What it was, in a sense, was much ado about nothing. What it is, is something more.
By now most of you know the comings and goings at St. Agnes this week. Going are Fr. George Welzbacher, the pastor, and Fr. Robert Altier, the associate pastor. Coming are Fr. John Ubel, the new pastor, and Fr. Randal Kasel, the new associate pastor. (For those of you interested, here's the story as it finally appeared in the Pioneer Press this weekend.)
Considering the events of the last few months, there was more than one person who lept to conclusions, who foresaw, as Fr. Zuhlsdorf heard one person term it, a "St. Agnes Massacre." Most of those people feel into one of two categories. Many of them were people from outside the parish, or even outside the state. They knew of St. Agnes' reputation, they had some knowledge of the friction evident in the debate about the Virtus sex-ed program, and they assumed that a purge of the parish had begun. They foresaw all kinds of calamities, from the end of the Latin Mass to the introduction of altar girls. To be generous, most of those people had no real knowledge of the inner workings of the archdiocese or the personality of the parish, and therefore might not be expected to understand why such a wholesale change would be quite unlikely.
The second category is a little harder to define, and for that reason a little more interesting. Most of the people in that second category were people who had been associated in one way or another with Fr. Altier, whether within the parish itself or in one of the groups for whom he provided spiritual guidance. These are the people who found themselves most at odds with Archbishop Flynn over the Virtus program, who had been the most vocal in expressing their distrust of the archdiocese, and who were most wounded when the archbishop "silenced" Fr. Altier earlier this year. Those people saw their friend and counselor being exhiled to a meaningless post - a nursing home, of all things - and the pastor who had defended him being punished with transfer to a smaller parish (some said it was even outside the diocese), saw it as yet another attack on their othorodox beliefs, saw the archbishop and his minions in the shadowy background pulling strings, ready to lower the boom, fiddling with St. Agnes while the Church burned (the heretical St. Joan of Arc parish, priests speaking out against an amendment banning same-sex marriage, and so forth).
By most authoritative accounts, they were wrong. Fr. Welzbacher, citing increased age and the desire for a less-stressful position, apparently requested the change in assignment. Fr. Altier, the gentleman and loyal priest that he is, appears to have accepted the assignment in obedience. The new pastor, Fr. Ubel, and the new associate, Fr. Kasel, are both men of exemplary skill; good, holy men who are expected to interject new blood into the parish while keeping the unique character that has produced a world-famous liturgy and over 25 vocations to the priesthood in as many years.
So, pray tell, what was all the stink about?
I was talking with a friend the other day, a man who has some knowledge of the workings of the archdiocese although he doesn't currently work within the administration. It was his opinion that Fr. Altier had just pushed the Virtus issue too far, to the point where it was practically a personal attack on the archbishop, who had to do something about it to maintain his authority."
"So it wasn't a case of what he said as much as how he said it?" I asked. He nodded.
"Well, yeah," he replied. "It's all about putting yourself in opposition to the archbishop. Old Harry was pretty patient about the whole thing. His attitude is that you can do what you want, as long as you don't attract attention." The pastoral change at St. Joan of Arc, for example, came because they had become so public about their "unique" ways that it was attracting too much attention. Had they kept it to themselves without rocking the boat, nothing might have happened.
"On the other hand," he continued, "Jack Roach [Archbishop John Roach, Archbishop Flynn's predecessor] wouldn't have stood for what Altier said. He would have come down on him right then and there. Of course, he wouldn't have stood for what was going on at St. Joan, either. Roach had the reputation for being a liberal, but ultimately it was his way or the highway."
"The archbishop doesn't much like conflict, does he?" I asked.
He shook his head. "Basically he'd just like to get to retirement without anything else happening."
Of course, by his own actions Archbishop Flynn has made that pretty much impossible. And there, I think, we come to the heart of the matter.
One of the great challenges in the Church in America, now and over the coming years, revolves around the actions and authority of the bishops, and their attempts to retain (and, in some cases, win back) the trust of their flocks. Now, there's always been conflict between bishops and the people, probably back to the time of the apostles. (In looking at the frequent squabbles and arguments among traditional Catholics, someone once said they were worse that Protestants, to which I replied, "Of course we are. We actually believe in something.) And there have always been differences in the ways in which bishops governed their dioceses. None of this is new.
What is new, and what the Church will have to deal with, is the great flow of information that has made it possible like never before to find out what's happening nationwide in the Church. The Internet, the blogosphere, cable and satellite TV, have all made the world much more immediate, and the exchange of information much more comprehensive. One of the results is that almost anyone with an Internet connection can, with a few keystrokes, call up diocesean newspapers and websites from all around the country, listen to speeches, read pastoral papers, and see how bishops other than their own govern their dioceses. We can turn on EWTN and watch the USCCB meetings, we can see the bishops interviewed, we can compare notes.
