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Spotlight Report

Lennon appeals to archdiocese priests for greater unity

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 4/16/2003

Speaking to hundreds of priests gathered for the annual blessing of holy oils, Bishop Richard G. Lennon yesterday called on priests to join him in forging a ''greater unity'' in this time of unprecedented divisions within the church and among its clergy.

Lennon's plea for unity is, in effect, a call for a return to the traditional relationship between Catholic priests and their bishops, a relationship governed by obedience and theological alignment. It comes just four months after dozens of Boston priests joined in the call for Cardinal Bernard F. Law to resign, and there remains great unhappiness among some priests about the way that bishops have handled the clergy sexual abuse crisis.

Over the last five weeks, Lennon has met behind closed doors with large groups of priests throughout Eastern Massachusetts, detailing his efforts to settle more than 500 legal claims against the archdiocese and to cut archdiocesan spending to make up for a reduction in contributions to the church.

''As we know, unity is not always easy to achieve, and at times it can be very challenging,'' Lennon said. ''Having met with many of the priests over these past several weeks, I . . . [am] aware that we as bishop and presbyterate need to recognize the need for greater unity and, in turn, be committed to work to realize it.''

Lennon made his pitch for unity during the annual Chrism Mass, traditionally attended by priests, at which the bishop blesses, consecrates, and perfumes vats of the oil used by priests in baptism, confirmation, ordination, anointing of the sick, and other rituals.

About 250 priests and 400 laypeople attended yesterday's Mass, according to an official at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, where it was held. At the Mass, priests renewed their commitments, promising to try to become more like Jesus ''by joyfully sacrificing your own pleasure and ambition to bring his peace and love'' and ''by teaching the Christian faith without thinking of your own profit.''

Lennon's spokesman, the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, said the call for unity was a reflection of the division now facing the Archdiocese of Boston, which has been riven by revelations that more than 100 local priests sexually abused minors over the last several decades.

''Bishop Lennon is aware, as all the priests of the archdiocese are aware, that there is some division within the ranks of the clergy, and there is conflict right now around certain issues, such as how we've addressed this crisis,'' Coyne said. ''His call to unity was a reminder of what we share in common, rather than what, at times, divides us.''

Coyne said Lennon's efforts to reach out to priests will include more than a call to unity, saying ''there's obviously more that needs to be done amongst the presbyterate to heal some of the wounds that have arisen within our ranks. But a good place to start is by recognizing the good things that we do share in common.''

The chairman of Boston College's theology department, Stephen J. Pope, said local priests are divided among themselves, not merely at odds with their bishop. He noted that 58 local priests had taken the extraordinary step of calling for the resignation of Law, who stepped down as archbishop a few days later, and that several hundred priests have formed an organization, the Boston Priests Forum, which is now in the process of electing new leadership.

''Priests within the archdiocese have been feeling some tension among themselves, because some responded to the crisis by strengthening their loyalty to Cardinal Law, and some felt themselves alienated from Cardinal Law, which caused them to be alienated from fellow clergymen,'' Pope said.

He said a plea for unity by Lennon is not enough.

''Some priests will find this unfortunate, because ultimately the unity you have in a diocese has to be based not just on obedience to an authority figure, but on trust and on a willingness to follow the bishop,'' he said. ''It's not the kind of relationship that can be accomplished by external command or even exhortation, but it has to be accomplished by building personal relationships with individual priests and by a style of leadership that is based on dialogue.''

A leader of the Boston Priests Forum, the Rev. Robert W. Bullock, welcomed the call for unity, but said it should not be confused with an end to debate.

''What he's enunciating is the centrality of the bishop in the spirituality of the diocesan priest, and there is no way we can avoid that,'' said Bullock, who is pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows Church in Sharon. ''But unity does not mean uniformity . . . Unity means there must be, with the bishop, a healthy discourse on very difficult issues.''

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.

This story ran on page B4 of the Boston Globe on 4/16/2003.
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