Where Are Bold Catholic Leaders?

Pope Francis is the best thing that has happened to the Catholic Church since St. John XXIII. I know there are lots of dedicated priests, religious, and laypeople working on the front lines with refugees, the poor, the elderly, single mothers, and other at-risk groups of people. But where among today’s leaders are the Oscar Romeros, the Daniel Berrigans, and the Dorothy Days? I don’t think I’m having a crisis of faith; it feels more like a crisis of religion because of tepid leadership.

You remember Oscar Romero, Daniel Berrigan, and Dorothy Day as bold leaders, but each of them had a significant conversion experience. When Oscar Romero, for example, was named archbishop of San Salvador on February 23, 1977, he was widely considered a very safe, don’trock-the-boat choice. Three weeks later, the murder of Father Rutilio Grande, SJ, a pastor working in his diocese, and a young pastoral worker started Romero on a new path of conversion. He was martyred in 1980. Would he have become Blessed Oscar Romero without that conversion? Probably not.

Catholic leaders and followers in this country are undergoing conversions on many issues. When Cardinal Joseph Bernardin proposed in 1996 the Catholic Common Ground Initiative, he was publicly opposed by Cardinals Baum, Hickey, and Law, largely because they feared that Bernardin’s earlier championing of a “seamless garment ” approach to life issues might trivialize pro-life efforts.

In November 2015, Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego asked his brother bishops that their quadrennial preelection statement quote more extensively from what Pope Francis had told them two months earlier in Washington’s St. Matthew Cathedral. McElroy’s suggestion was not accepted.

Pope Francis was not always the bold leader whom you admire. Life taught him several hard lessons long before he was elected pope in 2013. He is now a bold leader in large part because he is a fearless man of conscience.

Over 50 years ago, author and political activist Michael Harrington observed that when the history of the Catholic Church in the United States is written, Cardinal Francis Spellman will be a footnote and Dorothy Day will be a chapter. I think events have proven Harrington’s assessment to be correct.

Bold, prophetic leaders often emerge slowly, usually on the basis of a developing conscience and their rejection of benefits they could have expected in return for being less bold and prophetic.

All of us are called to be people of conscience. Where and how we live that out may vary widely. I hope that you are finding St. Anthony Messenger a trustworthy companion on your faith journey.

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