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Legislation, education and participation of the faith: The challenges before the successor of Bishop Joseph McFadden

Bishop Joseph P. McFadden, 1947-2013
(Gallery by Chris Mautner | cmautner@pennlive.com)
Ivey DeJesus | idejesus@pennlive.com By Ivey DeJesus | idejesus@pennlive.com
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on May 05, 2013 at 7:00 AM, updated May 05, 2013 at 3:05 PM
"We need a lot more education among our people." - Monsignor Thomas Kujovsky, director of history and archives for the Harrisburg Diocese.

They haven’t been large-scale controversies, but the Harrisburg Catholic Diocese has in recent years been buffeted by a series of public relations crisis that have demanded swift and adept management from its top ranks.

From its bishop suggesting the public schools systems would please Adolf Hitler to a stunning clergy sex abuse case, the diocese has not been spared its share of urgent matters. Such are the challenges of running any organization.

This week, with the sudden death of Bishop Joseph McFadden, the future of the quarter-of-a-million strong diocese was passed on to a successor yet to be named.

McFadden died unexpectedly Thursday morning at the age of 65. In Philadelphia at a meeting of bishops, he complained of feeling ill and was rushed to a hospital. He was shortly after pronounced dead. No cause of death has been released.

The identity of his successor will likely not be determined for another 12 months or so, but whoever that man is, he will be tasked with a list of challenges that will determine whether the diocese charters a robust and relevant route, or one that positions it at a precarious precipice.

Catholic diocese across the nation have in recent years faced fierce scrutiny in the wake of a widespread clergy sex abuse scandal. The seeming betrayal has decimated some parishes, leaving pews in some cities empty.

The Harrisburg Diocese, which in the wake of the scandal in this country implemented an aggressive policy to protect children, has been spared the tragedy of clergy sex abuse. But, no doubt, it has been asked to speak for the church and its leaders.

At the confluence of social and economic shifts, attendance at Sunday Mass has also dwindled across the country. Enrollment at Catholic schools has felt the same brunt of changing demographics and lifestyles.

With 250,000 parishioners across 15 counties, the Harrisburg Diocese is no exception.

During his short, three-year tenure, McFadden had to make the unpopular decision to close a number of schools, amid shrinking enrollment and mounting debt.

McFadden merged Holy Family and Cathedral Consolidated schools in Harrisburg, forming Harrisburg Catholic Elementary. The merger meant cuts in teachers and staff. Holy Family Parish, the only parish associated with Holy Family school, is nearing $1 million in debt.

McFadden also closed Prince of Peace Parish School in Steelton in June 2011. The building has since been remade into a Hindu temple.

Prince of Peace.jpgThe late Bishop Joseph McFadden closed down the Prince of Peace Parish School in Steelton last June amid dwindling enrollment. 

Yet, all things considered, McFadden’s successor will step into a fairly stable organization.

“Harrisburg is a very healthy diocese,” said Monsignor Thomas Kujovsky, director of history and archives for the diocese.

At 84 years of age, Kujovsky, who has been in the diocese more than two decades and has seen five bishops come and go, says he is always amazed at the number of visitors who take note of all the activities happening across the diocese and at the Cardinal Keeler Center.

“There’s constant teaching going on,” he said. “Groups of people brought in to help with church duties, groups studying religion more deeply and helping with the apostolate. This is a very active place.”

Still, the diocese is in need of much work he said.

Monsignor Thomas KujovskyMonsignor Thomas Kujovsky, historian for the Harrisburg Diocese

 “We need a lot more education among our people,” Kujovsky said. “They need to be catechized. They must learn religion well. They must learn the different aspects of religion well.”

Whoever succeeds McFadden, he said, will have to pick up the baton of Catholic education. An educator, McFadden, who chaired the education committee of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, made education one of his priorities.

For the past 50 years, the Harrisburg bishop has served as president of the state Catholic Conference, the legislative arm of the church in the midstate.

Kujovsky pointed out that while McFadden was forced to close some schools because of dwindling population, he looked to expand in other areas where the number of parishioners has increased.

