Saturday, April 17, 2004


After 11 years here, Bishop Francis DiLorenzo, shown at his Honolulu office, is being transferred to the Richmond, Va., diocese.

Looking Back: A Bishop's Legacy

DiLorenzo guided Hawaii's
66 parishes through some
difficult times during his tenure

The departing leader of Hawaii Catholics said the scandal of sexual predator priests has not driven off church members or held back financial contributions.

"Most people are bright enough to know that this is not just a church of saints, but of saints and sinners both," said Honolulu Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo, who during his tenure here removed six priests from duty on charges of sexual abuse of minors.

"People will continue to go to church because they have a deep conviction. They want to keep up the environment they are worshipping in. They want the programs to continue.

"But for people not very strong in their faith, this hurts them very much. I don't think you can measure that effect."

The bishop talked in an interview about his role in facing the clergy scandal, which has shaken the Catholic church nationwide for the past two years. He talked about challenges and changes during his 11-year tenure as head of the Hawaii diocese, which will end next month when he leaves to head the diocese in Richmond, Va.

"I believe the quality of clergy has improved dramatically over this period of years. Our system of screening and selecting people who want to come into the diocese has improved very much," he said.

His zero-tolerance stand long before the sex scandal broke may have brought Vatican attention to the 62-year-old Philadelphia native, who was ordained in 1968 and was auxiliary bishop in Scranton, Pa., for six years before he was sent to Hawaii in 1994 by Pope John Paul II. No other prelate has been moved on from Hawaii, which is not in the mainstream of Catholic church politics.

"I hadn't heard my name in any rumors," he said of the March 31 announcement that came as a surprise to island Catholics, including himself. Unlike the prelates of some large American cities who are prominent in church politics, community affairs or social activism, DiLorenzo described his style as "low key" and his focus as centered on the organization of 215,000 members in 66 parishes statewide.

He said he subscribes to the philosophy described by former Gov. George Ariyoshi at a recent Maryknoll School fund-raiser:"He said it was never about him, but to get all to work together to be a government on behalf of people. In this environment that philosophy seems to work well. The culture here is very consistent with my personality. Even though people may see me as an intensive person, my personality is much more laid back."

He prefers to emphasize his initiatives that did not make headlines, particularly programs that stimulated island laypeople to a stronger grass-roots role in the hierarchic church, traditionally administered from the top down. He required each parish to undertake a two-year self-analysis in his "Welcoming Parish" program, and he called a 2000 Synod at which delegates set priorities for meeting needs in areas such as outreach to youths and religious education.

One exception to his low-key claim was opposition against legalizing same-sex marriage, an issue that peaked in a 1998 ballot where it was rejected by a majority of voters.

"I felt very strong about that. We played an essential role in that referendum," said the bishop who created the Hawaii Catholic Conference, which continues to speak out on public policy and legislation such as physician-assisted suicide, abortion and other issues affecting religious belief.

Rather than joining demonstrations, "It is a better use of our time and energy to acquaint legislators with where we are as a group of citizens ... representing the Catholic community conscience to legislators in asking them to consider that in their deliberations."

Another deviation from a low profile is his role in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops as chairman of its Committee on Science and Human Values, which scrutinizes controversial issues such as cloning and stem cell development.

"We have been dealing with evolution for the past two years," he said. "Last year, we wanted to know, could you alter evolution through genetic manipulation? The answer is you could, but should you is another question.

"We hear what is new in the field. Various evolutionary biologists have varying views. We try to surface what is the implication of this scientific research on Catholic belief and Catholic morality. Third, we publish it for the bishops so they can see what is coming down the pike."

DiLorenzo said "our No. 1 loose end" is the lack of local men choosing to enter the priesthood.

However, he said, Hawaii is fortunate to have priests coming here from Asia and Pacific islands, from the military and as members of religious orders.

"If it wasn't for them, we would be in serious trouble" in filling pastoral positions.

He has addressed the priest shortage by "clustering" -- combining nine pairs of parishes which share a pastor. He said it is fortunate "the pulpit matches the pew" when men come here from cultures represented in the islands. Many of the international priests who come to Hawaii are from the Philippines, which works out well because about half of island Catholics are of Filipino ethnicity.

DiLorenzo said he requested no farewell hoopla as he spends his last month addressing unfinished business piled high on his desk and fulfilling a schedule of parish visits to impose the sacrament of confirmation on youths. At one corner of the desk is a history of the church in Virginia, "Commonwealth Catholicism" by Gerald Fogarty, homework for the new job.

Early in his job here, complaints from island Catholics would be found on the desk frequently, often about differences in the worship format from parish to parish. One Maui woman took her complaint that hula is inappropriate at Mass all the way to the Vatican.

"Some of the churches made it look like a nightclub with something to entertain the tourists as opposed to sacred gesture," the bishop recalled.

"We said hula is telling a story, like other ethnic groups express their religious sentiments by way of gesture. We worked it out to people's satisfaction."

The bishop said there's room for varying styles under "the great umbrella" of Catholic worship, from traditional Latin Mass to rock bands at youth services.

"Regardless of what your tastes are, there should be unity with the doctrine and belief of the church, unity with respect to the pope and your bishop, Catholic morality and the seven sacraments. We should be united with one another in those essential areas."

The bishop's photo filled the cover of the November issue of Hawaii Business magazine, which listed the Catholic Church as one of the 20 wealthiest landowners in the state with 525 land parcels with a tax-assessed value of $240 million.

"Yes, it is a lot of wealth and means there," reflected the bishop. "We get the privilege of being a nonprofit and don't get taxed, in exchange for which we are expected to make our contribution as an organized religion to the society around us."

He said a goal of the "Welcoming Parish" self-analysis was to make Catholics aware of what they are contributing and what more they could do.

"Are we making a difference for the better for the people in Hawaii? We have Catholic parishes that help people discover and bestow meaning in their lives, help them embrace a set of moral insights so they can live a decent life that is not selfish and self-centered, but is other-centered.

"It creates the glue that helps marriage and family life stay together, the basis of our society. And we make outreach to the poor and unfortunate, the youth and the elderly."

DiLorenzo said he leaves a fiscally sound organization to his successor.

"We have tweaked the financial situation, and we have enough to take care of our needs, if not our wants."

Whether his initiatives and policies are continued or dropped by the next bishop "is not an area of sensitivity."

"It's not my personality to obsess about my past," he said. "I have a way of being more engaged with present and future."

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