A Tale of Two Bishops

By Pamela Schaeffer
National Catholic Reporter
April 2, 1999

Many Amarillo Catholics say new leadership has brought conflict, turmoil to diocese

Two years after Bishop Leroy T. Matthiesen was appointed bishop of Amarillo, he was photographed for Life magazine in cowboy boots and clerical blacks astride a magnificent white horse. The black-white contrast in the July 1982 issue was appropriate, for when it came to the morality of nuclear arms, the bishop had forsaken shades of gray.

At a time when the nation's Catholic bishops were preparing "The Challenge of Peace," their 1983 document on the immorality of nuclear war, Matthiesen took out after Pantex, a major employer in Amarillo and the final assembly point for the entire U.S. nuclear arsenal. Urging Pantex employees to consider giving up their jobs, the Texas Panhandle bishop emerged as one of the nation's most outspoken opponents of the nuclear arms buildup.

Although not all in Amarillo appreciated Matthiesen's stance, his national prominence and his local roots were, to many, a source of pride. Today, however, Matthiesen lives in retirement in a small house, giving his attention to gardening, writing books and serving as spiritual advisor to a group of contemplative nuns as he watches his diocese, under a tough new bishop, become a caldron of internal discontent.

Matthiesen, who grew up on a cotton farm in Central West Texas, was Amarillo's first homegrown bishop. Progressive bishops were in ascendancy in the early 1980s, and Matthiesen's supporters in Amarillo worried that his national reputation would be rewarded with promotion to a larger diocese.

"You get a good one like Matt and they take him away," a local admirer told Life. Matthiesen was valued not only for strong moral leadership but for a pastoral style that, priests say, included good listening skills, kindheartedness and tolerance for diversity.

Matthiesen was never transferred. By the time he retired as bishop of Amarillo in January 1997, at age 75, he had served the diocese for 51 years as priest, secondary school principal, newspaper editor and bishop. In the early 1980s, though, the bishop's friends and followers told Life they feared Matt would "ride the disarmament issue right out of town."

Generating a different response

Amarillo's new bishop, John W. Yanta, formerly a priest and auxiliary bishop in San Antonio, is generating a different response among numerous priests, diocesan leaders and laypeople. Although Yanta, 67, has a core of supporters among conservative Catholics who welcomed his arrival with open arms, many others who spoke to NCR said they'd happily ride the new bishop right out of town -- to send him the way of several priests he's sent packing and projects he's dismantled. In Amarillo itself, some of the greatest disappointment is linked to Yanta's refusal to support a proposed lay-owned Catholic high school that Matthiesen had heartily endorsed.

In an interview in Dalhart, Texas, between Masses on a recent Sunday, Yanta, asked about reports of turmoil, said, "I would say there's a lot of peace and joy also in this diocese.... We can emphasize the negative. There's a lot of anger in the kind of world we live in." He said he wanted to be a "good steward" and to live according to the "oath of fidelity" he took in becoming a bishop.

Yanta was in Dalhart, a prosperous farming community north of Amarillo, to try to calm parishioners' anger stemming from a forced leave of absence taken by their popular pastor, Fr. Dale Guidry. Guidry, former pastor of St. Anthony's Parish, took the leave to pre-empt his removal by Yanta related to what parishioners described as trumped-up charges against him.

Lay leaders in Dalhart said parish members were mystified and outraged at what they describe as the harsh treatment of their pastor. Yanta said details of Guidry's situation were confidential. The parish, he said, was called to be "reconciled" and "healed."

Guidry's replacement is a former Episcopal priest, Fr. James McGhee, who holds the title pastoral coordinator rather than pastor. At Yanta's request, and with Yanta present, McGhee publicly recited an oath of fidelity and a profession of faith at Masses on the weekend of March 20 and 21. Copies signed by McGhee and by his wife, Ann McGhee, the official witness, were distributed to parishioners.

Although Yanta was apparently well respected in San Antonio, where he was appointed auxiliary bishop in 1994, many priests and diocesan leaders in Amarillo regard him as a poor choice to follow Matthiesen. Matthiesen was widely regarded as a "Vatican II bishop" in the progressive sense.

Seven priests who spoke to NCR under the condition of anonymity, five of them in leadership positions in the diocese, and more than a dozen lay leaders and activists, described Yanta as personable in public, well liked by "pew people," but rigid, controlling and suspicious in his dealings with priests, authoritarian and confrontational in his administrative style, pietistic in speech and manner, and a poor listener who makes up his mind before he consults. One priest said Yanta talks incessantly about unity while thriving on -- even generating -- division.

