Friday, August 31, 2012

The View from Beaver Island

Beaver Island is the largest (55.8 square miles) of a fourteen-island archipelago, located just west of the northern tip of Michigan's lower peninsula, and just 32 miles by ferry or "puddle jumper" from the coastal city of Charlevoix on the mainland. While the Catholic faith has predominated the island for most of its history, being originally settled by the Irish, it was in the mid-19th century the home of a peculiar breakaway Mormon sect that has since moved on.

The island has a year-round population of just under seven hundred, most of whom are descendants of the original Irish settlers. It stands to reason that the parish church, Holy Cross, at the north of the island on Kings Highway, is the center of the community.

In recent years, unfortunately, it has become the center of more than that.

There was no dinner this year ... The lack of participation stemmed not from a lack of interest but from frustration and tension tied to the parish's new pastor, Fr. Joseph Blasko.

"The Catholic church used to be the mainstay of our community here. And it's troubling to people to see what's happened, and how our church is falling apart right now," said Jeanne Gillespie, sacristan for nearly 20 years at the only parish on the 58-square-mile isle in northern Lake Michigan.

The article portrays a consistently brusque and intemperate demeanor attributed to the 71-year-old Father Blasko, which resulted in the intervention by the local bishop, the Most Reverend Bernard Hebda, and the decision of many to withdraw from the life of the parish.

Inasmuch as this is the National Catholic Reporter, one might expect an ideologically progressive slant to the story, one that is aided by the inability of the parish priest to comment (which is not unusual when priest-personnel matters are under scrutiny). As that tendency goes, it could have been worse. But even more disappointing (if not the least bit surprising) are some of the comments with the article. A few are well thought out, including those familiar with Beaver Island and/or the Diocese of Gaylord. A few others are well-intentioned, if ill-informed. But most of the comments, as is standard fare for NCR's audience, are sophomoric, idiotic, displaying an abysmal lack of understanding of the Faith and the Church, an obsession with petty bickering, not to mention awash in the usual clich├ęs associated with the "spirit of Vatican II" and the aging adolescents equally associated with it.

Well, okay, there was one exception.

It would be difficult enough for any man not "bread and buttered" on the island to fit in, given its characteristic insulation from the outside. This is not unusual ... I've dealt with pastors like this before. They've treated me like this before. At the risk of bragging, it only happens once. To find out why, you have to read my blog. (Sorry.)

It gets much better.

The comments from those familiar with Beaver Island and its people tend to give a more balanced view of the issue (as in, plenty of blame to go around). Then again, there was the one that quoted from a misguided study conducted by Catholic University sociologist Dean Hoge, who failed to grasp in his conclusions that, yes, a priest IS ontologically changed upon ordination. ("Cultic model"? We might have one of those here. Keep reading.)

Meanwhile, NCR editor Dennis Coday was moved to explain why he ran the story, as he suggests what is and is not the problem. It's some of his conclusions that are a problem in themselves.

The failure on Beaver Island is not the failure of a pastor or a bishop or parishioners. All parties, it seems, have tried their best to work through the difficulties. Sadly, they have reached an impasse. But even that is not the real failure. The failure on Beaver Island is systemic. The people on Beaver Island are caught in a system that stifles creativity and can't generate new ways to solve problems.

So, these people need someone on the mainland to quit stifling them so they can get on with solving their problems. Does that include any problems they might have with themselves, or is it just everyone else? This has been the challenge of the faithful from the time of the apostles. “Ecclesia semper reformanda est.” (“The Church is always to be reformed.”) Two thousand years of evidence shows that it always begins in two ways; with the laity, and with personal reform. No one can lead without learning to follow. No one can clean up anybody else's act until they clean up their own. No major reform of the Church has ever succeeded any other way.

Hold on to that thought. We'll be needing it as we go along. What prevents us from reforming ourselves, or much of anything, for that matter? In any walk of life, not just parish life, we are creatures of habit by nature, humanity being one of fallen nature. Let's review what those prospects might be with the three main players in this drama.

The Bishop

In his 1989 book on the operation of the Church in the United States entitled Archbishop, the Jesuit Father Thomas Reese devotes his largest chapter to personnel issues, in particular those involving clergy. The case load of such matters before church tribunals is second only to petitions for annulments. A bishop has X number of priests, and Y number of places to put them. Despite improvements in the number of vocations overall, in some parts of the United States, X and Y still fail to match up. While priests are subject to a bishop's will in their assignments, he must be attentive to their particular talents, their legitimate needs, and ability to be reasonably content with where they are sent. Every attempt is made at "a good fit." Some dioceses have extensive consultation with parishioners. Others already have some idea of what a parish wants, needs, and/or is willing to live with. Either way, the average pewsitter seriously underestimates the percentage of a bishop's time that is taken up with such matters.

