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.

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.

"There's something in the water of the St. Charles River that makes Boston antagonistic to ethnic parishes. You look at the churches he closed -- Polish and Hungarian and Irish and Slovak. That's classic Boston hogwash that he brought to Cleveland."

Patricia Schulte-Singleton, the former president of the Endangered Catholics group and a member of the reopened St. Pat's in West Park, says that certain types of closings are acceptable.

"When a parish is in financial distress and a community decides they are no longer viable, that's okay," she says. "But it's not someone on high saying 'I'm dissolving you.' For someone to say 'I'm dissolving you,' there needs to be criteria. And those were not followed."

For a rocky period between 2010 and 2012, many of the 800,000 Catholics in the region believed that Bishop Lennon wasn't the "leader of people" his office demanded. During that time, the most famous letters of his tenure surfaced. They weren't letters by the Bishop himself. They were written by priests and concerned Catholics calling on Rome to forcibly remove Lennon from his post.

"There is no joy in Cleveland," wrote one priest. "Ministry has become a burden for so many of us. We live in fear of retaliation if we are vocal. Desperation has pushed me to a point beyond fear. Please help."

Another had this to say after Lennon abruptly shut down a pastoral planning office while several of the 11 parishes scheduled for reopening struggled with finances and logistics:  

"The feelings of dismay and outrage at this latest senseless move on the part of Bishop Lennon only serve to fuel the flames of distrust and suspicion that make it more and more difficult to see how he can ever be an effective leader in this diocese."

It wasn't just the parish closings. It was the way he was reopening them -- a process that dragged on for 6 months last year -- with the hopes, some speculated, that they'd fail again.

Rome had ruled decisively that Lennon failed to follow procedural and canonical regulations.  

"It was a WWE smackdown," says Peter Borre.. "I challenge anyone to show me in the history of Catholic America where 11 Bishop's decrees were reversed. It's never happened before."

And Rome deals very heavily in symbolism, he says.

"It was enormously significant that they all were signed and sealed on the same day. Rome said we're reversing you 11-0."   

Despite the rebuke by the Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy, and the historic nature of the reversal, Borre says the decision shouldn't be viewed as a major precedent or landmark in the Catholic Church so much as a one-time edict, albeit a forceful one.

"Unfortunately, I think it's more a function of Lennon's failure in Cleveland."

Lennon could have appealed the reversals, but chose not to. Borre speculates he would have faced even more humiliation had he "saddled up" and hired a canon lawyer. He also says there still might be changes in Cleveland. Cardinal Bernard Law was a papal elector (and Lennon's chief protector) in Rome, but he surrendered that office when he turned 80 in November, 2011. With new papal appointments still in flux, there could be major changes in the hierarchy forthcoming.

"The issue of what will happen in Catholic Cleveland remains open," he says.   

For her part, Patricia Schulte-Singleton says that it's been a difficult journey with the Bishop, but her parish is finally beginning to forgive.

"I do admire and respect him," she says. "It's an incredible job that he had to do, and I think he did the best he could with the information he had."

Joe Feckanin, of St. Casimir, says that the relationship has become awfully quiet since his parish reopened in Slavic Village.

"He's leaving us alone," Feckanin says. "He's been slam dunked and now he's underneath the radar. But we're not getting any assistance from the diocese. There's no pastoral staff. The people are doing all the work."

The most frustrating thing for Feckanin and others is that, because of enduring tensions, parishioners don't feel Lennon is proud or even pleased with the vibrancy in their churches. Quite the contrary:

"At the installation masses, I never heard him thank the people for their strong faith. I never heard him say that he was happy."


Despite frequent moments of almost grandfatherly warmth, no one could accuse Bishop Lennon of excessive cheer. It seems almost antithetical to the super-serious character of Catholic high leadership.

And despite disgruntled or embarrassed moments at the parish installation masses last year, he's newly enthused by the election of the pope at mass today.  

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.       

"People have an obsession with change," says Lennon. "How will the Church change? And they're looking for things like same-sex marriages and women priests. And I remind them that the Catholic church has taught a lot of things that we believe has been handed on to us by God, so we can't change it."