High marks for holiness

Whatever strengths Yanta's supporters cite -- family life advocate Nan Weber of Hartley, Texas, said she regards him "as next to the Holy Father" in holiness -- they are presently lost on many of the area's priests, who have come to view their new bishop with hostility and mistrust.

A diocesan staffer said even some who welcomed a firmer hand than Matthiesen's describe Yanta as an administrator who's doing "the right things but in the wrong way." The staff member said only "a handful" of priests support Yanta.

In addition to the seven priests interviewed about Yanta's leadership, NCR telephoned four others said to be supportive of the new bishop. All declined to talk.

The diocesan staffer described the atmosphere there as "rampantly negative," adding, "You could cut the tension with a knife."

Since Yanta arrived in Amarillo just over two years ago, the number of priests serving in the 26-county diocese has declined by 25 percent, from 50 to 37, priests still serving said, a reduction due only in part to deaths and retirements. The diocese has 35 parishes and a population of 47,000 Catholics, just 12 percent of a total population of 397,000. A sizable majority of the Catholics are Hispanics. Priests who spoke to NCR said diocesan clergy had never felt as stressed.

Yanta asked five religious order priests serving in the diocese to leave, including two Redemptorists of the South, an order whose members have staffed a retreat center in Amarillo since 1982. Guidry returned to his home diocese in Louisiana and is looking for a job. A Mexican priest, Fr. David Contraras, was sent back to Mexico. Four priests retired and one died.

In a letter announcing the decision about the Redemptorists, Yanta said it was time for "personnel of the diocese" to direct the retreat center.

Yanta removed Fr. Phillip Lindley, who refused to resign or to follow Yanta's orders to undergo psychological evaluation at the Institute for Living in Hartford, Conn. Before he was removed, Lindley got a ruling against Yanta from Cardinal Dario Castrillon, prefect of the Congregation for Clergy in Rome. In a letter to Yanta, dated Oct. 8, 1998, Castrillon wrote, "It is the consistent teaching of the magisterium that investigation of the intimate psychological and moral status of the interior life of any member of the Christian faithful cannot be carried on except with the consent of the one to undergo such evaluation." Like Guidry, Lindley is looking for a job.

Many who spoke to NCR expressed dismay that the Redemptorists were gone. Further, Yanta's detractors contend he has treated Matthiesen badly by ordering him to stop writing his column, "Wise and Otherwise," in the diocesan newspaper -- a column that in three years would have marked its 50th anniversary -- and by refusing to endorse a Catholic high school project that had been Matthiesen's dream.

"The people of Amarillo no longer have a voice since the new bishop came," said Linda McCurdy, an editor of Sophia, a newsletter for women. McCurdy said the newsletter was started in September by women who felt Yanta was unresponsive to their concerns.

Cindy Reynolds, another Sophia editor, said the newsletter's impetus had been Yanta's lack of response to women who wanted to help develop programs at the retreat center after the Redemptorists were dismissed. Reynolds said a letter signed by about 12 women got no response.

John Albracht, a chiropractor who, during 44 years of practice in Amarillo, has come to know many of the clergy well during the tenures of three previous bishops, said, "I have never seen so much pain, so much stress in the clergy, religious and laypeople in this diocese in all the years I've been here." Albracht said he had served on numerous church boards over the years and has developed "a good awareness of the pulse of the diocese."

"I just see so much stress as a result of Bishop Yanta's actions," he said.

Atmosphere of mistrust

One prominent Amarillo pastor went further. "He's the meanest man I've ever met in my life," he said. "I don't know of a single priest who's happy."

"He has created such a negative, insulting and suspicious atmosphere ... we've just been demolished," said another pastor.

"I think there were those priests who found Matt too liberal," said a third pastor. "His biggest fault was that he sometimes listened too much. People would sometimes joke, especially toward the end of his tenure, that his decisions would be swayed by the last person in his office. But he was well liked by most priests, and the atmosphere in the diocese was congenial. Priests used to meet and talk about their ministries, their parishes, tell jokes. Now the whole atmosphere in the diocese is one of mistrust."

A fourth pastor said, "If you talked to Bishop Yanta, you'd know that he never listens, he talks. We offer counter arguments, and he comes back with justification for decisions he's already made. I don't think there's a priest in this diocese who would follow him to get a drink of water."

Another priest said Yanta had created the impression that he had been given a mandate to clean up "a mess" Matthiesen had allegedly created. Recently, they said, Yanta had begun to blame Matthiesen's continued presence in the diocese for his problems.

Yanta told NCR that he felt he had been "sent by the Holy Spirit" to Amarillo, but had been given no mandate except for "the word of God, tradition, canon law and the catechism. I am with the magisterial teaching of the church 100 percent," he said, "obedience to the deposit of faith kept intact and passed on."