Were it not for its isolation, and difficulty to reach for part of the year, a parish in the States with less than 200 parishioners -- that would be at its peak, given only 120 year-round -- would probably never have a resident priest. Finding the right man for the job becomes even more difficult with human resources stretched thin, never mind with the two other parts being played here.

The Pastor

If Professor Hoge wants to talk about a "cultic model," he might want to examine the phenomenon known as the "personality cult." After fifteen years, Father Pat Cawley appears to have been a very difficult act for the best of men to follow. A description of Father Blasko's history in the comments section, by one resident of the Gaylord diocese identified as "Anonymous" (the most common pseudonym in a forum devoted to steadfast conviction), is very hard to live down: eight assignments in thirteen years. That comes to about one year and eight months per assignment. Even associate pastors (or parochial vicars, as canonically known) usually stay on the job for at least two years. And even in a diocese where turnaround is said to be higher than average, this is hardly time to unpack. It's a wonder any priest can be effective in such an unstable environment.

(This would be a good time to mention that Blasko's predecessor served there for what is apparently an unusual tenure of fifteen years. Having that kind of time is quite the advantage, especially given the rate of transfer everywhere else in the diocese.)

Blasko's is a delayed vocation, his having been ordained in 1999 at the age of 58. He would be very set in his ways by then, as would be any of his parishioners. Met with a hermeneutic of suspicion at the offset for being an outsider, and not one given a great deal of time to be appreciated, he likely fell back (again, out of habit, in this case a bad one) on his usual defense mechanisms. One can read various motives therein; fear of vulnerability, response to rejection, clinical depression, or just being disagreeable.

Or is it something else?

Interesting that you mention that, a retired Priest, blood relative of many on Beaver Island, born and raised on the island himself, came back a few years ago to settle in the community. He wasn't too well received either and earlier this year left the island for a more "peaceful" location. He had delivered the service in church several times in the absence of the previous Priest, yet the congregation never treated him very well either. There is a lot more to this story than is depicted in this article. Newcomers, even though they may have totally altruistic intentions, often aren't treated very kindly on the island.

Whatever it is, Father Blasko's calling is from God, not the islanders, and that parish is his responsibility to others, in a way that is not required of those whom he serves. Meeting that responsibility entitles him to some latitude in how he seeks input from others. His resorting to some structure in lay consultation -- the standard pastoral and finance councils (the latter being required by canon law), as opposed to the previous town-meeting style "voice vote" -- was probably all that was needed to set some people off. And yet this by itself does not close the door on anyone, it merely sets a framework in place, and with that, a level of stability for a pastor, which is helpful when you get moved around so much.

The Parish(ioners)

Before we go any further, dear reader, you must understand one thing about small towns, especially those in remote areas: as a social construct, you're either in, or you're out.

It usually is decided early on, and it usually (but not always) stays that way. As the pace of life is slower, things are slower to change -- this includes habits, as well as grudges -- especially an island reachable only by air during the winter months. With a diminished outside interchange in human contact, unique patterns of social intercourse and individual behavior form a life of their own. (A popular bumper sticker reads "Slow Down! This Ain't The Mainland.") With little need for complex organization, and an emphasis on self-reliance and self-ingenuity, one must be well-versed in the unwritten rules. There is a place for everyone, but everyone knows their place.

The result is not always conducive to the "creativity" of which Mr Coday is convinced the islanders are so deprived. Could they simply be depriving themselves?

In the NCR story, and in the comments, there are continual references to what is known as "the island way." Is it as hard and fast (as opposed to ever-evolving and "creative") as its proponents appear to suggest? In the history of Beaver Island, the main livelihoods of its people by the mid-20th century were fishing, logging, and farming. By the 1970s, when the population was less than one-third of its present one, this was supplanted by tourism, as visitors from throughout the Great Lakes region came to the island to recreate at the beaches and inland lakes, as well as to play golf. The construction of seasonal cottages as a growth industry soon followed. It is reported that only in the last decade has the island had any access to the internet. It seems that "the island way" can bend when it has to.

But most important to our story, roughly half a century ago, the Catholics of the island changed the way they celebrated the Mass, just like every other Roman Rite Catholic on the mainland, and beyond. Where was "the island way" among the parishioners when that happened?

