Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Two bishops on Philemon

September 6th, 2010, Promulgated by Mike

Bishop Matthew Clark visited Holy Cross Parish on Sunday and celebrated the 10:00 am Mass. Contrary to some conjecture following the announcement of his visit, His Excellency made it clear at the beginning of his homily that

… nothing’s wrong.  There are no announcements up my sleeve. Father Wheeland is in perfectly good standing. Everything is beautiful.  I’m here only because I had no formal commitments this weekend and realized I hadn’t prayed with you in a while and I wanted to come and join you for Sunday worship and Fr. Tom was kind enough to arrange for that and I thank him for it.

And that was the extent of the bishop’s rationale for being at Holy Cross.

If he was aware of the pain he had caused so many families two years ago when he closed Holy Cross School, he did not acknowledge it.

If he felt any remorse over allowing a committee of highly talented parishioners to waste scores of man-hours devising a “Save Our School” plan, knowing full well he had no intention of accepting it no matter how good it was, he kept those regrets to himself.

If he realized that Sunday’s lector was one of the leaders of that committee, as well as the author of a January 16, 2008 D&C Guest Essay telling him that our children “deserve to top the list of the church’s priorities, with resources to match,” that our Catholic schools should not be viewed “as a drain on diocesan finances” but “rather … an investment in the future,” and urging him “and the task force members to visit Holy Cross or any Catholic elementary school and look into the faces of the children whose destinies they hold in their hands,” he did not publicly acknowledge it.

Finally, if he knew that the 9 year-old girl he pointed out during his homily was one of the children who sobbed for hours in her mother’s arms when she learned that he school was to close, he said not a word.

But I digress.

The preliminaries, such as they were,  having been dispensed with, Bishop Clark launched into the heart of his homily.

Sunday’s readings included a passage from Philemon, a letter St. Paul wrote to a Christian slave owner in Colossae that was to be hand-carried to him by Onesimus, one of his slaves.

Biblical scholars are in almost unanimous agreement that Onesimus was a run-away slave who had somehow found his way to Paul.  The NAB puts it this way:

[Onesimus was] a slave from Colossae (Col 4:9), who had run away from his master, perhaps guilty of theft in the process (Philemon 1:18). Onesimus was converted to Christ by Paul (Philemon 1:10). Paul sends him back to his master (Philemon 1:12) with this letter asking that he be welcomed willingly by his old master (Philemon 1:8-10, 14, 17) not just as a slave but as a brother in Christ (Philemon 1:16). Paul uses very strong arguments (especially Philemon 1:19) in his touching appeal on behalf of Onesimus. It is unlikely that Paul is subtly hinting that he would like to retain Onesimus as his own slave, lent to Paul by his master. Rather, he suggests he would like to have Onesimus work with him for the gospel (Philemon 1:13, 20-21).

Bishop Clark, in spite of the preponderance of scholarly opinion to the contrary, chose to portray Onesimus, not as a run-away, but as having been sent by Philemon to care for Paul during his imprisonment. This allowed His Excellency to opine that Paul’s opinion of slaves must have evolved as he matured in his Christianity and concluded from this that we should be willing to recommend as friend anyone,

no mater what status or standing or color or religion or orientation or anything else that person may have.  Here is one of God’s children. I present him or her to you. Do not treat him/her as a slave but, please, treat them as friend.

… which is, of course, a wonderful sentiment, but only one aspect of St. Paul’s argument in Philemon.

Bishop Clark’s entire homily may be viewed below, beginning at the 22:50 mark. (Do not let the initial silence bother you.  The church’s video recording system gets its audio input from the PA system, which was turned off until the lector took her place just before the beginning of Mass.)


By way of contrast the reader might be interested in the treatment given this letter by Anglican Bishop Tom Wright, a widely recognized, world class scripture scholar.

Bishop Wright’s presentation on Philemon may be viewed here.

By way of conclusion it should be noted that His Excellency was accompanied on his visit by Sister Mary Ann Binsack, the reason for whose presence was something of a mystery.  Sister’s only apparent function at Mass was to be demonstrate that a close-coiffed, gray-haired, alb-clad nun could hold up a book for the celebrant to read just as well as any of our 12 year-old servers could on any other Sunday morning.  I suspect, however, that most of us already knew that.

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15 Responses to “Two bishops on Philemon”

  1. TD says:

    I’m glad this video was available to confirm my recollection of Bishop Clark referring to Philemon as “her”. But I’m sure there’s no agenda behind that scholarship, either.

  2. Mike says:

    I also heard the “her” and had to “rewind the tape” a couple of times to be sure.

    I did several Google searches looking for feminists who might have tried to make the case the Philemon was a woman, but came up completely empty. (It would be a pretty hard case to make, as Philemon is definitely masculine in Greek.)

    Given that, I gave the bishop the benefit of the doubt and assumed that he just misspoke.

