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Bishop Joseph McFadden: Admired and admonished, a man of faith tended to his flock

Most Reverend Joseph P. McFadden
Most Reverend Joseph P. McFadden died unexpectedly Thursday after complaining of feeling ill. The 10th bishop of the Harrisburg Catholic Diocese, he was installed in August 2010. He is shown here conducting Mass after his installation. JOHN C. WHITEHEAD/The Patriot-News (JOHN C. WHITEHEAD/The Patriot-News)
Ivey DeJesus | idejesus@pennlive.com By Ivey DeJesus | idejesus@pennlive.com The Patriot-News
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on May 02, 2013 at 7:43 PM, updated May 03, 2013 at 6:55 PM
"I always thought I was going to be an NCAA basketball coach." - the late Bishop Joseph McFadden, Harrisburg Catholic Diocese

Bishop Joseph McFadden faced a crushing handicap.

Early in the summer of 2010, the Philadelphia native, virtually unknown in Harrisburg, found himself selected to succeed one of the most popular bishops the Harrisburg Catholic Diocese had known.

Former Bishop Kevin Rhoades, then in his mid-40’s, was young, well-loved and considered engaging and accessible by the Catholic community and beyond. Rhoades had only been bishop five years, but after spending much of his adult life in the diocese, parishioners considered him one of their own.

His departure came at a precarious time.

The Church worldwide - but in particular closer to home in Philadelphia - was embroiled in a clergy sex abuse scandal that threaten to dismantle its very foundation. Some churches were decimated, their pews empty on Sundays, as legions of Catholics demanded accountability from church leaders. Scores of victims who had been raped and molested as children by priests demanded recompense.

McFadden, who had been serving as an auxiliary bishop in Philadelphia and was a former principal at one of the high schools most impacted by clergy sex abuse, was in the eye of the storm. McFadden was never mentioned nor implicated in any of the grand jury reports out of Philadelphia.

That June, in the wake of the departure of Rhoades for Fort Wayne, Ind., then-Pope Benedict XVI selected McFadden as the 10th bishop of the Harrisburg Diocese. His selection was immediately criticized by the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, who felt the Vatican should have selected someone with no ties to Philadelphia.

McFadden, a bespectacled, balding man in his 60s, stepped up to the podium to interrogation and to the altar to admiration. McFadden’s demeanor then would not change over the next three years.

He assumed his role as leader of a quarter of a million Catholics in central Pennsylvania with quiet composure, a man not completely generous with words or his feelings, but one who spoke them with studied consideration.

Surveying his obligation before him through the thick lenses of his glasses, McFadden spoke to the audiences of his first Harrisburg encounters, promising to be an integral part of his faith’s community, to listen, not dictate, and to nurture, defend and rekindle the faith to the best of his ability.

Bishop Joseph P. McFadden dies unexpectedlyA portrait of Harrisburg Roman Catholic Bishop Joseph P. McFadden is draped in black cloth after he died suddenly this morning in Philadelphia while there attending a Catholic Bishops Conference. He was 65 and had been Bishop of Harrisburg since 2010. Opened in front of the portrait is a Bible turned to John 20: 1-9, the passage where Mary Magdalene finds Jesus' tomb empty three days after his death. Mark Pynes | mpynes@pennlive.com 

Throughout his short tenure, the sting of criticism and outrage followed close behind all the accolades.

A death that came unexpectedly and, in the eyes of the faithful, way too early, left his faith community stunned and with the task of determining whether he fulfilled those goals.

McFadden, 65, died unexpectedly Thursday morning. After complaining of feeling ill, he was rushed to a hospital. He was in Philadelphia to attend a meeting of the Catholic Bishops of Pennsylvania. Diocese officials have not released a cause of death.

Those who followed him as a spiritual leader, a teacher and a mentor remember a quiet and deeply religiously devoted man, who, no matter the conversation, whether football, education or politics, steered the theme always to his faith in God.

“He was a very quiet man, a very prayerful holy man,” said Tom Lang, deacon at Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church in Middletown. “He prayed constantly. For certain people, as his role as bishop, that might have turned them off because he was so private. But when he engaged in conversation, he engaged, but he was a quiet, reflective person who felt very strongly about the church.”

A passionate advocate for Catholic education

McFadden was a mentor, a father-figure to all of his priests and deacons, and especially seminarians, Lang said. He was chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishop’s Committee on Catholic Education.

“He had a very intense sensibility about himself and the importance of a Catholic education,” he said.

McFadden dedicates McDevitt.jpgBishop McFadden blessing the new Bishop McDevitt High School at dedication ceremonies on Jan. 5, 2013 MARK PYNES, The Patriot-News

Probably more than anything else, his fervor for Catholic education steered much of McFadden’s mission. He made tough calls on a few school closures, including Prince of Peace in Steelton, but he also greenlighted the new Bishop McDevitt High School, a source of immense pride for hundreds of families.

