February 20, 2020 Editor

“Nothing” bishop gets frank on married priests, Vatican under Francis

“Nothing” bishop gets frank on married priests, Vatican under Francis

Feb 19, 2020

by Joshua J. McElwee

photo above: Bishop John Michael Botean of the Romanian Catholic Eparchy of St George’s in Canton, Ohio, returns to his seat after receiving Communion as bishops of the Eastern Catholic churches in the U.S. concelebrate a Divine Liturgy in the crypt of St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican Feb. 18. (CNS/Paul Haring)

WN: What a breath of fresh air! Fr. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy (see below) wrote me some years ago about only one American Bishop who had opposed the U.S. going to war against Iraq. This was he! By tragic stark contrast, see: “Bishop Thomas John Paprocki“.

As to Bishop Botean’s commitment to nonviolence, the recent critically acclaimed film, A Hidden Life, underscores the isolated plight of those who take Christ’s nonviolence seriously. Another Catholic priest, Father George Zabelka, on the American side of the same war above, who had blessed the crews that dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that instantly murdered 125,000 victims; and had also blessed mass murder in carpet bombing over 60 cities in Japan including Tokyo, where in one night of conventional bombing, 100,000 civilians were slaughtered, finally reversed what he called his country’s and his Church’s brainwashing, and committed the rest of his life to nonviolence. We read in the Wikipedia article highlighted above:

In 1973, Rev. Zabelka attended a three-day workshop given by his Diocese for the priests of his Diocese on Gospel Nonviolence directed by a layman [later a priest as seen above and below], Emmanuel Charles McCarthy. In the following two years, he attended the same workshop on two other occasions in different locations. Then, in his 1975 Christmas letter to his friends, he wrote this: “I do not want to lose any of you as my friends and I certainly do not want to offend any of you, but I must do an about face. I have attended this workshop on Christian Nonviolence several times and have read the books that were recommended at it. I have come to the conclusion that the truth of the Gospel is that Jesus was nonviolent and taught nonviolence as His way.

In February 1976, he retired from the life of an active parish priest in the Diocese of Lansing and dedicated the remainder of his life to teaching the centrality of the nonviolent Jesus Christ of the Gospels and His Way of nonviolent love of friends and enemies for peace of soul, for peace among people and for the eternal salvation of all. He began and continued to ceaselessly insist that all the Churches of Christianity, by which he meant all Christians within all Christian churches, regardless of the rank each held in his or her Church, must begin to or return to following the Nonviolent Jesus of the Gospels and His Way of Nonviolent Love of all under all circumstances: “Until the various churches within Christianity repent and began to proclaim by word and deed what Jesus preached with relation to violence and enemies; there is not hope for anything other than escalating violence and destruction.

In his homily at a 1991 Mass celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of his ordination to the Catholic priesthood, Fr. Zabelka said, “I looked in the Catholic Bible. I looked in the Protestant Bible. I looked in the Orthodox Bible. And, in every one of them, there it was in no uncertain terms. Jesus saying ‘Love your enemies.’ ”

Love your enemies! One must ask emphatically: Just what in that statement is so hard to understand?!  Just where is the exception clause in that?! The problem is of course neither a matter of understanding, nor a matter of discovering “loopholes” (W. C. Fields). It boils down to one “matter” only: faithfulness.

Please see my reflection on this: “WAR AND HELL – and Exception-Clause Footnote Theology“.

Pete Seeger wrote in the anti-war song, “Where Have all the Flowers Gone?“: When will we ever learn? When will we ever learn? . . . Amen!


Rome — If you believe Bishop John Michael Botean’s description of himself, he’s “a nothing bishop from a nothing diocese.”

If so, that self-described identity appears to have bestowed on the Ohioan a rather unusual level of candor for a U.S. prelate.

At different points in an hourlong interview Feb. 18, Botean, who leads the only Romanian rite Catholic diocese in the U.S. and Canada, warned that one of his comments might “curl some hair,” spoke frankly about how other American bishops see Pope Francis, and asked if he could take back referencing a recent visit to the “Holy Office of the Inquisition.”

Also coming in for frank talk: bishops’ inability to speak adequately about the long-lasting effects of clergy sexual abuse, and retired Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Robert Sarah’s recent book starkly defending the practice of clerical celibacy.

On the last subject, Botean was not only blunt, but somewhat emotional. He mentioned that most of the about 25 priests he has to serve a diocese that spans nearly a dozen states and provinces, are, like many other Eastern rite clergy, married.

“I haven’t read the book, but the assertion that celibacy is somehow ontologically connected to the priesthood is something that I will leave to other cardinals and higher-ups to dispute,” said the bishop. “And I believe they will.”

