Diocese Of Scranton At 150: ‘An Opportunity To Look Back And Learn’
In the spring of 1834, a week before his 18th birthday, William O’Hara boarded a ship from New York City to Rome.
The young Irish immigrant was bound for the Urban College of the Propaganda, a Roman Catholic seminary.
He was going to be a priest.
O’Hara returned to the U.S. with a Doctor of Divinity degree and fire in his belly. He became a liturgical juggernaut and fixer of sorts, as assistant pastor at St. Patrick’s Church in Philadelphia who filled in when needed and often at other parishes.
Highly educated, and with a reputation for tireless effort, O’Hara was the obvious pick when Pope Pius IX established the Diocese of Scranton in March 1868, 150 years ago.
The Catholic Church in Northeast Pennsylvania has changed dramatically since its earliest days in the mountains of Bradford County, and later with the first church, St. Augustine’s in Susquehanna County, with some of the most significant changes happening in the last few decades.
As church attendance steadily declines, the number of Catholic churches and priests is half of what it was 40 years ago.
Amid the celebration, a larger audience is watching the church as Pennsylvania’s top prosecutor fights to release a grand jury report detailing sex abuse by clergy and attempts by leadership to conceal it.
The changes and conflict set a complicated stage for the faithful as they mark this significant anniversary and ponder their roots in a booming coal and iron town at the center of Northeast Pennsylvania.
“The year has been a great opportunity to look back and learn,” said Monsignor Joseph Quinn, pastor of Our Lady of the Snows parish in Clarks Summit and chairman of the 150th celebration committee.
“To go back and see people who had so little, and used faith to get them from one day to the next, is oxygen for the soul,” he said. “To remember is to learn new lessons and to learn new lessons is to live in new ways.”
He admits that he’s no historian, but he’s immersed himself in books and stories recounting the church’s history.
Journey makes us one
On significant anniversaries, an actual diocesan historian has written a book accounting for what has changed since the last anniversary. The texts are thick and full of detail, but leaders decided this year to do something better suited for this generation.
They produced an hourlong documentary with WVIA-TV titled “The Journey Makes Us One,” also the theme for the anniversary year.
Surrounded by a pile of books he’s studied in preparation, Quinn said through this process he’s thought often of Psalm 90, which says: Humans live 70 years, maybe 80 if they’re strong, and most of those years are filled with “emptiness and pain.”
“Teach me, Lord, the shortness of my days, that I might live with wisdom of heart,” he said, reflecting on the message of the Scripture passage.
“What has so touched me looking back on so many different chapters is not just wisdom of mind or strength of vision, but wisdom of heart that came about as a result of
people truly living out the Gospel mandate, to love one another in the best sense of the commandment of Christ,” he said. “And they did so by caring for one another in genuine passion, enough to advance dreams, to lift up communities, and to help people find peace and joy in their lives.”
Nobles fleeing the French Revolution first brought Catholicism to Northeast Pennsylvania in the 1790s, 75 years before the diocese was established.
By the time Pope Pius IX issued a decree establishing the Diocese of Scranton, nearly 8,500 square miles comprised the 10-county region.
Lackawanna County was part of Luzerne County back then. Eleven counties now make up the Scranton diocese hemmed by Tioga, Lycoming, Luzerne and Monroe counties and the New York border.
There were only 24 parishes in 1868.
The diocese would grow to 240 parishes at its peak in the 1970s, according to data aggregated by David M. Cheney, a Catholic web guru from Kansas City, Kansas, who runs the independent website www.catholic-hierarchy.org.
The church saw its greatest participation in 1966 when nearly 40 percent of the region’s population was Catholic and led by 631 priests.
According to the most recent statistics following the 2010 Census, the U.S. Religion Census found less than a third of the population in those 11 counties reports being Catholic, or 345,000 Catholics out of 1.1 million residents.
In terms of parishes, the diocese today has receded to half its size in the 1970s with 120 parishes.
While the number of parishes diminished, it appears that the church’s reach and mission are unaffected.
Now, it leans more on the diaconate, and the body of lay people, to fill ministry roles.
And resourceful leaders found charitable uses for the empty buildings that shifting demographics left behind.
Serve as Jesus served
Seton Catholic High School in Pittston closed in 2007 and left behind a hulking shell next to St. John the Evangelist Church on William Street.
Founded in 1864, then St. John’s Grade School/High School, it predated the diocese by four years.
Church leaders considered renting it out, but St. John’s, meanwhile, had begun building a robust ministry for the poor that was stretching against its bounds.
The winter after it closed, the church opened a free health clinic, inspired specifically to provide care for babies.
“Since then, I don’t have the exact numbers in front of me, we’ve served over 4,000 individuals. That’s how many charts we have,” said Msgr. John Bendik, who retired as priest of St. John’s last year. He stays connected with the church and its charitable work.
Care and Concern Ministry at St. John’s now has a food pantry and children’s clothes closet and the church serves thousands with its Christmas turkey dinner and coat giveaway events.