There's a distinction between not being willing to change something and not having the authority to, says Lennon.

"That's something many people don't want to hear. And now some people take it too far. They abuse it. They'll say, 'You have to eat fish on Friday because God said you had to!' No no no, that's the Church. Stop it. The whole idea that priests have to be celibate, for instance, that's not true. The church came up with that.

"What people don't realize is that it's not as if the Catholic church can do whatever it wants. As Catholics, we believe that God gave us some things and left some things are for us to figure out on our own.

"Ultimately, it makes no apologies because it's an object of faith. It's not just another club. It's not the rotary. It's not the Democratic Party. It's 2000 years old! And people say it's irrelevant, but on Wednesday afternoon everyone was watching the television. It's big time."


Bishop Richard Lennon's favorite letter ever wasn't a letter, per se. Nor was it addressed to him. But he has a copy of it rolled up in a cylinder in his office. He hired a photographer to make a print of the original. He unravels it and looks upon it with fondness:

He says he has to tell the story:

"Years ago, when I was a young priest, you weren't allowed to have altar girls. Now you can, but back then the law wouldn't allow it. And I am kind of a law-abiding nerd, but I knew I had to do something for the girls. I couldn't say no. So what I did was I founded a girls' choir.

"As things would have it -- First of all I can't sing. But you know, what the hell? I can wave my hands and get kids excited -- I had 65 little tykes for 6 years. And they were wonderful. I was there every Wednesday afternoon for rehearsal and every Sunday morning I directed them for mass, and we had a grand time.

"Now twenty-five years later, the choir was still going. And at that point, I was long gone. I'd left that area. But the person who took my place as the choir director was one of the third graders I had in 1978.

"She wanted to have some recognition for the 25th anniversary, so she calls me and asks if I can get a papal blessing for the choir. I said I don't think so, but of course I'll try. I called a priest friend of mine in Rome. And he said, I don't think they'll do that. I really don't think they will. And I said if they don't, they don't, I mean what the heck. I'm not gonna go to war over it.

"So I get a call and he tells me that they're gonna do it. And he's shocked. He said, 'You know better than to ask for this.' But because I had become the Apostolic Administrator in Boston they said they'd do it for me.

"Anyway this was done and sent out, all hand done, the whole thing. They have the original in the St. Mary's parish hall under glass.  That was the last one that he signed, John Paul II. That's not something a Pope does every day. It's a beautiful piece of work.

"I've been very blessed. I really have."


At 4 p.m., the Bishop departs for Green, Ohio, in Summit County for a confirmation ceremony. Confirmations have to be presided over by a Bishop, so the next few weeks are especially busy. He'll even be at the reopened St. Pat's in early April, and the community there is eager to welcome him back.

Lennon will forego a private dinner with the Queen of Heaven parish priest and opt for the fish fry. He says he prefers to be out among the people, among his flock.

After dinner, he'll meet with the confirmandi privately, say the mass, and stay afterward for a brief reception to welcome the newly confirmed heartily into the Church community.

Then he'll be driven home. Even with daylight savings, it'll be well after the sun has gone down before he arrives back in his quarters. He will have been awake and active for 18 consecutive hours, and in his drowsy solitude he will probably pray and he will probably sleep. And like a lot of Catholics of a certain age, the two will be deeply intertwined.

Up through the length of his Diocese he'll drift, up through the realms of the parishes he tore asunder and continues to piece back together. Up and up he'll go, and by the time he reaches the city, he'll still be an embattled Catholic Bishop. He'll still be a misunderstood Bishop. He'll still be a Bishop who's made and will continue to make tough decisions. He might be a very bad Bishop when all is said and done, but he'll also still be a decent man. An earnest, God-fearing man.

And he'll be jostled awake by the Friday night lights of downtown Cleveland, having endured the journey home. And in that special disorientation that comes with stolen naps, he'll recall with a pleasant start that his day is not done yet -- he still has a few thank you notes to write.   


About The Author

Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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