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What the Boston appointment may signal

By James L. Franklin, Globe Staff, 1/25/1984

clear endorsement for the Catholic hierarchy of the United States but an uncertainreading on the church in Boston -- that appears to be the message the Vatican sent yesterday in the appointment of Bishop Bernard F. Law as archbishop of Boston.

"People were watching the Boston appointment to see the attitude of the Holy See to the American hierarchy," said Rev. Msgr. Francis J. Lally of the US Catholic Conference.

"This is a clear indication," said Msgr. Lally, "that the Vatican favors a bishop with very broad interests, a person who has a grasp on the issues, who is neither conservative nor liberal, and who has taken part in the two biggest events of our times, the civil rights movement and the ecumenical movement."

Such approval endorses central commitments of the American bishops. It does so by promoting a bishop responsible for building ties among American bishops -- relationships that have been credited with helping the bishops take a tough stand on nuclear weapons even in the face of criticism from Rome and European bishops.

Yet the implications for Boston are less certain.

In choosing an outsider as archbishop, the Vatican is trying again to break a parochial mold often criticized in the Boston church.

That seemed to be a major reason for appointing Humberto Cardinal Medeiros in 1970, who came to Boston from a small mission diocese where he had earned a reputation for work on behalf of the poor.

Bishop Law comes from the same kind of diocese, with a similar reputation for social conscience and similarly gentle style in acting on it. Rev. Patrick Farrell of Jackson, Miss., where Bishop Law served as priest and vicar general, said the prelate avoided a "judgmental attitude.

"He will say what needs to be said, out of a very profound understanding of Christian and Catholic tradition, but he is not a man who puts people down," Fr. Farrell said.

The archbishop-elect has kept a low profile on national issues, and he was frequently described as "an unknown quantity" by knowledgeable church observers.

"I think it means the Pope wants peace in the church in Boston," said Padraic O'Hare of the Institute for Pastoral Ministry at Boston College, calling Bishop Law "a reconciling moderate."

Others disagree. Bishop Law is "conservative and low key," said Rev. Richard P. McBrien, chairman of the theology department at the University of Notre Dame. "The Vatican is interested in people who are careful and conservative but who convey a sense of moderation . . . The difference is that some of the older conservatives seem to emit electricity, while the younger men keep a lower profile."

Some church officials resisted efforts to find a message in the appointment. "It would be presumptuous for me to say," replied the administrator of the Boston archdiocese, Bishop Thomas V. Daily. "God is involved in the decision, as all people of faith believe."

Yet just a month before, a Vatican official said Pope John Paul II has been using such appointments "to send messages about what he wants the US church to be at the end of the 20th century."

Possibly because he had Bishop Law's dossier fresh in his mind, the official, Rev. Fred R. Voorhes of the Vatican Congregation for Bishops, offered a profile of the ideal candidate for Boston that closely matches Bishop Law: good teacher and preacher, academically gifted, a reconciler of differing groups, comfortable with the mass media, able to meet the needs of a growing Hispanic population, committed to better relations with other churches and the Jewish people.

Rome's choice for Boston is a consummate insider, one of a new breed of church leader whose finishing school was a staff job at the bishops' conference in Washington, not a stint in Rome. In that, he follows such influential churchmen as Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago, Archbishop Thomas Kelly of Louisville and the late Bishop James Rausch of Phoenix.

It also signifies increased influence for William Cardinal Baum, who preceded Bishop Law both as the top ecumenical officer for the Catholic Bishops in Washington and as bishop of Springfield-Cape Girardeau.

Perhaps the most influential among the American bishops in the choice of new bishops has been Cardinal Bernardin. Yet the choice of Bishop Law is believed to have been favored highly by both Cardinal Baum and Archbishop Pio Laghi, the Vatican delegate to the church in the United States.

Bishop Law himself avoided setting an agenda for the church in Boston at a news conference after his appointment yesterday. Instead, he cited a statement he had written, with other leaders in the diocese, about the mission of the Springfield, Mo., diocese he has headed:

Those priorities included "a personal relationship with Jesus Christ . . . and a sense of Catholic identity;" evangelization, including "greater use of radio and television;" dissemination of the teaching of the Pope and bishops on social justice and peace, including "programs of service and advocacy . . . at the parish and diocesan level;" Catholic education, with active support for Catholic schools; and "vocation awareness," emphasizing "the fundamental vocation of all Christians to be saints."

He has already told church officials in Boston that he expects to "spend his first year looking around." He has also said he realizes he must modify his style of visiting parishes; in the past he has spent a whole weekend at a parish, celebrated every Mass, led a six-and-a-half hour retreat for teenagers about to receive the sacrament of confirmation and presided at a workshop for parish council members.

Despite the intense personal activity, some of those who know him say he is an efficient administrator. "As an executive, he never let things slip through his fingers," said Rev. Dr. Robert Huston, national ecumenical officer for the United Methodist Church. "In addition, he was always to play a mediator's role, sensitive, careful and responsible."

When he took over the office of vicar general in Jackson, Miss., said Fr. Farrell, "he reorganized the whole diocesan office and its staff.

"I'm sure the task in Boston is mammoth, but if a man is capable of combining managerial ability and pastoral effectiveness, this is he."

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 1/25/1984.
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