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Boston's challenges, opportunities for Archbishop Law

By James Carroll, 4/4/1984

oston has opened its heart to Archbishop Bernard Law. Not only Catholics, but the whole city has welcomed him, and it is easy to see why.

Archbishop Law is obviously a man of many gifts, but what strikes one most forcefully on first impression is his self-acceptance. Here is a man who is at home with his priesthood, with his authority, with his responsibility to teach the doctrines of the Church. Clearly he has the wish to be what he is. In that he is like John Paul II.

And like the Pope, Archbishop Law takes for granted, as only the sons of John XXIII and the Vatican Council could, the fact that authentic religion is not a flight from the world, but an embrace of it. No escape into idealism, into rhetoric, into mere piety for these men. If here and there we disagree with them -- and of course many Catholics do just that -- we know that it is no longer possible to disregard them.

Bernard Law showed us what religion means to him when, in the early Sixties, he stood in solidarity with black people in Mississippi. That was a time and place when rhetoric, piety and idealism meant nothing. What counted, and what priests and ministers like Law displayed, was the moral and even physical courage of prophets who dared to be specific and practical about the requirements of justice.

That experience of his, what it reveals about him and perhaps what it taught him, is the unexpected gift the new archbishop brings to Boston.

Boston is not Mississippi, but it is Boston, and race still dominates the agenda of our unfinished business. The populations of our schools, prisons, board rooms, editorial offices, clubs, unemployment agencies and even rectories continue to divide along mostly racial lines. A prophetic religious leader who is prepared in specific and practical ways to throw the great weight of the archdiocese solidly to the side of the disenfranchised in Boston could make the critical and long-awaited difference.

Another even more crucial issue on which the archbishop of Boston can have some effect is the superpower arms race. Everyone is against the arms race, of course, including as of last year the nation's Roman Catholic bishops. But rhetorical, one might even say pious, opposition to the deadly spiraling of weapons is far from enough now. Specific and practical moral teaching is what is needed, and nowhere more than in the Archdiocese of Boston.

Boston, the high-tech center of America, is the brain of the beast. No bishop in America has more responsibility for making the famous Pastoral Letter effective than this one does. Here, on Route 128 and its spokes, scientists and engineers are even now devising the next generation of military horrors. What does Archbishop Law have to say to the high-tech men and women whose Pentagon work leaves their consciences shaken? Or to the ones whose Pentagon work does not?

A third issue of great concern to people in this city that will surely occupy a place near the top of the new Archbishop's agenda, whether he wants it there or not, is the struggle of women for full equality. Recent stories about the twin outrages of rape and anti-victim rape trials only underscore the importance of the effort to eliminate the ancient, one might say traditional, sexist biases.

To some it seems that the Mississippi of the women's struggle today is the Roman Catholic Church itself, and Archbishop Law is going to have to speak boldly and effectively not so much from the Church as within it if that impression is to be proved wrong. Rhetorical commitment to the equality of the sexes means nothing if the church continues to discriminate against its women members.

When we welcome a new bishop, we remember what it is we want and need, not only from such a leader but from ourselves. Above all else we need to reclaim our ability to hope -- Catholics call hope a theological virtue -- and in our city, as in its new archbishop, we see many things that justify our doing so.

But luckily we Catholics are taught at an early age that our hope is rooted in more than the bright prospects of a vital, well-meaning city and in more than the gifts of a good priest and in more than our own fierce longing.

Our hope is not in politicians or scientists or even bishops. Our hope is in the Word of God alive in the church and in the world, cutting, as St. Paul says, like a two-edged sword, surprising everyone, even bishops, and always building the world, including Boston, creating it anew.

James Carroll's novel about the American Catholic Church, "Prince of Peace," will be published in the fall.

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 4/4/1984.
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