Diocese Celebrates 20 Years of Service
By James D. Davis
Sun-Sentinel [Palm Beach FL]
October 24, 2004
The Catholic Diocese of Palm Beach is celebrating its 20th birthday this weekend -- a celebration of faith, service and ethnic diversity.
But above all, it's a celebration of survival.
The five-county diocese has weathered the resignation of two bishops who confessed to improper sexual conduct. The faithful have also stuck it out through two hurricanes that damaged more than a dozen schools and church buildings.
Add a financial squeeze, a rise in ethnic diversity and a doubling of the number of Catholics, and you have a diocese that has learned to tough out tough times.
Bishop Gerald M. Barbarito, who recently finished his first year as the region's spiritual leader, was typically exuberant about the state of the diocese.
"I find a lot of faith, vibrancy, people who are committed to the church," Barbarito said with one of his signature smiles during an interview at the Pastoral Center in Palm Beach Gardens. "We face challenges in growth and diversity. Those are good problems to have."
Celebrations for the anniversary will be low-key: a Mass at 10:30 a.m. today at St. Ignatius Cathedral, Palm Beach Gardens. He also invited pastors at the other 52 congregations throughout the diocese to celebrate their own anniversary Masses as well. Barbarito said the first big celebration usually comes on a diocese's 25th anniversary.
"We're still very young," said Barbarito, who has served in two other dioceses -- Brooklyn and Ogdensburg, N.Y., both more than 100 years old.
There was no hint of future storms, moral and literal, when the diocese was launched on Oct. 24, 1984. Carved from outlying counties of the Orlando Diocese and the Archdiocese of Miami, the new church district had 39 parishes and missions, with 103,000 members. Since then it has added 14 congregations, and membership has leapt to its current 260,000.
The diocese's vigor is all the more remarkable in the aftermath of the scandalous resignations of two bishops, J. Keith Symons in 1998 and Anthony J. O'Connell in 2002. Both admitted sexual misconduct with boys decades earlier.
An ecumenical panel reviewed files of all 150 priests -- active and retired alike -- for any other questionable pasts. For incoming priests, the diocese began requesting not only records from their previous dioceses, but also police background checks. And any new abuse complaints are turned over to law enforcement.
"It was a gut-wrenching job, and I took it very personally," said Phil Lewis, a member of the panel that served six weeks in 2002. "If you have a loose cannon in the church, he'll hurt a lot of people. And we've paid a terrible price for it."
Also helping calm parishioners was Bishop Sean O'Malley, a grave, brown-robed Franciscan with a reputation for straight-shooting. Taking over in 2002, he apologized for the abuses and vowed to police clergy.
Apparently the Vatican was happy with his work: Nine months later, O'Malley was whisked to the helm of the huge, troubled Archdiocese of Boston, replacing Cardinal Bernard Law. The next bishop in Palm Beach was Barbarito, installed in August 2003.
After a year of visits around the diocese, the thin, affable Barbarito said people were finally getting past the abuse scandals.
"I've found no bitterness or preoccupation with that," the bishop said. "People view it as part of the history, but it's not uppermost in their minds. I find an enthusiasm for church life and a desire to put the past behind."
A striking example is St. Thomas More in west Boynton Beach. Since 2002, the parish has grown from 10,000 to more than 13,500 members. It features Mass in Spanish and Vietnamese as well as English. Members attend prayer groups, yoga classes and Al-Anon meetings. And working with the local St. Vincent de Paul Society, they donate food, clothing and utility payments to the needy -- including some needy from other parishes.
"People here are active and interested," said church secretary Nancy Flanigan. "I often hear them say, `God has been good to me, and I want to give back.'"
Diocesan attention has lately focused on the two hurricanes that pummeled its northern reaches. After Hurricane Frances on Sept. 5, parishes and schools turned in 12 claims, most of which will be picked up by insurance. But the diocese will chip in with more than $2 million.
Damage still is being assessed from Hurricane Jeanne, which hit on Sept. 25. That money will have to be borrowed, said the Rev. Charles Notabartolo, the bishop's vicar general.
Money remains a major challenge: The diocese has run deficits for four years straight -- an expected $2 million on its $8 million budget just this year. Notabartolo explained that much of its funds are in stocks and bonds, which have generally fallen since 2000.
The gaps have been covered by dipping into reserves, but those are about gone, Notabartolo said. Some ministries may be discontinued by 2006; which ones haven't been chosen yet.
Catholic Charities, the diocese's social service wing, has its own $6 million budget this year, but had to trim $100,000. Director Thomas Bila took a number of steps, including laying off four of its 160 employees.
"We had to cut costs, but we won't cut programs," Bila said last week.
Parishes are helping take up the slack. St. Joan of Arc in Boca Raton runs a counseling center and a Saturday feeding ministry. It's also among a few "twinning" churches, pairing richer and poorer parishes.
"It's important to make a connection, not just give money," said Monsignor John McMahon of St. Joan, also deputy director for Catholic charities. "If you're driving on an overpass, you don't see the people sleeping underneath."
The diocese's growth in ethnic diversity is reflected in the non-English Masses, now conducted in Spanish, Creole, French, Polish, Portuguese and Vietnamese.
"We don't want to see a new Little Cuba or Little Colombia here; we want Hispanics to welcome and work with each other -- and with Jamaicans, Haitians and others," said Sister Vivian Gonzalez, the diocese's associate director of Hispanic ministries. "We respect all cultures and traditions. But we're also part of the Catholic Church in the United States."
If 20 years of stress have taught the Palm Beach Diocese one thing, it's a tough confidence. Whirlwinds haven't uprooted it. Scandals haven't stopped it. Social and economic divisions haven't pulled it apart. Maybe Bishop Barbarito's optimism comes from more than his own personality.
"The essence of Christianity is optimism," he said. "We're loved by God. We're created in God's image. We have faith in the goodness of life, and in the God who gives us life."
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