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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Lennon is dressed in black with gold trumpet cufflinks and a cross around his neck with a gold chain so long the cross is tucked into his pants. Ecclesiastical bling indeed. He's tall without being especially imposing. He's got a slight hitch in his step which makes him list gently to port as he ambles everywhere in no particular hurry. His hair is finely combed, parted to one side and laced with a 50s-era pomade that makes it look perpetually wet.

His coworkers at the Diocese say he's got a hell of a smile, but he's always so prayerful or focused or fatigued that his face in repose is one of sad scholarship. His eyes light up as he gazes into the glass though.

"As an auxiliary bishop, I was dilecto filio, 'beloved son'," he points to the document's salutation in Latin. "But here, from Benedictus, as a bishop, I am a venerable brother. God, they know how to do a document, don't they? I mean, that's classy. There's no machine that can do that."

When he got to the office this morning at 6:15, he put together his homily for the noon mass that will celebrate the new pope's election. A few minutes ago, he received a memo from the Vatican news service with text from Pope Francis' blessing to the Cardinals. Lennon wants to use it when he preaches, but for now, he's distracted by these papal missives.

The letter from John Paul -- Joannes Paulus II -- strangely says nothing about Boston. It seems to anoint Lennon the Bishop of someplace called Sufes.

"I think that's in modern-day Morocco," Lennon says. "But I've never been there in my life. It's kind of a fiction. Theologically, a bishop is made to be the leader of people. But when you've got these big dioceses that need auxiliary bishops, what do you do? How do you remain faithful to the idea -- not the reality -- but the idea of being a leader of people?

He shrugs good-naturedly.

"A place like Sufes was probably wiped out in the 600s by the Muslims, and all the Christians were killed. And so they keep that name. I became an auxiliary bishop in Boston, but just so that it shows I actually have some people, I was the Bishop of the Titular See Sufes."     

In Latin, Cleveland is Clevelandensis.


Peter Borre, a canonical lawyer in Boston who advises parish congregations on Vatican appeals, says that Lennon didn't leave Massachusetts in 2006; he was "unleashed."

"He descended upon Cleveland and proceeded to make the same damn mistakes he made here," Borre says.

Lennon, post-Law, was the architect of church closings in Boston's Archdiocese.

"And anyone with a room temperature IQ could tell you that it was a disaster," says Borre. "That's a fact. An auxiliary bishop in Boston told a congregation of priests that it was a mistake they'd never repeat again, and it was all Lennon's handiwork."

In Cleveland, Lennon shuttered 50 parishes between 2009 and 2010, citing demographic changes, a shortage of priests and (most importantly) a shortage of cash. He's said that he wanted to "rip the Band-aid off quickly."

He maintains that the closings were a financial measure, that the downsizing was a result of 37 percent deficit spending, and that many of the churches in the city had lost their identities as parishes.

"You've got urban parishes with people who all live out in the suburbs. And what they'd like to do is go to church down the street, but they feel an obligation to come support. In point of fact, that's a not a parish, that's a drive-through chapel," Lennon says.

"They want me to close them, so I say, 'sure, I'll close you."

Borre feels differently. He says Lennon brought a particular worldview from Boston that impacted the nature of the closings.

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