Ronnie Polaneczky: Advice for Philly's new archbishop: Listen to the people

The Cathedral Basilica of Ss. Peter and Paul in Center City, where new Archbishop Charles Chaput is expected to say Mass today.
The Cathedral Basilica of Ss. Peter and Paul in Center City, where new Archbishop Charles Chaput is expected to say Mass today. (SARAH J. GLOVER / Staff photographer)
Posted: July 19, 2011

Update: The Vatican officially announced this morning that Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput has been named the new archbishop of Philadelphia.

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SO 76-YEAR-OLD Cardinal Justin Rigali is resigning today as head of the Philadelphia Archdiocese. While the news is being regarded by some critics as evidence of his fall from favor with the Vatican, that's not entirely fair.

I mean, unless 76 is the new 55, I think Rigali has earned the right to hang up his mitre by now.

Besides, the prelate's successor, Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput, is cut from the same conservative cloth. So maybe Pope Benedict XVI wants business as usual in Philly.

That wouldn't sit right with a handful of active and devout local Catholics I spoke with yesterday, when I asked what advice they'd give Chaput if they could have a sit-down with him.

"He needs to know that Catholics in this Archdiocese are passionate about our parishes and schools," says Haddonfield attorney Jason Marquess. He leads a well-heeled group of alums from North Catholic High School (he graduated in '67) who donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Archdiocese to fund its alma mater in recent years - only to see Rigali shut it down.

"I've traveled all over for business and attended Mass in almost every city in this country," says Marquess, who remains angry over Rigali's refusal to discuss his alumni group's offer to launch an independent Catholic school on the North Catholic site.

"No city is as identified with their parishes and schools as we are here. It's a reflection of the fact that Philly is a city of neighborhoods. [Chaput] needs to spend time in each parish, not just glad-handing at special events but really getting to know the people in the neighborhoods."

If Rigali had done that, Marquess says, he'd have cared how devastating his school-closing decisions have been on families.

"If the Archdiocese wants to reverse the trend of Catholics' leaving, the only way to do it is by listening to the laity," says Marquess.

His words ring true with Sister Maureen Turlish, head of Voice of the Faithful Philadelphia, the Catholic reform-advocacy group.

"I'd ask Chaput to see that being a 'good' Catholic doesn't require that you blindly follow church leadership," says Turlish. "I would tell him, 'We are not the enemy. We are good Catholics. We need to work together.' "

There's the institutional church, she says, and then there is the real church - the people.

"The people have been calling for transparency and accountability for years - even more since the second grand-jury report was released."

Turlish would ask Chaput to open up all of the church's records surrounding the decades-long sex-abuse scandal, "because the truth is going to come out anyway. We can do it now, or we can wait for a third grand-jury report. And we will wind up losing even more Catholics who've lost faith in the church."

Susan Matthews wants more than a verbal sit-down with Chaput. After offering him a welcoming cheesesteak, Matthews - who attended Philly parish and archdiocesan schools and whose young children are enrolled in Catholic elementary schools - would demand that the Archdiocese establish a lay advisory board.

"We need to become part of church leadership," says Matthews, co-administrator, with Kathy Kane, of "Catholics4Change." It's a much-read local blog (nearly 110,000 hits since its February launch) calling for reform and strong collaboration between those who sit at archdiocesan headquarters and those who sit in the pews.

If a lay advisory board existed, there would be no need for the three-point "to do list" that Matthews and Kane call for on their blog:

* Protect the children of the Archdiocese.

* End the clericalism that isolates the church from its people.

* Give every sex-abuse victim a chance to receive justice.

"There are two types of Catholics" in Philly, says Matthews. "There are the very apathetic, autopilot Catholics whose numbers are dwindling. And there are the very disheartened souls who are crushed and heartbroken by the church - and they are flat-out walking away. Especially the younger ones. We believe in God. But the time has come to say we can be faithful without being fools."

Welcome to Philly, Archbishop Chaput. Your work is cut out for you.

Email polaner@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns:

www.philly.com/Ronnie. Read Ronnie's blog at www.philly.com/RonnieBlog.

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