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Good news: 'God wins'

New archbishop says Catholics must be 'witnesses to hope,' not 'prophets of doom'

Following is an edited version of Archbishop Thomas Wenskiís first interview with the Miami edition of the Florida Catholic. The interview took place May 30, two days before his installation as archbishop of Miami.

How does it feel to come back home, this time as archbishop?

Itís still quite new because for the past seven years Orlando also has become home. But Iím comforted by the familiar faces I see and also the very warm welcome that Iíve gotten to date. So it wonít take me too long to get back into the swing of things and feel at home.

How will your new position affect your relationship with priests who were friends and classmates? How do you deal with that now that you are in a position of authority? Does that make your job here harder than if you went to a diocese like Orlando where you really didnít know all that many people?

Itís going to change a lot of things. In the position I have as archbishop, I will try to be friendly with everyone. But at the same time, it is a position of authority over priests and others that I have known and have been friends with, so thereís going to be a re-definition of that relationship. Itís natural that, for professional integrity and for the understanding of the lines of authority, that certain boundaries be established.

Archbishop Thomas Wenski spoke with the Florida Catholic May 30, two days before his installation as Miami's fourth archbishop.

Photographer: FILE PHOTO

Archbishop Thomas Wenski spoke with the Florida Catholic May 30, two days before his installation as Miami's fourth archbishop.

In Orlando, I didnít know many priests before I got there although one priest was a former classmate of mine. So there was something similar there. But again, itís sort of like in a family, the parent always has to be a parent. The parent canít confuse his role as a parent and become a buddy to his child. That image might seem perhaps a little bit too paternalistic however in any professional relationship something similar occurs. Even when itís a family business, you canít let the lines of authority be blurred.

Does that mean a bishop canít have friends?

A bishop has friends. As I said, this archbishop will try to be friendly to everyone. But at the same time, thereís a certain professionalism that everyone is expecting; in the sense that no one wants to think that so-and-so has it easier or better access than someone else; or that so-and-soís advice or counsel is more highly regarded than othersí because of a personal relationship.

Your name had been rumored for so long. Were you surprised at the announcement? You told the Orlando Florida Catholic your initial reaction was to ďstay put.Ē Why?

The rumors were going on for a long time. Previous to the rumors about my coming to Miami, there were also I think at one time some strong rumors, at least in Orlando, that I was going to another diocese up in the north where winter lasts for six months. Obviously, Iím much more elated that this rumor and not the previous one proved to be true. The rumors at one point were getting to be a little irksome and bothersome because I did not want to let the people in Orlando think that I was a lame duck.

At the same time, my first reaction was to stay put because, again, there is a very special relationship between a bishop and his Church, and his diocese. Although I was only there for just short of seven years ó five and a half years as the ordinary ó I think there was a bonding that took place between myself, my priests in Orlando and the people of Orlando; a similar bonding which Iím confident will also take place here as I now return in my new capacity as the archbishop.

However, those rumors were hot and heavy and this was over a year ago that they first started coming. I was involved in a very important capital campaign in the Diocese of Orlando that came out of our diocesan synod. I had also just initiated the renovation of the cathedral church of the Diocese of Orlando which had started last summer. So I had a lot of irons in the fire. I was a bit concerned about leaving Orlando with my work unfinished.

Of course as the time came on, a lot of that work, although it did not finish, did get closer to the finish. For example, our capital campaign that we began in January 2008 and will end in December of this year has to date raised over $107 million and we still have about 30 percent of our parishes yet to participate. The campaign was staged so that different waves of parishes participated at different times. It was a strategic way of us approaching the capital campaign in Orlando. However, the goal is to raise $150 million. I am confident that the campaign is on track and even without my presence it can achieve that goal.

Of course, the cathedral renovation project is still underway. It started as I said last July and it wonít be finished until November of this year. So this is one project that I had to leave undone. But Iím not the one thatís hammering nails into the roof or putting plaster on the walls so itíll get done without me. Iíll be proud to go back and visit it and to take credit for having initiated the renovation project even though someone else will be there for its completion.

In your Building the City of God profile you said you were able to be a ďmissionary in my own backyardĒ. Have you been able to continue that type of ministry as a bishop in Orlando, and if so, how do you plan to continue it as archbishop of Miami?

Every baptized Catholic is expected to be both a disciple and a missionary of Jesus Christ. In fact that was the theme of the fifth general conference of CELAM, the organization of the bishops from Latin America that met two years ago in Aparecida in Brazil. The theme of that was the Church as disciple and missionary.

The Haitian experience here in south Florida was a great blessing to me. Because from the time I was in the seminary I felt an attraction to working with the poor but also working outside my own culture. I remember in the seminary at one point I thought about asking to go study in Latin America. There was a program at the time where a seminary in Chile was taking people from other parts of the world to prepare them for work in Latin America. That was attractive to me. I remember speaking to the vocation director about it at the time. He discouraged me and he discouraged me simply by saying that I donít have to go to Latin America because Latin America is coming here. I think he was right.