Perhaps they saved it for when one of those upstarts from the outside world gave them the need for a united front.

In late July, West and a group of parishioners met with Hebda when he came to the island to celebrate Mass in Blasko's absence. While West said they entered the meeting with a great deal of hope, they left frustrated, feeling Hebda rebuffed them, having an explanation for each of their grievances.

... which is easy enough when the audience isn't ready for it. And since when is an explanation necessarily "rebuffing"? When you are told what you don't want to hear? Ask anyone who ever raised children how often that happens.

But wait, there's more.

Hebda told NCR the message that people aren't happy is "perfectly clear," and "by no means have I ignored the situation, and I certainly am in constant contact with Fr. Joe and with others to find out how things are going."

The bishop offered to bring in a mediator for the parish, but said the idea was flat-out rejected, as parishioners have drawn a line in the sand -- they'll come back when Blasko is gone.

"They'll come back when Blasko is gone." This is not the ideal bargaining position for any group of individuals, who are fortunate to even rate their own parish in better times. Fair or not, the bishop holds all the good cards here, and the locals played a bad hand regardless of what they were holding.

So now, everybody is probably waiting for the other shoe to drop. Sending in a new priest will not solve the bishop's problem in the long run, which would be his most likely move if he had one to spare. He will still have a parish whose people will throw a fit whenever they don't get their way. This in turn is what the parishioners appear to want, but is it what they need? Transferring the current pastor will not solve that priest's own problems, unless it is one that is based upon his problems. We'll get to that shortly as well.

Meanwhile, back outside the box ...

The bishop can handle this like a manager of people and property, or he can handle it like a shepherd. For all his efforts (and let's presume his sincerity for now), the usual approach has not worked. Maybe it's time to try the other one. After all, “if you always do what you’ve always done, you always get what you’ve always got.”

First, Bishop Hebda needs to spend at least one hour, alone and without interruption, in front of the Blessed Sacrament, if only for the intentions related to this particular challenge. If the "still, small voice" was good enough for the prophet Isaiah, it's good enough for him. He does not have the luxury of treating this as some little parish in the middle of nowhere. It is now in the middle of national exposure in the Catholic press, and he has a captive (and much wider) audience.

To put it another way, the bishop must leave the ninety-nine sheep behind, and seek out the one that is lost. (There is a precedent for this. If you have to ask ...)

Second, the bishop needs to take care of the one soul for which he might well answer most of all, that of Joseph Blasko. This guy needs to be sent on a thirty-day, no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners, Ignatian retreat, under the guidance of a dyed-in-the-wool, whiskey-drinking, cigar-chomping, shanty-Irish, kickin'-it-old-skool Jesuit priest. No stone will be left unturned, and what happens after that can be decided later.

Third, the parishioners need a lesson they will never forget, one that reminds them, not only that they are still a parish, but one that is able to function only in union with the whole Church -- you know, the one on the mainland. This will require removing the control over events completely and resolutely out of their hands, and letting the purification begin. If personal reform is to happen, one must dispense with the illusion that all is well.

Recent years have seen a small but growing resurgence in religious life. One success story is the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, an order in the Franciscan Capuchin tradition founded in 1987, and dedicated to evangelization through the call for personal reform and renewal, as well as working with the urban poor. If this order, or one much like it, could be persuaded to send a priest, preferably two or three, to the island parish for a period of one year, or ideally, three years, it could embark on a parish mission, one that would last longer than the usual one week or one month. Perhaps the people should also be told, that the alternative is accept a refreshed and renewed Father Blasko upon his return. They can roll the dice, and take their chances.

The observations of Mr Coday notwithstanding, such conflicts are hardly a post-conciliar phenomenon -- Father Peter Gallagher, a pastor in the late-19th century, got into fisticuffs with a parishioner, inside the church! -- but are definitely signs of a spiritual crisis. At its heart is an infestation that must be pulled out at the roots, not covered over with political theater and talk about some imaginary "healing process" (which is chancery code-speak for "making this go away"). The parish must be re-catechized from the ground up, preferably by a disinterested party, one accountable to, but outside of, the diocesan machinery. In time, not only will wounds be healed, but the parish will rediscover their Catholicity; that is, what it really means to be a Catholic, beyond a mere once-a-week fellowship gathering.

On the other hand, if fellowship is all they really need, establishing a Moose Lodge on "America's Emerald Isle" would be a lot easier, don't you think?

Or don't you?

1 comment:

Sofia said...

Interesting piece...definitely something different and Deo gratias for that!

Your writing is superb, thank you for sharing it with the rest of us...