Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

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Bishop Sheen – Part 5

November 4th, 2009, Promulgated by Choir

In May of 1967, Sheen made public a tax he imposed on future construction in the diocese. The rate was to begin at 1.25 percent on buildings costing from $50,000 to $100,000, and go up to 3 percent on projects costing a half-million or more. The proceeds would go to Catholic missionary work and to the needs of the inner city. In fact, Sheen did not favor future construction; he once refused to enter a new rectory because he thought it too ornate.

Sheen made financial reforms aimed at helping both parochial teachers and priests. Teacher in the parochial schools were paid between $2,000 and $3,000 a year in early 1967. The bishop raise all salaries. It was popular with teachers but raised financial difficulties for the system.

When Sheen came to Rochester, a pastor earned about $150 a month; and an associate about $100. As was common across the country, the pastor kept the Christmas offering, which meant that having a large congregation was preferable. The bishop cancelled the Christmas offering and raised clerical salaries across the board. This earned the bishop much clerical resentment. In addition, Sheen established a new diocesan pension plan for priests and set up a priests’ personnel board.

Sheen told of his desire to make the diocese “a microcosm” of Vatican II reforms, but there were deep rumblings of discontent within the diocese. A priest declared, “He has too many plates in the air. Often, he doesn’t follow through.” Many Catholics were protesting by dropping buttons in the collection. Sheen had inherited a large diocesan debt, and his stand on civil rights was making the task of raising funds extremely difficult.

Sheen was clearly in the progressive wing, in the sense of wholly endorsing the reforms of Vatican II and was eager to see them implemented. As our recently deceased diocesan historian, Father Robert F. McNamara has put it, “his one constant fear was that Catholicism would be judged by other Americans as behind the times or irrelevant. Sheen told a synod of bishops meeting in Rome that “it would be important to bring competent laymen into the running of our seminaries because some of them have a deeper spirit of faith than we find in some priests.” He also advocated postponing ordination for two years, as young people were still immature in will and intellect and were “subjected to stimuli that bring about instability of character.” The sentiment did not win friends for the bishop among his clergy and seminarians.

TWO AUXILIARY BISHOPS FOR THE DIOCESE

On January 5, 1968, Pope Paul VI named two auxiliary bishops for the diocese: Dennis Walter Hickey, the vicar general, and John Edgar McCafferty, a member of the Priests’ Council and a former chairman of the Diocesan Ecumenical Commission. They were welcomed by the diocesan clergy, for many were growing cold toward Bishop Sheen.

Sheen knew all the names of the priests and ministered to those who were ailing. But some thought him aloof, and they smarted as his domination of dinnertime discussions. Some resented that he (Sheen) would not permit any of them to be laicized. Some clergy considered the bishop’s policies radical and perhaps designed to keep his name in the headlines. Sheen did not like to attend meetings, and clergy learned quickly that if a committee disagreed with him, he would call no further meetings. Priests discovered that for all his talk of democracy, Sheen had an iron will and was given to doing what he wanted no matter what other thought or said.

GIVING AWAY ST. BRIDGET’S

All of these frustrations came to a head in the spring of 1967. Sheen would give to the federal government the property of St. Bridget’s inner-city parish on which to erect housing for the poor. The Great Society of then President Lyndon B. Johnson was experimenting with a variety of program to improve the lives of the disadvantaged, housing in particular, and Fulton thought the DoR could be a model of what the post-conciliar Church could do to join the effort.

The Vatican and the apostolic delegate knew of his plans; but the diocese, however, did not. Sheen wrote directly to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). HUD accepted. On the advice of his chancellor, Father James M. Moynihan (now retired Bishop of Syracuse), Sheen convened the Board of Consultors, a body of priests appointed by the bishop and required by Canon Law. The board approved the offer. Sheen talked with the pastor of St. Bridget’s who was unhappy about the proposed gift. Sheen rejected the suggestion he consult with the people of the parish, on the ground that it would take too long.

Rumors began to leak out. Local urban renewal officials were unhappy, charging that HUD had gone over their heads in making the deal. The congregation of St. Bridget’s was unhappy. The priests were up in arms over the bishop’s exercise of his authority. Bishop Hickey suggested to delay, but Sheen said that the matter had gone too far to turn back. Sheen issued a press release on February 28, 1968, Ash Wednesday, describing the deal he had made with the federal government.

The next morning, six student pickets, who had been working in the parish, protested. Father Francis Vogt, pastor of St. Bridget’s, called the bishop’s gift a “mistake”. Another priest told a reporter, “If the Bishop wants to make some grand gestures, he could move down here and live and then maybe he would be selling his books instead of giving away church property.”

Sheen’s initial comment to the press was hard: “It is the need of the parish, of the diocese and all forces of the community to de-egotize their own interests.” Privately he was agonizing. His usefulness in Rochester was over, he believed, and he decided to resign. “St. Bridget’s was the last straw,” Father Hogan said later.

(The final installment will be out asap)

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