McFadden regularly visited with the heads of Catholic schools in the diocese and whether through visits or teleconferences, he delivered an unmistakable message:

“To walk in Christ’s shoes and hold Jesus close to our hearts in everything we do and everything else will flow from that,” said David Bouton, principal at Trinity High School in Camp Hill. “He lived that himself.”

“I thought he was a very effective leader. He obviously cared for his flock not only in the educational community but throughout the diocese.”

Faith and education may have commanded McFadden’s passions, but sports - particularly basketball - were not far behind.

A former standout high school basketball player, McFadden early on had no inclination of what the future would bring.

“Did you ever see yourself being in charge of your own diocese?” Lang asked McFadden not long after he was installed as bishop.

McFadden’s reply to Lang: “You know Tom, I always thought I was going to be an NCAA basketball coach. I was doing well in high school. I had some colleges trying to attract me to be assistant coach or head coach but at that time God also contacted me and told me he wanted me to be one of his priests. I agreed to go with that and it was the best decision of my life.”

Combining faith and sports

McFadden graduated from St. Joseph’s University in 1969 with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Politics. In 1976, he entered Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary to study for the priesthood and was ordained a Deacon in 1980. In 1993, he became the first president of Cardinal O’Hara High School in Springfield. He was named auxiliary bishop of Philadelphia in June 2004.

Ever the man of faith, McFadden would always weave faith into sports. He regularly stopped in on teams on their way to a big game to give the student athletes a faith-filled pep talk: “Doing things the right way, striving for excellence and using appropriate language and using good sportsmanship,” said Tommy Mealy, athletic director at Bishop McDevitt.

McFadden did the same for the coaches, bringing them together for a clinic to profess the importance of faith in sports.

“He called in all coaches both paid and volunteer to listen to him and to listen to him deliver his message,” Mealy said. “His message was we have to follow the character of Jesus. That we have tremendous responsibility and duty to coach and teach the youth of today how to do things the right way. That was his message: to follow the leadership of Jesus.”

The private McFadden undoubtedly had his foibles, but none so apparent than his intolerance for anyone resistant to learning and education.

“If he was willing to teach and you didn’t want to learn that upset him greatly,” Lang said. “He wanted everyone to serve church and to serve properly.”

Visible and available

On the day that McFadden held his first press release in Harrisburg, shortly after being selected to succeed Rhoades, he vowed to listen and learn. He also vowed to be as visible and available to his flock, by all accounts, keeping an exhaustive spring schedule attending every confirmation Mass across the diocese.

“I know for a fact that first year he focused on visiting every parish and not really doing anything....in the sense of making changes,” Lang said. “He wanted to see what the diocese was. He wanted to learn about the people, the needs of the people.”

One of those needs belonged to the growing Latino Catholic community, which by and large, accounts for one of the fastest growing segment of Catholics.

McFadden spoke little Spanish, but he did not let that handicap get in the way of his mission.

“Hola. Como esta and keep up your faith,” McFadden would often say to the parishioners of Saint Francis of Assisi in Harrisburg, a predominantly Hispanic parish.

That’s how parochial vicar the Rev. Orlando Reyes remembers him.

“He didn’t speak Spanish but he would find a way to engage them and encourage them to continue with their faith,” he said. “And he would tell them that here in the United States, in Harrisburg, to continue with their traditions.”

McFadden took a keen interest in the procession the parish held on Good Friday. He encouraged Reyes to continue the tradition, which is widely observed across Latin America on the marking of Christ’s crucifixion.

St. Francis AssisiThis past Good Friday, parishioners at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church stage the Via Crucis-Way of the Cross-procession. Jesus is portrayed by Hector Rojas, of Harrisburg. Dan Gleiter | dgleiter@pennlive.com Dan Gleiter | dgleiter@pennlive.com ------------  

A church leader struggling with his abysmal command of Spanish managed to win the hearts of Latino parishioners at the annual Mass for Latino Catholic at St. Patrick Cathedral.

“He struggled with his Spanish but he tried his best to read his homily in Spanish to them,” Reyes said. “That was such a beautiful thing. The people felt that even though he doesn’t speak that well, they were able to communicate with him.”

Reyes said McFadden had told him of his plans to, for this year’s World Youth Day, stop in Mexico to visit the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of that country.

Robert. J. O’Hara, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, lauded McFadden and his three years of service as president.

“Bishop McFadden had all of the attributes that make an effective leader in public policy, including his willingness to engage with legislators and his ease around all people. He did not shy away from spirited discussion,” he said.

O’Hara commended McFadden and his work to repeal abortion rights and his advocacy for religious liberty and protection of the poor.

