church leaders are ready to talk with us about changing the official church documents, I am ready. As a Catholic mother of two wonderful sons, one who is gay, I reached out in my parish and the Houston diocese over a year ago to find a supportive family ministry and found nowhere to turn but away. As hungry as I am, I cannot be lulled back in by crumbs from a hate cake.

  4. Rosa G. Manriquez, IHM says:

    “This effort of reaching out really is challenging if done correctly. Dialogue demands all parties be vulnerable, that they be open to receiving criticism and acting upon that criticism.” All parties will need to meet in the spirit of humility knowing that neither person is greater or lesser. We are brothers and sisters which cancels out the titles and sense that one knows better than the other. Will there still be arguments? Do brothers and sisters argue? But for understanding, there must be the knowledge that we are loved and that we are called to love unconditionally. In order for reconciliation to happen, we must be willing to go on a long journey together as equals, as siblings.

  5. Larry says:

    I applaud Bishop Rozanski’s efforts as it is so refreshing to see anyone in the hierarchy take responsibility for the horrible way the Catholic Church treats many people while expecting them to return and sit quietly in the pews. The rubber will meet the road when we see what concrete actions the Bishop will follow to mend the hurt and establish real reform in his Diocese. If he doesn’t follow through then all this is just puffery – a Lenten reflection soon to be forgotten. I do hope, however, that he is more than just words.

    But I also think that that Kathleen is right that no real change will occur until Rome dissembles its official hate speech that masquerades as theology and since the Church moves glacially on these issues, I will remain where I have comfortably landed in the Episcopal Church and my openly and very actively affirming parish.

  6. Brian Kneeland says:

    Sadly, it will not be repeated by other U.S. bishops!

  7. Fr.Augustine nunna says:

    I really appreciate bishops’s apology if he is true to his statements. I always say the roman catholic church is unmerciful and against its character of forgiving sinners like Jesus who is the model and author of forgiveness. There are plenty of examples he has set us to forgive. His forgiveness towards Mary magadaleena and his parable of prodigal son the typical example of forgiveness. If the church is founded on Jesus teaching it must by all means follow his teaching and not the teaching of human persons. I just bring out the example of rule of celibacy. As Disciples of Jesus for the sake of human authority popes have put up this rule. If one believes if a married man does not enter heaven or unfit to proclaim the word of God and serve his people. I think nobody enters heaven even if the those who are celibate also do not enter heaven because they are more sinful than the ordinary Catholics. I married man worries only about his family at most but a celibate priest worries about many things and many people. With regard to people he has to worry about his family which consists of his total family and relatives of both his fathers side and mothers side. And has to worry about people who are in illegal contact. Thus there are plenty of problems. Now the mission of the priests has changed. I am from India. I tell you sincerely that the missions which were founded by the great missionary priests are lost almost because of their irresponsibility. No priest is worried about the missions. They just say mass if it is possible and they gather togather in the evenings and celebrate with all the possible things available because they have no responsibility of the family or nobody to control them. Nor they need not worry about anything.They get anything they need on the table. I tell you an example I live in a village consists of 3000 people where we can see almost 23 churches founded independently by the individuals. Where does so many people come from they are from our church. Seeing the irresponsibility of the priests they joined the other churches. Who are responsible for this sin. undoubtedly priests are responsible. They do not see whether priests are married or unmarried they want the word of God and his love. The celibate priests are able to show love only to few selected people who will be useful. People are not stupid. They observe everything and start going to the church where they get the word of God.

    Another thing I say Jesus is merciful and forgiving but the human persons are keeping the rules and almost excommunicating the priests who married. In India excommunication is punishable. The church which is merciful does this who will show mercy?. All of us are human and if we do not commit sin we are not human we are machines. I only feel first show mercy to the married priests and give them suitable place in the church. Many married priests live a miserable life and die as almost like orphans. Many seek forgiveness and do the work of the Lord. Nobody is holy on earth. If anybody says he is holy he is the most unholy man in this world. I am of the opinion if the church believes in mercy and forgiveness and life after death and punishment God should punish whom? The married priests due to their contrite heart and miserable life are punished on earth itself. I believe God will punish those people who are responsible for their miserable life.

    I say all this not that the rude heart changes but thinks and works on this issue. May the Lord help the people who think they are holier than God himself. A heart affected by this speaks. Please show mercy. Thank you.

  8. Friends says:

    Following up: The Daily Hampshire Gazette — which is the principal newspaper of record in the Five College community that includes Amherst College, Smith College, and UMass-Amherst — just published an extremely laudatory editorial, praising the pastoral outreach of Springfield’s Bishop Rozanski. You can read the complete text here:

    http://www.gazettenet.com/home/21007174-95/editorial-leader-of-wmass-catholics-seeks-to-reconnect-with-faithful

  9. […] people. In his Lenten message on mercy, Bishop Mitchell Rozanski of Springfield, Massachusetts, sought forgiveness from those whom the church had hurt, including LGBT people. In New Orleans, Archbishop Gregory […]

  10. […] people. In his Lenten message on mercy, Bishop Mitchell Rozanski of Springfield, Massachusetts, sought forgiveness from those whom the church had hurt, including LGBT people. In New Orleans, Archbishop Gregory […]

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