Inspiring chat with the bishop

Looking back over a decade of Vindicator editorials reveals a pattern that does not exactly comport with Roman Catholic theology, even if most of those editorials were written by two Catholics. The editorial position of the paper has been pro-choice, pro-capital punishment and often critical of a hierarchy that appeared to under react to reports of child abuse by members of the clergy.

That isn’t the foundation for spending an hour or so in a meeting between the paper’s editorial writers and Bishop George Murry, spiritual leader of the Catholic Diocese of Youngstown. It is a testament to the bishop’s character, conviction and affability that the hour passed without even a hint of irritation and, of course, without the bishop giving even a millimeter on matters of conscience and faith.

We tried to arrange an editorial board meeting with the bishop when he arrived in town in 2007, but it was a hectic time and, understandably, the session was put on the back burner. But a couple of weeks ago, on the eve of the selection of a new pope, a meeting was arranged between Bishop Murry, editorial writer and columnist Bertram de Souza and myself to talk about what might be expected in the coming months and years for the Roman Catholic Church in the world, the United States and the Youngstown Diocese. As it happened the meeting was scheduled for the afternoon of March 19, and even though Bishop Murry got up at 4 a.m. that day to watch the investiture of Pope Francis and though his schedule ran well into the evening hours, he kept the appointment. He was obviously energized by the excitement of a new pope who was not only a Jesuit, like Bishop Murry, but had taken the name Francis as a symbol of his concern for the poor and oppressed.

Good humor

Editorial boards meet routinely with intelligent people: Senators, university presidents, governors, business leaders. Most of the time they have an agenda. The only agenda the bishop seemed to have was to open himself up to the questions we had and to answer them intelligently, frankly and with a proper combination of seriousness and good humor.

He talked about why he became a priest — because a priest was someone who could be trusted — and about how painful it was to find that about 4 percent of those priests have betrayed that trust over the last 50 years.

Asked how the politics of religion had shifted from 50 years ago, when then-candidate John F. Kennedy was praised for declaring his independence from the church in political matters to today, the bishop had an answer. The politics of abortion changed. Kennedy ran and was elected more than a decade before Roe v. Wade. The Supreme Court’s ruling and the explosion in the number of abortions required the church to take a stand. Bishop Murry makes no apologies if pro-choice politicians are not invited to speak at Catholic colleges or allowed to function as lay ministers in Catholic churches.

The newspaper puts a higher premium on maintaining a separation between church and state, but none of us was wasting time trying to change the other’s mind.

He also talked about the challenges facing the church in the United States in an age when 30 to 35 percent of Catholics are faithful practitioners, 60 percent are Christmas and Easter Catholics and 10 percent are “cultural Catholics,” meaning they identify with the church only because they were born into it.

And speaking of those Easter Catholics, today is a day when they show up in the pews — often taking the seat used the other 51 Sundays by the 30 percenters. The bishop had a story about that, too — about the day he visited a parish and slipped into a pew for a pre-Mass prayer. His devotions were interrupted when he heard a voice behind him say, “He’s in my seat.” He laughs heartily at the story, but still turns it into a teaching moment when he points out that after he was recognized, he was no longer seen as an interloper and was warmly greeted.

There are five one-minute video snippets of Bishop Murry’s visit to The Vindicator on Click on “recent videos” and scroll down to find them.

Dennis B. Mangan is editorial page editor of The Vindicator.

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