Apr 17, 2014
07:12 AM
Connecticut Today

Connecticut Catholics Welcome New Bishops

Connecticut Catholics Welcome New Bishops

New Connecticut bishops Frank Caggiano (left) of Bridgeport and Leonard Blair (right) of Hartford.

Pope Francis recently celebrated a year in office, impressing the world with his humble, straightforward style.

However, the pope is not the only new leader Roman Catholics in Connecticut have been getting to know—Bishop Frank Caggiano took office last fall in the Diocese of Bridgeport while Archbishop Leonard Blair was seated in the Archdiocese of Hartford in December.

A main focus of their jobs is to interpret the statements of the Holy Father to their flocks, which include four of the state’s eight counties and its most populous cities. The Archdiocese of Hartford totals 700,000 Catholics while the Diocese of Bridgeport has 460,000; together, they comprise nearly a third of the state’s entire population. Thus, the words of the new bishops have the potential to impact one in every three state residents.

Last July, Pope Francis told reporters, “If a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge.” Such implied acceptance of LGBT people seemed to be a significant departure from Catholic dogma, shaking many of the faithful and bringing renewed worldwide attention to the church.

Here in Connecticut, the two new bishops were quick to provide their interpretations of the Pope’s comments.

“The church faces a pastoral challenge here because the catechism of the Catholic church states in no uncertain terms that people with a homosexual inclination are to be treated with respect. And yet at the same time we have the situation where there is this movement to make so-called gay marriage legal,” says Blair of Hartford. “The challenge is to make it clear that while we’re opposed to this kind of change in the law because . . . we truly believe that it does not correspond to the reality of what marriage is, that does not mean that somehow we condemn homosexual persons as persons.”

“The church teaches very clearly that gay and lesbian Catholics deserve respect, are to be loved just as the Lord loves them, and they are to be welcomed into the church,” says Bridegeport’s Caggiano. “On the other hand, there is behavior that we believe, in our tradition … violates the natural law but more specifically it violates that which the Lord has specifically taught. And therefore whether they’re gay or straight isn’t the issue. The issue is the call to holiness by each individual person in their own state of life.”

While each bishop has his own way of expressing the teachings of the church, their message is consistent.

Both men felt a call to the priesthood early. Caggiano is a first-generation Italian-American from Brooklyn, who spent most of his life and ministry in the borough. He attended Yale University for one semester before leaving that “cosmopolitan experience.” “The difficulty was that there was growing inside of me this sense of a vocation that I had known since I was young—service in the church, priesthood,” Caggiano says.

Blair, who came to Hartford after having served as bishop of the Diocese of Toledo, Ohio, also says that he always wanted to become a priest. “I had Franciscan sisters who taught me in grade school in Detroit,” he says. “I was born in one of their hospitals, I was educated in one of the grade schools that they ran at the parish. I’ve been asked sometimes who was the priest who most influenced my desire to be a priest, and I say it wasn’t a priest—it was the sisters.”

Since arriving in Hartford, Blair has been “deeply impressed and grateful for the very warm welcome that’s been extended to me as archbishop,” he says. “The challenge, of course, is a learning curve that, when you come into a new community and a new diocese, you have to become acquainted with everything, people and places and institutions.”

The Diocese of Bridgeport includes both well-heeled Greenwich and urban Bridgeport; Caggiano says the “variety is very life-giving.” He lives in Trumbull, doing his own laundry and driving his own car, and says that seeing “the sun rise above the trees is absolutely spectacular . . . that is a tremendous moment in the day when I can pray and really feel very close to the Lord.”

Former coworkers describe both men as deeply spiritual. Caggiano is “very much a priest with all that implies in the good sense of the word,” says Msgr. Otto Garcia, pastor of St. Joan of Arc Church in Queens and former vicar general of the Diocese of Brooklyn. Caggiano’s vocation “means everything to him and it’s the center of his life,” Garcia says, calling Caggiano someone who’s “willing to dialogue and not at all threatened by someone who may come up with a better idea.”

“He is a very hardworking person, a very holy man, very congenial to people,” adds Frank DeRosa, Caggiano’s former director of public information. “The priests in Brooklyn like him very, very much because of his pastoral way, his friendly way.”

Blair too was well-regarded in his former diocese. Msgr. William Kubacki, moderator of the curia in Toledo, called him a “teacher of the faith” who would “listen intently but was not afraid to make decisions.”

The Rev. Monte Hoyles, Toledo’s chancellor, says Blair “came at a particularly difficult time for the diocese,” having to deal with the sexual-abuse scandals. “Unfortunately, he also had sitting on his desk [a report recommending] the closing of a number of parishes.”

“In a way I felt bad for him,” Hoyles says, although he contends that Blair handled the issues well. “He gained his credibility by showing he was interested in and willing to listen to what people had to say.”

 

The two new bishops shared their views on major issues facing the Catholic church.

CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE SCANDALS
Blair: “We’re never past it in the sense that the church and our society in general has to be very vigilant and proactive in prevention and creating safe environments for our young people, so my goal is certainly that we will do everything humanly possible to prevent such things from happening, not just by clergy but others as well.”

Caggiano: It is “a grave wound to the life of the church, apart from the sin that was perpetrated and the innocent lives that were terribly wounded and hurt. It has shattered the trust of many an individual and called into question the trust that they once had in the leadership of the church on every level. I am committed to do whatever I can to strengthen the processes and procedures that we have to make sure that it never happens again.”

WOMEN’S ROLES IN THE CHURCH
Blair: “We seem today to reduce the role of women to a question of power. There’s no question in my mind that women have always played a huge role in the life of the church. I owe my vocation to the priesthood more to the sisters who taught me in grade school than to any priest. Religious women in particular have exercised an enormous influence in the church.”

Caggiano: “Women are equal in dignity and participation in the life of the church,” but not in priesthood. “Jesus of Nazareth broke every social norm that existed in the time of his age, every single one that I could imagine, including socializing with Samaritan women who were adulteresses. But when he chose his apostles, he chose only men. That deliberate choice of having men only is something that I as only a human being have no authority to revise.”

MARRIAGE FOR PRIESTS?
Blair: “The New Testament does uphold celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of God as a gospel value and so the question the church has to ask is how does it bear witness to that gospel precept in the world today. In the Western Latin church this has traditionally been done through the priesthood . . . and so we would be reluctant to give up something like that, even in the face of fewer priests.”

Caggiano: “When I was pastor at St. Dominic’s in Bensonhurst, I could not imagine serving the people as I tried to serve them and also be married at the same time. There’s a freedom to celibacy that allows a level of self-gift that would not be appropriate for a married person.”

RELEVANCE IN THE WORLD
Blair: “I would say that, first of all, faith is a gift from God. The church is not selling a product, it is making a proclamation, a witness in word and deed about Jesus and about the truth of the gospel, and to the extent that we give good example and we authentically preach the message, then it’s God’s work to bring people to faith.

Caggiano: The challenge is “the need to preach the gospel effectively in a way that people in contemporary life can understand, appreciate and embrace,” especially young adults, who are not hostile to the church but simply “don’t feel any compelling reason to give the church a second look.” He believes “the Pope Francis Factor” is serving to energize the faithful and attract those who may have left the church or are seeking a spiritual home.           

 

Connecticut Catholics Welcome New Bishops

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