Cleveland’s Catholic community is at a crossroads.
This month, Richard Lennon takes over for Anthony Pilla as the 10th bishop of the Cleveland Diocese and its 800,000 members. An auxiliary bishop in the Boston Archdiocese, Lennon is generally regarded as a skilled manager and straightforward leader who possesses a genuine devotion to the church, a vast knowledge of canon law and high standing with fellow priests.
He needed all those skills and more in Boston, where the 59-year-old former parish priest guided that diocese through some of its most trying times. His duties in the past four years have included efforts to heal the wounds of that city’s priest sex-abuse scandal and a massive church consolidation that witnessed the closing of the parish his grandfather and great uncles helped to build.
Clevelanders hope he’s grown from those experiences, because the challenges may be equally daunting here. In the wake of its own sex scandal, the church is wrestling with a declining and aging priesthood, an exodus of parishioners from the city to the suburbs and an increased need for its services and charity.
Many Catholics fear that parish closings, which Pilla held off for years, are right around the corner.
The second phase of Pilla’s “Vibrant Parish Life” initiative to confront these issues kicked off earlier this year. And during the coming months, parishes will be evaluating “cluster configurations” and talking with other parishes about sharing resources and combined ministries.
What the new face of the church will look like is unclear.
Lennon has said that it will take him time to learn the needs of the Cleveland Diocese.
Yet for anyone in those individual parishes, it’s easy to see what the church means to the greater community.
Though my family has only been members of St. Patrick Church for a relatively short time, it has become a vital part of our daily lives. It’s where our two oldest kids attend school, where I help coach and where my wife volunteers with the PTU.
Twice a month, Sunday morning fellowship is served with coffee and doughnuts in the church basement. The hunger center collects food for those in need. During Lent, a five-day mission asked parishioners to grow in their faith.
There’s an unmistakable energy in the parish, which feeds the West Park neighborhood. No doubt, the two are linked as Pilla has suggested: “As the parish goes, so goes the faith of the people.”
On Good Friday, the church is quiet and dark, except for two lights over the first few pews, creating a stage for the “Living Stations of the Cross.” About 300 people are here to watch the parish’s YKIDS Youth Group re-enact the passion of Christ’s crucifixion.
There are props, costumes and a full cast, complete with narrators, weeping women and Roman soldiers. Jesus slowly marches a large wooden cross across the front of the church as he meets his mother, accepts help from Simon and falls three times with a resounding thud. One narrator recounts the story and the other connects it to the experience of parents and students alike:Remembering Jesus’ suffering gives us the strength to overcome trials in our own lives, he says.
St. Pat’s has had its own trials in recent years, just as it has throughout its more than 150 year history. And, like so many other churches in the diocese, there will be more to come.
But as they do, St. Pat’s will have strength to draw from, one that starts with faith, has been built through community and extends beyond simple boundaries. During the spiritual mission, we handed out small loaves of bread with a prayer: “Take this bread as a sign of your life to be broken and shared with others.”
That’s the thing we Catholics believe, and must keep in mind as we move forward: No matter how God’s love is broken up or dispensed, there’s always enough to go around. And to give.
As Pilla has said, “a vibrant parish must inspire in its parishioners a care for its members and its neighbors.”