Facing criticism

To be sure, the face of Catholic leadership in Harrisburg, McFadden faced criticism from groups and individuals who felt he was towing the line for the church -- at the expense and civil liberties of others, including its members.

A proponent of school choice, McFadden in January 2012 sparked widespread outrage when he suggested Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini would approve of U.S. public schools, which he said, subscribed to one set of beliefs. 

McFadden comments.jpgThe late Bishop Joseph P. McFadden in January 2012 sparked outrage after making a remark referencing Hitler and Mussolini while advocating for school vouchers during a news media interview. 

"In totalitarian governments, they would love our system," McFadden said. "This is what Hitler and Mussolini and all those tried to establish: a monolith so all the children would be educated in one set of beliefs and one way of doing things."

McFadden's words sparked outrage from the area chapter of the Anti-Defamation League and a rebuke from the legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

In an email to The Patriot-News, McFadden said he had not meant to cause offense and that he was not trying to trivialize the Holocaust. The Catholic church recognizes the Holocaust as an atrocity against humanity, he said.

“The reference to dictators and totalitarian governments of the 20th century, which I made in an interview on the topic of school choice, was to make a dramatic illustration of how these unchecked monolithic governments of the past used schools to curtail the primary responsibility of the parent in the education of their children,” McFadden said.

“Today many parents in our state experience the same lack of freedom in choosing an education that bests suits their child as those parents oppressed by dictators of the past. I intentionally did not make reference to the holocaust in my remarks.”

Clergy scandal 'weighed on his mind'

McFadden also had to face harsh criticism by the men and women who as children had been raped and molested by priests.

For the past couple of years, as a private citizen and now as an elected official, state Rep. Mark Rozzi, (D-Berks) has been urging the Legislature to reform the statutes of limitations, which he and victims advocates say stand in the way of hundreds of adult victims of child sexual abuse from seeking legal redress.

Rep. Mark Rozzi.jpgPennsylvania Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks 

Rozzi, who this year introduced a bill that would amend that law, has long said the church has lobbied lawmakers hard to protect its interests, largely the potential financial impact from a deluge of lawsuits.

“They have been the biggest obstacle,” Rozzi said. “They are an institution that tries to hide behind its good deeds.”

Rozzi said that neither McFadden nor the Catholic Conference had any right to lobby the Legislature against reform to the statute of limitations.

“He fell short,” said Rozzi, who as a child, was molested by one of the priests at his Philadelphia Catholic school. “I think they all fall short. There’s not many bishops in there right now that can say they are doing everything possible to protect our children.”

The church - and indeed the Harrisburg Diocese - have put in place policies to protect children. But Rozzi can’t shake his belief that McFadden had to have known something about the abuse as it was happening in Philadelphia.

“When you look back at bishops that have been there a long time and someone like McFadden who used to be secretary to Archbishop Kroll.... I can imagine the information that guy knows,” Rozzi said. “To allow him to say he was a disciple of the Church, it’s a joke. We need someone in the Church to stand up and say enough is enough. We are going to stand and take responsibility instead they keep throwing different things to distract from the real problem.”

On more than one occasion, The Patriot-News interviewed McFadden with questions regarding what he had known about the Philadelphia clergy sex abuse, and whether he, as an auxiliary bishop or a former high school principal, had known about the abuse.

Time and time again, McFadden steadfastly said he had no knowledge of the abuse.

To be sure, the issue weighed on him.

On several occasions, Lang said, McFadden spoke to him in private about it.

“It weighed very heavily on him,” Lang said. “It was his home diocese. He was hurt by that that.”

In particular, the fact that some of the alleged abusers had been educators troubled him.

“That really upset him greatly,” Lang said. “He was such a proponent of education. Here are men of the cloth, priests who were totally doing evil things. It upset him greatly. I could tell it weighed on his mind how it was hurting the church and God’s people.”

Unwavering faith

On Thursday, beyond their stunned reaction of the news to his death, parishioners, elected state officials, Congressional lawmakers and those who had the opportunity to cross McFadden’s path expressed sincere appreciation of a man who, despite his human foibles and the burden of his charge as head of the Church in the midstate, lived his life and treated others according to the tenets of his faith.

“He was a very, very humble, gentle, friendly man,” said Lisa Fortunato, youth minister at Seven Sorrows. “He was a very easy man to talk to. He was funny, too. He had a really nice sense of humor. He put the kids at ease.”

Along with basketball, McFadden loved golf, and what few opportunities he had to golf, he took. He was not great at it, he once told The Patriot-News.

Surely, he appreciated a handicap.

He faced sharp criticism from all sides. But his attention to the faith - and the faith of his flock - on that he never wavered.

“He felt that was the main part of his ministry as bishop,” Lang said. “Your main charge is that you are the teacher of the faith and shepherd of the people. He really took that to heart.”