Yanta discounted reports that he provokes division. "I deny that," he said, then added, "Even Jesus said I didn't come to bring peace but division."

Ascension Academy controversy

Some say Yanta's reaction to a proposed lay-owned high school, Ascension Catholic Academy, was the breaking point, the issue that prompted people to talk openly about problems in the diocese.

A group of lay Catholics got enthusiastic endorsement from Matthiesen in 1995 for a proposal to build Ascension Catholic Academy, a coeducational college preparatory school for grades 6 through 12 that had earned broad community support. Patrick Swindell, a lawyer in Amarillo who heads the 19-member board of regents, said the school was to be owned and operated by laity., modeled after St. Michael's in Austin. Swindell said the plan had been to give the bishop canonical control of Catholic teaching.

Matthiesen had agreed to merge Alamo Catholic High School, the diocese's only Catholic high school, and the diocesan middle school with Ascension. Matthiesen, who served as principal of Alamo for 13 years, said the school has a small enrollment, about 135 students according to the Official Catholic Directory, and had been struggling financially in recent years.

Until last year, when Yanta told him to step down, Matthiesen had served on Ascension's board.

A year ago, Yanta said he could not endorse Ascension unless organizers gave him full control of the assets. He offered organizers a one-year management contract. Yanta told NCR he had made his decision after consulting widely with his advisers.

Although Yanta has called on Ascension organizers to abandon the project and throw their support behind the diocesan high school, Swindell said Ascension Academy will be built -- with no Catholic in the name -- and operated as an ecumenical enterprise. Organizers have received $1.6 million and a pledge of 30 acres of prime Amarillo real estate, worth $2 million, Swindell said. Groundbreaking is scheduled for May 13, Ascension Thursday.

Swindell said Yanta's decision had been a "great disappointment.... This was a grassroots movement," he said. "We fought long and hard to convince a community that is 89 percent non-Catholic to embrace this proposed Catholic college prep school. It's ironic that when it came down to it, it was not the non-Catholic community, but our own leadership that prevented it from being Catholic."

Matthiesen defends Yanta as "energetic and enthusiastic" but acknowledged that he had been "very, very disappointed" by Yanta's refusal to endorse Ascension. "I told him I thought it was a mistake," Matthiesen said.

Known as a fighter

A priest and two diocesan staff members in San Antonio who spoke on condition of anonymity said Yanta had been respected there, though the diocesan leaders described qualities similar to those cited by Amarillo priests: personable in public, authoritarian, highly focused in his approach to getting things done and, like Bishop Charles Grahmann of Dallas, one of Yanta's closest friends, he is known as a fighter.

"He has a tough side," said one staffer, who added that Yanta's Polish ancestry had given him a strong base of support in San Antonio's Polish community, known as Panna Maria. "He's very hard on those who oppose him."

As Matthiesen once asked Amarillo's Catholics to give up jobs at Pantex, Yanta has asked them to give up jobs or other ties to Planned Parenthood or family planning clinics. He picketed frequently at San Antonio abortion clinics, was once arrested during a protest and briefly jailed. Amarillo has no abortion clinic, so Yanta has encouraged Catholics to pray the rosary at family planning clinics and even joined them there.

Nan Weber, the family life advocate, said Yanta had energized Catholics who strongly oppose abortion. "I find him a breath of flesh air," she said.

Weber and her husband, Ed, have 10 children, making them sympathetic, she said, to authorities who have to make unpopular decisions based on reasons that aren't always understood by those they affect.

"Each bishop brings something different," she said. "I believe the Lord's in control.'

Yanta acknowledged that it is difficult at times to serve in a diocese where a popular retired bishop still resides. Quoting his former boss in San Antonio, Yanta said, "Archbishop [Patrick] Flores always said, 'When you leave a parish, leave.' "Asked whether he thought Matthiesen had caused problems for him, he said, "I'll answer that by saying when I came to the diocese, I wanted it to be united and for Bishop Matthiesen and myself to be role models of unity. That has occurred in a lot of instances."

Matthiesen, who is provided an office at the Catholic Center and secretarial services, as called for in U.S. bishops' "Guidelines for Retirement of Bishops," said he is sympathetic to Yanta's position. "Naturally many people speak to me," he said. "I think it would be easier all the way around if one just disappeared so there would be a clear field, no feeling of division in the diocese. I understand that perfectly."

During the interview in Dalhart, Yanta said, "I am trying to be a good bishop and do what a good bishop is supposed to do: to have the mind of Christ and to think with the church." He feels that he was assigned to Amarillo to "continue the unfinished work of Jesus Christ, to build a kingdom," to "bring about that unity of faith and love that Jesus calls us to be in the world."

"And," he added, "I love challenges."

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