And so we learn that there is a great deal of disagreement among the bishops, and a great deal of difference in how they run things. We wonder why some dioceses seem to interpret the teachings of the Church in one way, while others interpret it differently. We look at Archbishop Chaput (Denver) or Archbishop Dolan (Milwaukee) or Bishop Bruskewitz (Lincoln) or Bishop Olmsted (Phoenix) or Bishop Finn (Kansas City) for example, and what they say and how they do things, and we wonder why Archbishop Flynn says and does the things he does.
This is a cause of scandal in more ways than one. Not only does it confuse the faithful, it also makes it extremely difficult for those outside the Church to tell what the Church really teaches. (I've related in the past the story of my friend, who hasn't crossed the river yet because he can't tell what Catholic Church he'd be joining - he figures, based on what he's heard, that there must be five or six of them out there.) Is the Church for homosexual marriage or against it? Is it permissible for a Catholic to be pro-abortion or not? Is the GIRM a book of rules for the liturgy, or merely a list of suggestions? So many times, it all depends on who you listen to.
I've said often in the last week that I did not believe there was a conspiracy against St. Agnes, that in fact I thought Archbishop Flynn knew exactly what he was doing and that on this one, he was right. He has the reputation for some excellent appointments during his time as archbishop, and I have a great deal more confidence in his pastoral abilities than I do his administrative ones. But one can, in the long run, hardly blame those who lept to conclusions, who thought the archbishop had it in for Fr. Altier and, by extention, them.
The perception is that Archbishop Flynn is reluctant to discipline those of the "liberal" bent while quite willing to come down on "conservatives." (I put those in quotes because I, like many, feel the terms "liberal" and "conservative" are more political than theological.) There's the heresy at St. Joan of Arc, members of Rainbow Sash receiving communion, priests publically opposing the archbishop's call for a state amendment against homosexual marriage, his own diocesean newspaper supporting Notre Dame's staging of The Vagina Monologues, possible sex scandals being covered up. (See here, here, here, here and here for more.) Add to that the arrogance with which he often appears to deal with those who disagree with him (as in this example), and you get a real sense of distrust between the archdiocese and some of its people.
Ultimately, I think it is Archbishop Flynn himself who is to blame for so much of the distrust. As another friend mentioned to me last week, "he sure has bad PR." Even in these appointments to St. Agnes, which I believe to be excellent ones, they came out tainted and distrusted.
We're told to trust our bishops, to have faith in them and obey them. But what happens when people not only lose faith in their bishop, they feel that to obey him puts them in direct opposition to their beliefs? This is how many orthodox Catholics in the archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis feel. And this is what the Church will have to deal with in the years to come: well-educated, orthodox Catholics who feel that their bishops are violating their faith, leading them astray, acting against the teachings of the Catholic Church to the extent that they directly contradict what these people believe. Throw in that bit that liberals love to quote from Vatican II about the primacy of conscience, and you have a prescription for disaster.
We can't have the laity vote out bishops, of course; we're not Episcopalians, after all. Perhaps we need less autonomy by the bishops and more direct oversight by the Vatican. Perhaps the collegial union of bishops has proven to be a failure. I don't know, and I don't pretend to have the answers. What I do know is that the way it is, right now, isn't working. Our Lord said that the gates of hell would not prevail against His Church; He said nothing specifically about the Church in America.
Those going to St. Agnes today to find out what actually was going on (from the horse's mouth, as it were) were disappointed. Or maybe not.
In his homily today, Fr. Welzbacher said nothing of the appointments, of the rumors that had been flying around. Instead he spoke of Jesus' message in the Gospel, as related in John 15:1: "Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit." He looked at this saying in the context of the life of Paul, as it appeared in the first reading from Acts (9:30).
Paul had become an outspoken, fervent advocate of Christianity. He spoke boldly, often at risk of his life. His reward for this faithfulness, apparently, was exile. He was sent to Tarsus where for three years he did - nothing. He lived there ignored, left alone, apparently with nothing to do. It must have seemed to him as if he'd been completely forgotten by the Church, that all his works had been for naught. Perhaps some of the most fertile, productive years of his life - lost, wasted, amounting to nothing. What possible good would he be able to do, just sitting there?
Of course, we know better. Paul grew during those three years; grew in wisdom and understanding, so that when he did emerge it was with a fervor and knowledge that soon ecipsed that of the other disciples. He would go on to write most of the New Testament, travel throughout most of the known world evangelizing, teaching and converting, before suffering a martyr's death. His life was anything but a waste.
It was all part of the pruning process. Jesus promised that those who bore fruit would be pruned, that they might go on to produce more for Him. Paul's apparent "exile" was part of that process, a process that all of us who might fashion ourselves disciples of Christ will undergo at some point in time. It may be a painful, even harsh, process; and when it happens, when it feels as if we're alone and ignored, that our lives are wasting away, that we may even be being punished for our beliefs, we can look back to the life of Paul, and the words of Jesus, and know that it is not a punishment, not a waste of time. It is part of our reward, part of the favor with which Christ looks on His disciples. We listen to His words, we remember the example of Paul, and we take faith in the knowledge that through God all things work for His good.