So when I was ordained a priest I fully expected to be working in a Hispanic community here in south Florida; in a Hispanic and Cuban community. When I was a deacon I was at St. Benedict in Hialeah that was a great experience with a parish that was perhaps evenly mixed between Anglos and Hispanics. Those Hispanics at that time were overwhelmingly Cuban.

Then in my first assignment as a priest I went to Corpus Christi Parish in Miami where I remember that even our staff meetings were held in Spanish because everybody spoke Spanish and I did too and I didnít think it was strange at all that the language of business in that parish was in Spanish.

It was there when I was at Corpus Christi that I encountered the Haitian community. I started learning a few words in order to be friendly to the people that were coming there to Mass. Just by happenstance I saw in the paper that there was going to be a Creole-language course that was going to be offered under the auspices of FIU at one of the local grammar schools in the area, so I signed up for it. As they say, the rest is history. The archbishop at the time, Archbishop McCarthy, found out that I was learning Creole and in less than a year I was assigned fulltime to work with the Haitian population. That happened almost at the same time that the numbers of Haitians arriving to south Florida expanded exponentially. So I was in the right place at the right time, I guess.

Having been a priest of the Archdiocese of Miami, growing up here, I knew the lay of the land so it was relatively easy for me to be a bridge between the growing Haitian community and the wider Catholic community. For example, when I heard that there were Haitians in Immokalee, I didnít really need a road map to find out where Immokalee was because I had been there. I had worked there as a seminarian, briefly, with the Hispanic ministry. When I realized the Haitians needed a Mass in the Fort Lauderdale area, I could go and knock on the door of the then-pastor of St. Clement, which was then Father (Patrick) McDonnell and say I need a church; and it was hard for him to refuse me because years and years ago when I was in grade school I asked him if I could be an altar server in my home parish.

So that, I think, enabled me perhaps to assure that the Haitians were integrated into the local Church structures. As I said at that time, I always understood my mission to make the Church present to the Haitian community and at the same time to make the Haitians present to the broader Church. I think having known the various priests that I had to interact with in order to get the use of parish facilities was one way of making the Church present to that Haitian community because otherwise they would have remained invisible. As far as the opposite end, I think the fact that when the Holy Father arrived here in 1987, that he spoke in English, Spanish and Creole also signified that indeed the Church knew that the Haitians were there. So he made the Haitians present to the Church and the Church present to the Haitians.

Lately weíve been going through difficult times in Miami: Morningstar retreat center is up for sale. A proposal has been made to merge Our Lady of the Holy Rosary and St. Richard. I just wondered, is there anything you can tell the people involved in those? Have you even had a chance to study that? What are your plans right now for those properties?

At this point, Iíve been very busy as the bishop of Orlando. In fact, even the Friday before my installation I was in Ocala celebrating a Mass for the graduating high school class of Trinity High in Ocala. So Iíve been very busy working to the very end in my responsibilities as the bishop of Orlando. June 1 I assume the responsibilities of being archbishop of Miami and these issues Iíve heard about them and Iíve gotten some input from various people but I havenít really had the opportunity to study them or to be really informed enough to make any intelligent comments about them.

I hope to be a quick study. I know that the economy, the economic downturn has affected the archdiocese of Miami as well as other institutions in south Florida. Perhaps this recession has had a greater negative impact here in south Florida than it has had in central Florida. We see Jackson Memorial Hospital laying off significant number of staff people. We see Miami Dade County government having very serious issues in meeting its budget.

The Church is supposed to be not of the world but it is certainly in the world so the problems of the world do affect it. As I said on the day of my announcement when a reporter asked me that same question, when the recession started a lot of the airlines had to cancel a number of their regularly scheduled flights. So the airlines are putting a lot fewer planes in the air than they did before the economic downturn took place. They had to do that because they couldnít afford to fly half empty planes. They had to downsize or perhaps even right-size in order to face the crisis.

So Iíve just been observing from a distance so I donít really have a full grasp on everything that weíre faced with. But I surely will be told very quickly and hopefully Iíll be hearing some good news as well as a lot of the bad news.

Again, as I said on the day of that announcement, the history of south Florida has been a history of booms and busts. You can go back to the 1890s when Julia Tuttle was trying to get Henry Flagler to bring the railroad to Miami, you had a series of great spurts of economic growth followed by downturn that doomsayers were writing the obituary of the city of Miami. They were always proved wrong because, after those downturns, Miami has always bounced back. I think that will be true again of this region.

As the region bounces back, I expect the Church to do so as well. So I think while optimism is a secular value, as Catholics and as Christians we have to be hopeful. Hope is a theological virtue. So I think we have to look to the future with confidence because of the hope that is ours, that hope that will never disappoint us, namely Jesus Christ.

The sexual abuse crisis has kind of dominated the headlines for the last eight years or so. It has affected every bishop in the country and now in other parts of the world. Do you see that as continuing or will it ebb now that the Church in the U.S. has taken steps to deal with the crisis?

