Eighty years ago, Bishop James Hugh Ryan strode up the aisle of Our Lady of Lourdes Church, in Omaha, Nebraska, holding his shepherd’s staff in hand. With his bushy eyebrows and deep-set eyes, he was an imposing figure. We fourth-graders watched him in wide-eyed wonder as he prepared to administer the sacrament of confirmation. Mounting the pulpit, he gave a stirring homily about the Mystical Body of Christ, using vivid imagery of a vine with its branches. To me, as a young boy, his voice was impressive and persuasive. Of the countless number of homilies I have heard over the years, this is the only one I remember!
In the 1930s, Ryan had been the rector of Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. He was not only a scholar, but a mover and a shaker as well. During his administration he advanced the university’s academic programs by instituting nursing courses and increasing graduate school enrollment to 800 students. Upon his departure from CUA, Time magazine lauded him, writing, “In seven years he reorganized and brilliantly rebuilt the only pontifical university in the U.S.”
Ryan was recognized by the Democratic Party for his potential international influence. He was received by President Franklin Roosevelt and sent as an emissary to South America “to develop cultural relationships” on behalf of the American Catholic Church and the US State Department. Upon his return, he stated, “A foundation has been laid for a ‘Catholic Front’ to protect democracy in this hemisphere.”
In 1945 the Omaha see was raised to an archbishopric. I, now an eighth-grader, boarded a streetcar and journeyed to the impressive Omaha cathedral with its Moorish design and soaring towers to view all the pomp and circumstance of Ryan’s installation as archbishop. I saw the pageantry and was suitably impressed. A long proclamation was read in Latin. I listened but did not understand, so it did not persuade me of anything. When the church speaks in an unknown tongue, there is never persuasion. How different from that confirmation day four years before, when the bishop had spoken in a language that impressed me for a lifetime, a language that I could comprehend!
The next bishop that drew my attention in my teens was Fulton Sheen. Like Ryan, he was brilliant and had taught at CUA. When he spoke, America listened. His media outreach began with the radio program The Catholic Hour. When television emerged, he was made for it. He would walk on set with his red cape swirling and his blue eyes flashing. Garbed with a scarlet sash, his presence was commanding. He reached people of all denominations—and some from no denomination at all. His was a voice to be reckoned with. He would be awarded an Emmy and featured on the cover of Time.
Both Ryan and Sheen were true shepherds. The shepherd’s way could rightly be called that of “gentle persuasion.” He neither curses nor shames his sheep; instead, an effective shepherd gently goads his flock, urging it along with words of encouragement.
At the peak of his popularity, Sheen was moved from New York City where he was overshadowing the powerful Cardinal Francis Spellman. He was named bishop of Rochester. Ryan received a similar summons to leave his prestigious post at CUA in the heart of the nation’s capital and go west to the plains of Nebraska. Looking back, such a transfer was curious. Ryan would later die of a heart attack at the early age of 60.
Much these days is said about evangelization, but what prominent Catholic voices have followed Ryan and Sheen’s examples to make the faith alive and engaging? Years ago, the American bishops’ attempt to create a Catholic television network in the United States floundered. Instead, it was a nun with a cherubic face and a steel backbone who succeeded where they had not. Mother Angelica created EWTN, which reflected, and still does, many of her personal and fundamentalist values. If Mother Angelica’s emergence cast a shadow over the American bishops’ efforts in media outreach, the sexual abuse crisis and the efforts of certain bishops to cover it up was like a tsunami that ravaged the land, diminished confidence, and left the laity and many faithful clergy disheartened and confused.
Fast forward to today. At the June 2021 meeting of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), a majority of bishops voted to draft a document that, if implemented, would publicly shame any Catholic politician “supporting” abortion by declaring them unworthy to receive Holy Communion [Note: The USCCB has subsequently changed their messaging around the document.] Thus this sacred sacrament, “the primary source of the Christian spirit,” would be used as a club to enforce Catholic obedience.
Many of the Catholic bishops opposing the current president, only the second Catholic to hold the office, have been schooled at the prestigious North American Pontifical College in Rome. There they walked their paths in the shadow of the Vatican. The president, from his 29th year, has walked a different path, the way of the cross, a road of tragedy. He is enrolled in the school of grief. This is a school of suffering and painful loss. And on this path, and in this school, his inner faith, known only to God and himself, has sustained him.
This does not automatically make him worthy to approach the Eucharist. None of us are: not me, nor you, not the bishops themselves. We all must rightly proclaim: O Lord, we are not worthy that you should enter under our roof. Say but the words of mercy and our souls shall be healed! The president is not the president of the Catholics of America. He is the president of a secular state whose laws he must enforce. In such a democracy, there is a public arena of ideas where persuasion must be used to convince others.
The bishops have failed to persuade or convince not only non-Christians but a significant number of their own Catholic flock of their position on abortion. According to an October 2020 survey from the Pew Research Center, 56 percent of US Catholics said abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Like US adults overall—roughly two-thirds, or 68 percent—most Catholics surveyed said they oppose completely overturning Roe v. Wade. The Pew survey goes on to show that, among Catholics, 44 percent heard homilies that expressed opposition to abortion within the past month! But not all Catholics trust their clergy’s advice on abortion. Only a third of the Catholics polled said they have “a lot of confidence” that their clergy can provide useful guidance on this topic. It is safe to say that this is not exactly a vote of confidence for a local pastor’s success in preaching against abortion.
By virtue of the office they hold, our bishops deserve a respectful hearing. And when they speak with a unified and strong voice, they give greater credence to the Spirit’s guidance. But at their recent June meeting that was not the case. Their debate was contentious. They are divided, and if their proposed document were to come to fruition, it would cast shame on several Catholic politicians and divide the flock. Effective shepherds do not drive their sheep away with anger or threats. Nor do they hold elders in the flock in shameful contempt. Like James Hugh Ryan and Fulton Sheen, theirs is always the path of dialogue and gentle persuasion.
William John Fitzgerald is a long-time contributor to Today’s American Catholic.