Pope Francis has made his first direct impact upon Western Massachusetts with the appointment of Bishop Mitchell Thomas Rozanski, of Baltimore, to succeed the retiring Bishop Timothy McDonnell and become the ninth bishop of Springfield. Ideally, as a bishop he will use the pope as an example in setting policies and engaging in the many issues facing the church.
Bishop Rozanski is an encouragingly young 55, and his Polish heritage will please the many Berkshire residents of Polish ancestry. The parishioners of St. Stanislaus Kostka in Adams went over Bishop McDonnell’s head in successfully persuading the Vatican to allow it to remain open after it was closed by the Springfield diocese six years ago. It was reopened as a mission of the St. John Paul II Parish in Adams, and we hope Bishop Rozanski will consider returning the church to parish status, as desired by members.
So far in his tenure as pope, Francis has put an emphasis on civil rights and economic fairness and de-emphasized the social and political issues that have consumed the church for years. An example came two years ago when Bishop McDonnell, along with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, denounced the Affordable Care Act because of its requirement that contraception be included in employees’ health benefits. That was one narrow aspect of a law that has been and will be of great benefit to poor Americans, including Catholics, who cannot otherwise afford health care, and encourage Bishop Rozanski to look at the big picture when it comes to programs that help the needy.
The opposition of the Springfield and other Massachusetts dioceses to gay marriage brought it into a public debate that didn’t impact church policy, and left the church on the wrong side of history and of the civil rights issue of the past decade. On the subject of gay priests, Pope Francis asked, "Who am I to judge," words the church should have followed on gay marriage but can still follow on gay rights issues now and in the future.
The twin scandals of sexual abuse by priests and the cover-ups of this abuse by church leaders exploded in the Archdiocese of Boston courtesy of Cardinal Bernard Law -- still enjoying his Vatican sanctuary -- and touched Springfield as well. Two months ago, Pope Francis became the first pontiff to ask forgiveness on behalf of the Catholic Church for the decades-old pedophile scandal, which should signal dioceses around the country that they should exchange defensiveness for aggressiveness in addressing this problem.
Bishop Rozanski comes to Western Massachusetts at a time of real change for the Catholic Church in the world. We hope he will embrace and advocate that change in his small corner of that world.