Iím not sure if the media coverage will necessarily ebb because again the Church has, as you said, taken steps to deal with the crisis and I think theyíve been very effective steps. So that I believe we can say that this crisis has been surmounted at least here in the United States. However, it does sell newspapers apparently, so lots of newspapers and other media like to revive the coverage of the crisis. Hopefully the people that are reading, following the media, will notice that most of the cases, the overwhelming majority of the cases they are citing, are cases that occurred 40 years ago, 30 years ago and not something that has happened yesterday or is happening today.

Again, I think right now the Church here in the United States is committed to providing a safe environment, and to being a safe environment for children and young people, and I think it has done that to a degree that is unprecedented and unparalleled and other similarly situated institutions have not done as much as the Catholic Church has done.

Of course, I think recent attention to scandals in Germany and elsewhere have also helped bishops in other countries perhaps become greater aware of this issue and hopefully they will look at the procedures and policies that the bishops of the United States have put in place and try to emulate them.

But again, what the research has shown is that this was an epidemic of demonic proportions that affected the Church at a particular time in its history, namely from the early Ď60s to the late Ď70s or early Ď80s. By the mid-Ď80s and later this epidemic had pretty much run its course in the Church.

This is not to belittle by any means the pain and the suffering of those that were affected by this epidemic of child sexual abuse. Why this epidemic happened and how many people it affected is still something that will be studied by social scientists and perhaps theyíll come up with some findings that will help us to avoid situations like this in the future. But this has not been the narrative of the Church in its 2000 years of history and it will not be the narrative of the future.

I think we still have to analyze the broader cultural context of that time. From the late Ď50s to the early Ď80s we witnessed in our nation and in the culture of the West an unprecedented shift in social values with the sexual revolution and other changes that were happening at an unprecedented pace. Certainly that has a lot perhaps to do with explaining what happened much more than some of the facile explanations that sometimes are offered up in the media ó like for example that this has something to do somehow with celibacy. If those perpetrators had been celibate there would have been no scandal because there would have been no victims. So celibacy is not the problem. So we have to look beyond the facile explanations which are usually used as barbs by some people trying to advance their own agendas.

In your last column for the Orlando edition of the Florida Catholic, you said your role is ďto witness that God mattersĒ to a secular society by taking public stands on issues of morality and social justice. Miami would seem to be a tremendous platform for that. At the same time, it might bring you lots of criticism from Catholics and non-Catholics alike. We live in a very polarized environment right now. How do you plan to deal with that?

In my years in Orlando Iíve spoken out quite openly and quite freely both in our diocesan media but also in the public media, the secular media, like the various daily newspapers that are published in central Florida, and I hope to continue to do likewise here.

We live in an increasingly secular society or secularized society, I would say. I think thereís probably a difference that is not well appreciated but thereís a subtle difference between secularity and secularism. Now secularity is a healthy thing, for example the difference between church and state. But secularism is more understood as an ideology that seeks to basically marginalize God.

Secularism seeks to organize life without taking God into account; or as I said in that article, as if God did not matter. We see it all through our culture. Even it affects Catholics. Catholics donít go to church on Sunday as much as they used to and as often as they should, which is every Sunday, and thatís partly because of the sway of secularism. If you think that God doesnít matter, then it doesnít matter if you go to church. But again, a society that believes that God doesnít matter begins also to think that man does not matter either.

As archbishop, and as Catholics here in south Florida and throughout the world, we have a mission, which is to model to the world how joyful life can be and how meaningful life is when people in fact live knowing that God does matter. We do this by what we say and do and we do that sometimes by what we wonít do.

Thatís what the world needs to see in us, is that witness. It has to be a witness to hope because again, a world that has eliminated the transcendent, or has shut the infinite out, a world that has no room for God teeters on the brink of despair. In a world that has lost hope ó and in many ways our world has lost hope, which is probably why politicians can take the word hope and use it as a campaign slogan ó but in a world that has lost hope, as a Catholic community we have to witness to hope, and to witness to the hope that has a human face, the hope that will not disappoint, the hope that is Jesus Christ.

What would you say initially your message to priests here, to laity here and to religious here?

Well, again, if we want our people to be witnesses to hope, then we too have to also witness to that hope. I think hope is central to the life of a priest. Because we celebrate the sacraments and the sacraments basically are a celebration of hope. Even the Mass is the foretaste, the pledge of future glory. If you donít have hope then there is no reason for sacraments. So sometimes people when they lose hope ó sometimes itís not because they lose faith but when they lose hope, then they drift away from the regular practice of the sacraments.

A priest or religious who has lost hope gets away from prayer because prayer is, again, part of the way that we express our hope. So to the priests and religious, the deacons of the diocese, we have to really imbue ourselves with hope and to communicate that to our people.

There are certainly reasons for hope. First of all, we are the Church. We are the body of Christ. Christís body I not a dead body because he has been risen. Christ, through the gift of the Spirit, has made us alive. Because we are members of Christ, we have no reason to be become prophets of doom; because the resurrection announces to us an alternate reality that is ultimately joyful. In spite of it all, God wins and if weíre with God we share in that victory.

As we look forward to confronting the different tasks that lie before us ó and thereís some serious work that we have to do together ó we have to remember that Jesus has given us his assurance that ďIím always with you.Ē He is with us. As St. Paul says, to paraphrase him, if God is with us who can be against us?

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