Focusing on a new era in the life of the diocese
For better or worse — mostly for worse during the past year and a half — the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston has been in the news. The media reports about former Bishop Michael Bransfield have gone national and international. Pope Francis, acting on a lay commission’s report, which he requested, has forbidden Bransfield from celebrating public Masses and other liturgies and from living in the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese.
The pope also has directed me to assist Bransfield in making personal amends for the harm he caused. I have already put much effort into this matter and I trust that my involvement in it will soon be concluded. Nonetheless, I recognize that getting the former bishop to make amends for his wrongdoing will not dispel the sense of betrayal and distrust of many Catholics and others.
In the light of this distressing episode in our diocesan history and of the revelations of irresponsible behavior by church officials elsewhere in our country and in the world, I am not going to offer bromides. But I would like to take this opportunity at the beginning of a new year to let West Virginia Catholics and others know of my hopes for moving forward into a new era in the life of our Wheeling-Charleston Diocese.
Above all, as the church founded by Jesus Christ, we disciples have the solemn duty to make him known as lord and savior to the people of our time and place. Even with fewer people and reduced material resources, we must not resign ourselves to managing decline but rather find effective ways to promote growth. This is called evangelization, that is, simply sharing with others why our faith in Jesus Christ matters to us and why it is a blessing to belong to his church.
The laity must be fully involved in evangelization. To foster growth, we will establish this spring a diocesan pastoral council, composed of lay men and women, chosen through an elective process, that will have delegates from each of the six geographical vicariates in the diocese. This council will bring to my attention the needs of our people and I will share with them my observations and hopes. Details on the election process will be made known in the near future.
Priests and deacons are essential servants of God’s people and we need more of them. I just appointed the Rev. Brian Crenwelge, the director of vocations, to be the new priest chaplain at West Virginia University in Morgantown. Young people of that age are thinking about their future. Experience shows that some of them are open to priestly and religious vocations. In addition, we will form a new class of candidates for the permanent diaconate to begin several years of training in the fall. There have been no deacons ordained since 2016 and a new class would not be ready until 2025, so there is no time to lose.
Material resources support the religious life of our people and our evangelization efforts. We must make the diocese’s financial strengths and weaknesses better known. This will involve not only the publication of the latest independent audit later this winter, but also a clear picture of the nature of diocesan resources and how they have been used. As I have been telling diocesan staff and the priests’ council for a couple months, the diocese has been living above its means. I didn’t do that in my parishes nor in my personal life, nor can our families live that way. I don’t think the diocese can do that either.
We have 112 parishes and missions throughout the state and 25 Catholic grade and high schools. Some are large and robust; others are very small and fragile. We need broad consultation and serious pastoral planning to ensure that we are properly structured to carry on our church life and our duty to evangelize through the rest of the 21st century.
I hope to see our only residential Catholic university, Wheeling University, thrive under the leadership of a new president, Ginny Favede. Wheeling Hospital carries on our centuries-old Catholic tradition of caring for the sick and should continue to be a model of Catholic health care. I would like Catholic Charities to intensify its efforts to reach out to the needy of our state, especially those affected by the opioid plague. I thank the Pallottine Foundation for funding more drug counselors at our Huntington office.
These are some of the major efforts that I hope to see develop in the new year. Traveling around this beautiful Mountain State the past four months since my installation as bishop, I have experienced the hospitality of West Virginia Catholics and their deep and lively faith. While disappointed in past leadership, these dedicated men and women — and many young people — have remained active in worship, prayer and service. This gives me confidence that a more promising future is possible and that the Catholic faith is still relevant in bringing healing and peace, wisdom and understanding and strong support for works of justice and compassion.
The essence of the Catholic Church’s mission and purpose is to bring faith and the power of God’s grace to individuals, families and communities. We must stand tall and confident, not shrinking from but confronting the harsh realities that have brought us grief but also not allowing those past failings to make us suspicious of every servant of God, clerical or lay, or to deter us from harnessing the tremendous spiritual energy of our people to do Christ’s work in this state. I believe I will see the light of Christ shining more and more brightly in West Virginia as this year unfolds and the Holy Spirit guides us forward.
(Brennan is the bishop of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.)