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By His Hands 

Bishop Lennon has provoked his flock and angered Rome, but Cleveland's most important Catholic isn't about to start changing now

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The homily he wrote early this morning talks of what the speedy election says about the unity of church leaders, about the humility and simplicity of the Church's new Holy Father.     

Through the cavernous belly of St. John's Cathedral, Lennon's voice sails. A contingent of confessors listen in the wing without sacrificing their place in line.

Lennon's commenting on the first reading, from the letter of St. Paul to the Hebrews. The fourth verse of the fifth chapter Lennon has selected as a kind of thesis for Pope Francis' ascension:

"No one takes this honor upon himself," Lennon intones, "but only when he is chosen by God."

Pope Francis is a Jesuit, and much has been made about whether or not it's even kosher for a priest in his order to obtain the papacy.

"Jesuits are not to seek positions," says Lennon. "But he didn't seek it."

Lennon concludes his five-minute homily with words from the Pope himself, from the memo he received this morning.

"Let us never give into pessimism, to that bitterness that the devil offers us every day. Do not give into pessimism and discouragement; we have a firm certainty that the Holy Spirit gives to the church the courage to persevere..."  

Bishop Lennon has had to persevere mightily, and so have the passionate Catholics who've dealt with his mistakes. Lennon will likely never escape the spectre of the parish conflict in Cleveland. Its spurs and ongoing controversies continue to dictate the perceived tenor of his leadership.

Earlier this month, when Fr. Peter Marrone of the Community of St. Peter was excommunicated, familiar excoriations rose from Catholics in the area.

"The purest and ugliest form of bullying has reared its ugly head once again by our divisive and mean-spirited Bishop Richard Lennon. How shameful! This time, he has taken his iron fist of dictatorship to a new level -- excommunicating the Rev. Robert Marrone for actions "in direct defiance of the church's teachings and authority," wrote a Parma resident to the Plain Dealer.

"Now I didn't excommunicate him," Lennon clarifies. "By his actions, he has excommunicated himself. All I did was make it public. I had people calling in asking if it was okay to go to church there, to have their babies baptized by him. And the answer is no. God, that would be a disaster."

Lennon admits the whole circumstance is unfortunate -- "it's unpleasant," he says -- but that this is not a personal beef. "I don't even know the guy, not really. I've tried to talk to him. I've invited him in here many times. Twice he came and left after six minutes."

Fr. Marrone didn't respond to multiple requests for comment.

Borre says that, canonically speaking, Lennon has a solid case against Marrone in that all priests are tied to their bishops by a vow of obedience.

"It's just how the hierarchy works," he says. "But if you take the broader view, and Lennon was really concerned about peace and reconciliation in the Diocese, it may not have been the smartest thing he's ever done."

Joe Dwyer, a longtime member of St. James, has been personally unable to move on and forgive. He feels that there's been no attempt to heal the hurt and the anguish.

"He just leaves me cold," Dwyer said of the Bishop. "He listens to no one. He should take a page out of the new pope's book and learn some humility."

***

Mid-afternoon, before a meeting with the principals and board members of the Cleveland Catholic Schools, Lennon invites the attendees to join him in a prayer printed on a card beneath an image of Francis of Assissi, surrounded by birds.

A few of the prayer's lines were notably direct:

"Defend us, O Lord, from the pervasive evils of your day which seek to distort the meaning you gave to marriage... / By Pope Francis' leadership, may your Church flourish with renewed appreciation for the sanctity of the Christian family."

The rest of the prayer was quite nice: Hopeful, uplifting, aflutter with maritime imagery etc.. But the "Defend us, O Lord" stuff smacked of that classic entrenched-Catholic rhetoric which uses divine direct address as a veil for what sounds like a political platform.

The meeting portended (or at least suggested) tectonic shifts in the administrative arrangements of Diocesan Catholic Schools. Lennon says that with 48,000 students, his is the largest school system in the state, larger than CMSD by 20 percent. It's the 5th largest Catholic school matrix in the country, though the Diocese as a whole is the nation's 23rd largest.

But after the meeting, in candid conversation, Lennon addresses some of the stickier concerns about the prayer, and about Pope Francis' staunchly anti-gay views. He says that when he arrived in Cleveland, he got similar questions.       

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