  3. Bill B. says:

    I think perhaps the reference to the Bishops secretary holding the book for him is a bit trite. Back when he had a male secretary, that priest held the book for the Bishop. I rememeber various functions atteneded and rememebered that. Now that priest, Fr. Thomoso (pardon the spelling) is a pastor today somewhere. As far as what Protestant scholars think of a scripture interpretation; perhaps the Bishop was using his early training in scripture. When we look at the scriptures like our Protestant friends, we become them, don’t we? Just wondering.

  4. Mike says:

    Bill B.,

    It’s not just Protestant scholars like Wright who hold that Onesimus was a run-away slave; rather, it is the overwhelming majority of all scholars. See, for example, Fr. John Hardon, S.J., the Catholic Encyclopedia, and the Catholic Study Bible.

    While the latter uses the NAB translation (a product of Jewish, Christian [both Protestant and Catholic] and atheist scholars), its commentary on Philemon was written by Mary Ann Getty, RSM, PhD.

  5. RochChaCha says:

    In listening to the Bishop’s homily, it sounded to me like he was defending the tough decisions that he has made over the years and asking for people to at least respect him for making his decisions consistently. There was an apologetic tone to it, regardless of whether or not he came to Holy Cross seeking some sort of reconciliation. On a separate note, I do not understand why the Bishop needs the lady in the white alb to accompany him and assist him during the mass. Could not one of the altar servers do that?

  6. Bill B. says:

    RochChaCha–Please see second half of my post above. The bishops prior secretary (a priest) did that. Either case is fine; his secretary or a child.

  7. RochChaCha says:

    Bill B

    Male or female, I still do not see the need for a secretary to accompany the bishop when he is saying mass at a parish. Is either fine, liturgically, probably…….but I don’t quite understand the rationale and that was my point. The fact that his current secretary is a female is just an outward sign of the Bishop’s implementation of the ‘Forward In Hope’ model he has for our Diocese.

  8. Dr. K says:

    He made her Vice Chancellor too.

  9. susanalouette says:

    As for the debate about the nun:
    I think we all know that this diocese cannot spare a healthy priest to serve, in effect, as a personal assistant to the bishop.
    That being said, I have seen Sister Mary Ann at Cathedral ceremonies several times (I’m a volunteer at many events there). I haven’t met her and have no particular opinion of her, prop or con. But I’ve never wondered why she puts on an alb. She always arrives in a dress and I was assuming that the alb was to make her “fit in” on the altar. Why distract others who might be assessing the pattern of her dress, the cut of her jacket, and so forth?
    And yes, she has short gray hair, but is that unusual in a nun her age? Not many look like Goldilocks.
    Instead of thinking of her as a distraction. I have always regarded her as watching out for the bishop’s health. He looks quite frail. A twelve -year-old server wouldn’t notice if the bishop needed a cup of water or an arm to assist him. Thanks for letting me express these thoughts.

  10. Susan,

    The alb cocks an eyebrow because of the tendency of wannabe priestesses in this diocese to play “let’s pretend” in liturgical celebrations.

  11. Mike says:


    Sometime in the late 1990s Bishop Clark made a similar “last minute” visit to the now-closed Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Greece. He came alone and the OLM servers held the sacramentary for him to read from along with doing everything else they normally did for our parish priest during any Sunday Mass.

    Yes, it is now 11 or 12 years later and His Excellency is that much older and might now need an occasional glass of water. That would put him in the same boat as one of our parish priests who is the same age as the bishop and who frequently needs water during Mass. Our servers are used to this and know how to put a glass of water on the credence table and bring it to the celebrant whenever he asks for it.

  12. Bernie says:

    A bishop’s secretary normally accompanies him to most liturgical elebrations and many other functions where the bishop might need him. I took a photo of Bishop Kearney on his way to a Memorial Day parade accompnaied by his secretary. On another occassion I ran across Bishop Clark on his way into the Eastman Theater for a graduation, alone. I don’t have a problem with the secretary taking care the bishop during the Liturgy. In that function he or she should be properly vested as a server. However, it’s really a shame that the young altar servers are deprived of personally attending to the bishop. The secretary could certainly be present to make sure the right page is turned for the bishop but I wish she would then turn the book over to a young server.

  13. benanderson says:

    Bill B.,
    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using protestant scholarship on scriptural or historical matters as long as they are well-renowned and intellectually honest. Could you elaborate on the harm in doing so?

  14. Anonymous says:

    Did anyone get anything more out of Bishop Clark’s homily other than he referred to Philemon as “her”, that he had an assistant to help him navigate this parish’s unfamiliar setting, or that he only addressed one aspect of St. Paul’s argument in Philemon? Bishop Clark was encouraging all of us to periodically check the lens through which we are viewing the world. Do we need to see others in a different light? Might we need to change some of our behaviors in order to continue to grow as a Christian?

  15. Anonymous says:

    But beware of the type of lens you use to see the light. Some of the lens that leadership in the DOR is use is tinted. Is one really ignorant of facts, or is he using the lens of interpretation for his own puropses?

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