Harrisburg, Lancaster, York and Lebanon, he said, have all experienced growth in parish membership. “We have to think about Catholic schools more in those areas,” Kujovsky said.

As in almost any other diocese, Harrisburg’s new leader will have to turn his attention to recruiting more deacons. Deacons, who are ordained, but not priests, typically assist church pastors with the running of the church and the liturgy.

That said, Harrisburg holds the distinction of boasting 43 men from the diocese studying to be priests. That number is more than the archdioceses of Baltimore and New York. Philadelphia has 50.

An aside worth noting: Whereas many Catholic dioceses across the country are increasingly relying on foreign-born men to step into the roles of priests, the majority of Harrisburg’s seminarians are native-born Harrisburg men.

Kujovsky said across the country most seminarians are natives of Vietnam or Mexico.

“In this diocese they are most native of this diocese,” he said.

Still, while the diocese has been successful attracting young men to the vocation, it has not fared as well attracting women into the religious life.

“Women are much more liberated now,” Kujovsky said. “They see great advantages ... the glass ceiling has been lifted in most opportunities for them. They don’t want to get involved in religious life. They want to be CEO’s and top-notch bankers and executives in big companies.”

To be sure, McFadden’s successor will find on his desk a slew of pressing other matters. In coming months, the diocese faces a legislative agenda that will take any bishop to task .

“We certainly have many looming legislative issues,” said Amy B. Hill, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference.

Among them: House Bill 818, which would prohibit coverage of elective abortions in health insurance exchanges. The bill is poised to move to the Senate.

The bill applies to elective abortions covered under the Affordable Care Act.

“We do have the right, states have the right in the act, the opportunity to opt out of coverage,” Hill said. “This is not abortion to save the life of the mother.”

Known for his passion for education, McFadden last year spearheaded an opportunity credit tax program that allowed students in lower performing schools to get access to school choice funds.

Bishop Joseph P. McFaddenA Jesuit and an educator, Bishop Joseph P. McFadden of the Diocese of Harrisburg was known as an ardent advocate of education. Paul Chaplin | pchaplin@pennlive.com 

“Whoever the new bishop is he will be briefed on the status of the school choice issue,” Hill said. “We don’t see the status of that going away anytime soon.”

On a national level, the new bishop would have to monitor federal mandates that would compel religious entities to provide contraception, abortion and sterilization.

“Whoever the new bishop is, he will be faced with the decision of how do we advocate against that,” Hill said. “How do we advocate for religious liberty.”

McFadden was an outspoken national advocate for religious liberties.

And certainly efforts to reform the statutes of limitations in the state will demand the new bishop’s attention.

Victims advocates and a number of state lawmakers have for several years attempted to reform the state law that limits the legal recourse available to an adult victim of child sexual abuse.

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

 “They have been biggest obstacle,” said state Rep. Mark Rozzi, (D-Berks) of the Catholic Church. Rozzi has been urging the Legislature to reform the statutes of limitation, which he and victims advocates say stand in the way of hundreds of adult victims of child sexual abuse seeking legal redress.

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 are an institution that tries to hide behind its good deeds,” he said.

Saint Patrick Cathedral Mass
Enlarge Pastor Thomas J. Rozman held mass Saturday at Saint Patrick Cathedral and spoke about the passing of Bishop Joseph P. McFadden. JOHN WHITEHEAD / FOR PENNLIVE Pastor Rozman speaks of the passing of Bishop Joseph P. McFadden gallery (12 photos)
Rozzi said neither McFadden, the Catholic Conference nor the Church have any right to lobby the Legislature against reform to the statute of limitations.

“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.”

The Harrisburg Diocese several years ago put in place policies to protect children. McFadden was never named nor implicated in any of the abuse cases out of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Hill said the reform proposals put Catholic dioceses at an unfair advantage.

“Certainly it’s an issue we have many times expressed concern over a window that goes backwards,” Hill said. “A new bishop will be concerned about that as well.”