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

Bishop Richard Gerard Lennon has never used a computer in all his life. He's never even used a typewriter. Like a lot of Catholics of a certain age, he's old-fashioned, foremost where correspondence is concerned. And like a lot of Catholics of a certain age, he feels no immediate pressure to evolve.

Thank yous, birthdays, boilerplate administration. Letters are just how the CEO of the Cleveland Catholic Diocese does his business. He's got an organizer on the windowsill behind his desk with paper, pens and pencils for easy access. They're arranged like chess pieces in parallel ranks of eight.  

"I was out in Elyria last night," says Lennon from his desk, sipping at a hot tea on a Friday morning in March. "I wrote five letters when I got back and posted them this morning. What people like about them -- about the letters -- is that they know I actually did it. They know I wrote it myself.  I'm not in the majority, God knows, but I get my work done."

The only downside to receiving a letter from the Bishop, it would seem, is that you don't get the pleasure of hearing his thick Boston brogue. Lennon's a native of Arlington, Massachusetts, and for him "office" is a three-syllable word. "God" is Gawd. "Can't" is Kant.   

It's two days after a soft-spoken Cardinal from Argentina was introduced as the Pope in Rome and the Catholic Church looks forward. Back here in Cleveland, Lennon's got plenty on his own plate.


Weekdays, the embattled churchman rouses himself from slumber at 3 or 3:30 a.m. and performs his morning ablutions. There's a chapel on the second floor in the Cathedral's rectory and Lennon spends an hour or two in silent prayer.

"That's why I get up so early, to have some time with the Lord," he says. "It's the only quiet time...there are no phones." He gestures at the one ringing on his desk to illustrate his point and begs pardon as he answers.

It's an attorney from Akron. She's the chair of something rather magisterially called "The Review Board."

All these Church committees are veiled in so much abstrusely grandiose titling that they may as well be Sci-Fi -- the Special Panel, the Pontifical Academy, the High Council, the Canonical Consulate, etc.

The Review Board is very real: It's a body that assesses, monitors and makes recommendations about sexual abuse. The lawyer is stuck in traffic near the Rock Hall and will be a few minutes late.

"Relax!" Lennon tells his phone's handset. "Relax."

It's only 9:30, but this isn't the first meeting of the Bishop's Friday.

Back at 7:30, before the sun rose, in the Diocesan conference room, Lennon hosted a committee on medical morals -- the Supreme Diagnostic Assembly, perhaps? It was an agglomeration of mostly retired Catholic physicians who convene 10 times per year to establish Catholic stances amidst the "irresistible progress" of technological innovation vis-a-vis health care. The order of the day was advanced directives and living wills.

Lennon's no expert on these matters, but he wants to get his pastors and parishioners involved in discussions, and he needs to make sure that the Diocese is sending out consistent messages. The debate was spirited.

"My job is the make sure everyone has coffee," Lennon joked during the meeting, "and then I observe."

But he also wrangles and curates the conversation. At one point, when two gentlemen were hotly interpreting the relative absolute-ness of a certain papal "instrument," Lennon raised his hands and interjected: "My dear friends in Christ," with that half-joking but nonetheless final power of interruption that comes with his station.  

The meeting was adjourned in good faith.

This Review Board consult has to do with revisions to a policy charter. Specifically, Lennon's hearing suggestions regarding cost-effective strategies for the background checks of parish volunteers. Then, he has to OK proposed changes in language that doesn't properly delineate the "vulnerabilities" of adults when it comes to sexual abuse.

After that meeting and a debriefing with the Diocese's finance director, it's clear that the Bishop's calendar forever describes a perilous gorge between 'packed' and 'jam-packed.' And it's not just liturgical cameos and rote blessings.

Lennon's an administrator of what appears to be an older-school. He's all about face-to-face interactions. One-on-ones. Feedback. Candor.

He's a leader, in fact, who was groomed under Cardinal Bernard Law in Boston, the man who fled to Rome in the wake of a sex abuse scandal there in 2002.

Prior to all that unpleasantness, some had called Law the premiere churchman in the United States. Some had called Lennon his protégé. When Law flew the coop, Lennon assumed the role of "Apostolic Administrator" in Boston to right the ship. His effectiveness and poise were recognized by the highest authorities in Rome.


"Benedict's penmanship was so small," Lennon says of the lately enfeebled former pontiff, eyeing a framed document in the room adjoining his office.

It resembles a document next to it, from John Paul II. They're papal appointments. The one from JPII made Lennon an auxiliary Bishop in Boston. The one from Benedict sent him to Cleveland. They're both encrypted with that sort of Latinate calligraphy you imagine being handcrafted by monks in a candlelit monastery in Northumbria or something.