“We believe we have to serve as Jesus served,” he said. “People would be dead today if it wasn’t for the service we provided them.”
The diocese and Catholic Church had aid services from its earliest days, but as fewer people today subscribe to religious beliefs and congregations dwindle, programs for needy people become a public face and an identity for the church.
Elected in 2013, Pope Francis has shined a spotlight on the world’s neediest and downtrodden. The pope took the name Francis after St. Francis of Assisi, who was known for his devotion to the poor.
St. Francis of Assisi Kitchen, one of the largest soup kitchens in Northeast Pennsylvania, bears the same name.
“I really believe that the connection between the charitable work of the diocese and the parishes is very key to how we serve the people,” said Monsignor Joseph Kelly, director of the kitchen and former director of Catholic Social Services of the Diocese of Scranton. He retired from his position as diocesan director of human services in 2017.
At 77, he now runs the St. Francis kitchen, a free-standing organization affiliated with the church. He has no plans to retire.
“People do not see St. Francis kitchen as just Christian,” nor Catholic Social Services as strictly faith-based, he said.
Among its service lines that include drug and alcohol abuse programs and financial assistance, Catholic Social Services of the Diocese of Scranton has a robust refugee resettlement program, one that works with the U.S. State Department to help refugees find homes.
Most of those aided are not Catholic, or even Christian, he said. Likewise, school districts and other churches routinely funnel resources, manpower or goods to St. Francis kitchen or the Catholic Social Services storehouses.
Bendik from St. John’s in Pittston found the same esprit de corps at Care and Concern Ministry.
Churches across the region, regardless of denomination, donate to the free clinic, food pantry and clothes closet, he said.
“It wasn’t just St. Johns,” he said. “It gives you a wider view of the Church with a capital ‘C.’”
While not directly under the diocese, religious orders look to the bishop for spiritual leadership and their members advance the church’s mission.
For example, IHM brought education and its sisters taught in Catholic schools. The Passionist priests brought religious ceremony and prayer and the Sisters of Mercy, social justice efforts.
“Isn’t that the wisdom of Christ? To be involved in those efforts does bring about the journey that makes us one, does bring us together, does create community with oneness when we respond to those who are in need,” Quinn said.
Grand jury report
A cloud hangs over the celebration so long as a grand jury report detailing years of misconduct by priests in six of Pennsylvania’s eight dioceses, including Scranton, and cover-up by leaders remains locked up.
Most church leaders, including the bishop of Scranton, say they would like to see the 800-plus-page document released; however, nearly two dozen current and former clergy are fighting to stop its release, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported earlier this month.
State Attorney General Josh Shapiro had pledged to release the full report last month, but it was blocked, possibly indefinitely.
Bishop Joseph C. Bambera has read the report, though he is barred by the courts from speaking specifically on its substance.
“The saddest and most challenging chapter in 150 years is the clergy sex abuse of children and young people,” the bishop said.
The issue of abuse started coming to light in the 1990s and reached a peak in 2002 when Catholic bishops addressed it head-on and issued a charter for the protection of youth and young adults.
“We’ve had far more than our share of inappropriate situations in this diocese. One is far more than we should have,” he said. “When we look at this crisis, when we look at this tragedy, we realize at the heart of it are suffering souls.”
Since the 2002 charter, the Scranton diocese has trained nearly 30,000 employees and volunteers to recognize signs of abuse and report it. And officials react quickly now, notifying law enforcement within minutes of receiving a credible complaint, the bishop said.
On one hand, he says releasing the report will help victims and their families heal, but on the other, it will rip open old wounds, most of them decades old, and cause pain again, he said.
“I need this report so that we can finally look at what’s happened and begin to move forward,” he said.
The future church
The bishop wanted to be a dentist. In a past life, Quinn, the Clarks Summit pastor, was an attorney and later federal magistrate judge.
Like both of them, the Rev. Ryan Glenn, 30, wasn’t sure he’d be a priest until after high school. Even after graduating from King’s College with a degree in philosophy and theology, he was torn between taking the cloth or serving the church as a layman.
“As a kid, in elementary school, I maybe had an initial tug. It was something I could imagine myself doing,” he said, explaining that his family was always busy at St. Jude Parish in Wright Twp., where they spent a lot of time in the company of ministers.
“They were very relatable guys, very human,” he said. “They were good men.”
After King’s, he enrolled in a lay ministry divinity program at the University of Notre Dame where he felt that his calling solidified, he said.
“I realized that there was only so much praying and discerning I could do outside the seminary,” he said. So he enrolled at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore.
Glenn was ordained just last month and assigned as associate pastor at St. John Neumann Parish in South Scranton.
As one of the diocese’s newest and youngest pastors, he’s looking clear-eyed at its problems, but also suggests that he knows how to meet people where they are.
“I think people are looking for authentic community. As the church, that’s the business we’re in,” he said. “We have a powerful message: you can be in this community.”
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