A Pledge to Be Open, Listen
New Bishop of Norwich Diocese Sees Greater Role for Laity

The Day [Norwich CT]
Downloaded August 11, 2003

Bishop Michael R. Cote, the new spiritual leader of the Diocese of Norwich, talked with Day editors recently about a variety of issues facing the Roman Catholic Church generally and the diocese specifically. Perhaps the most important and telling comments he made were his commitments to be open with people and to listen to what they had to say.

These are not small pledges, for the recent scandals that have beset the Catholic church stemmed at least in part from an arrogance among the hierarchy. They failed to hear what devout Catholics were saying regarding sexual abuses involving the clergy and about the misuse of power among the church's leaders.

He said that if credible allegations of sexual abuse were raised against a priest and he were forced to remove the individual, he would feel an obligation to the people of the parish to explain why. "I would have that responsibility to the parishioners," the bishop said.

Indeed, Bishop Cote said he was stunned by the degree to which the church leadership had failed to come to terms with this crisis and to deal with it openly. At the same time, he also said his faith had not been shaken by the church's flaws. "I love the church. It's my life," he said.

Laity's larger role

The new bishop, who will lead 227,000 Catholics in 78 parishes, said he will "consult widely" and emphasized that "the laity will be playing a big part in that."

He also said he plans to meet with Voice of the Faithful, a group of Catholics who are concerned about the ability of the laity to make their views known to the church leadership and to influence policy. He said he has been told that its members are "good folk, serious Catholics." In Norwich Diocese, at present, the group is not allowed to meet in Catholic church buildings. In many other Catholic dioceses nationwide, though, Voice of the Faithful is able to use church buildings.

Bishop Cote said he values the many skills and viewpoints of the laity, who can make significant contributions to the wellbeing of the spiritual life of Catholics and to church programs that help others.

A failure to involve the laity widely is unthinkable, Bishop Cote said, because "too many hands are needed." "We have many positive people who love the church, are devoted to the church and love their faith," he said.

Nixes women priests

On the issue of women priests, Bishop Cote was traditional and doctrinaire, saying he does not see a day when there will be women priests ordained in the Roman Catholic church. One can't apply democratic principles to the church, he said.

Church doctrine holds that Jesus did not ordain any women as his apostles in the New Testament, nor have women been ordained traditionally in the Catholic church.

But Bishop Cote also acknowledged that there is a crisis in the church in the small number of people seeking vocations. The mean age for priests in the Diocese of Norwich is 61 to 62, he said.

"The church has never been as transparent as it is today," he said, "and the church is the stronger for it."

He pledged to involve the laity more in the business of the church and to express the value people have to the church. Those conditions, he said, would help laypeople to see themselves in a new light.

Bishop Cote faces many challenges in administering congregations far-flung and quite diverse, in strengthening Catholic schools and in meeting the growing needs of the poor in the region. His pledges to consult widely, listen well and be open will be critical to the success of his work.


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