“But it is painful for us to hear, and it’s painful for our priests to hear that kind of stuff,” he added.

Botean, who has served in his role since 1996, is among a small handful of U.S. bishops to have made four of the approximately once-a-decade ad limina visits — twice under John Paul II, once under Benedict XVI, and now once under Francis.

Echoing what prelates from other regions have said, Botean described a noticeable difference in meetings with Vatican officials under the first Argentine pontiff.

“Last time, one thing I realized after we came here is, ‘Oh my God, they can yell at all of us all at once,’ ” the bishop joked, before adding: “Not now. It’s been wonderful.”

“Our last ad liminas as bishops was [under] Pope Benedict, of course, and it was a different atmosphere,” the bishop added later.

“To hear the leaders of the [Vatican] congregations now encouraging us to get deeper into the Christian mysteries and reflect the openness and joy the Gospels are supposed to provoke, instead of getting into the nitty-gritty of disciplinary issues, has been really, really refreshing,” he said.

Botean recounted Cardinal Luis Ladaria, the head of the Vatican’s powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, telling the Eastern rite prelates: “The church is beautiful. We have to tell the story of the beautiful church.”

“Coming from the … Holy Office of the Inquisition, as it used to be known, that’s a great thing to hear,” said the bishop, before correcting his century-old reference with a deadpan: “It’s a venerable institution in the church, with a history that one cannot forget.”

“What’s going on now is vastly different,” he continued. “It was about control. I don’t think that’s the emphasis as much.”

Asked what he’s planning to say to Francis in their meeting, Botean responded: “What I’m mainly going to want to say is thank you.”

“I wish that was a little more of a common sentiment I would hear among bishops in the U.S.,” said the prelate.

“But I don’t hear too much, and I keep my own counsel,” he quickly added. “That’s another advantage of being a nobody bishop of a nothing diocese.”

Nonviolent witness

For a certain segment of the U.S. Catholic population, especially peace activists, Botean is something of a folk hero. In 2003, shortly before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, he was the only American prelate to speak out directly against the instigation of conflict, calling it an “objectively grave evil, a matter of mortal sin.”

Talking about issues of war and violence during the interview, the bishop started with some more frank talk.

Asked about what he hopes Francis understands about the U.S. political environment, Botean responded: “To have any leverage with the administration or with the U.S. government in general … the U.S. bishops have to have his back, big time.”

“I don’t want to judge what the situation of that is, but I don’t suppose it’s what it could be,” he added.

But Botean then spoke much more introspectively, reflecting on how he understands nonviolence teachings in light of Christian, and specifically Byzantine, spirituality.

Referencing the number of Christians who have died in the Middle East since the invasion of Iraq, the bishop said: “What we are experiencing now is a new era of martyrdom, and I think that has yet to bear the fruit that God wants it to bear in the church.”

“I think that will perhaps give us the boldness that we need to say … ‘Christ disarmed Peter, he disarmed every Christian,’ ” he said.

“By little and by little, as Dorothy Day would say,” he continued. “We keep planting the seeds. And we keep watering, we keep weeding. It really becomes an exercise of faith.”

Several times, Botean mentioned that his own interest in nonviolence teachings was sparked by his friendship with Fr. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy, a Melkite Greek Catholic, peace activist and author whom the bishop called his “spiritual father.”

Botean said that during one of his previous ad limina visits under John Paul II he had brought copies of a book by McCarthy focusing on the nonviolent aspect of the Eucharist to share with the pontiff and some of his advisers, including Capuchin Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, who has served as the preacher of the papal household since 1980.

Botean said he later saw Cantalamessa appear to reference McCarthy’s writing in some of his talks. “There is openness,” said the bishop. “I think where there’s openness to the Spirit, there’s openness to nonviolence.”

But the Eastern rite prelate said that even he has trouble raising the issue sometimes. He said that one of the members of his cathedral parish is the local sheriff, who comes into the church wearing his firearm.

“He’s the sheriff,” said Botean. “I think he’s required to be armed all the time. He’s very discreet about it. But I don’t feel I can bring that up yet.”

“It’s easier to speak boldly in front of cardinals and popes, I suppose, than your own people,” he joked.

[Joshua J. McElwee ([email protected]) is NCR Vatican correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

* After publication of this article, Botean clarified that while he estimated there to be 50,000-75,000 Romanian rite Catholics in the U.S., that is not an official tally. During the interview, the bishop had said he hopes to be able to take a new count of U.S. Romanian rite Catholics in the future.

Please click on: ‘Nothing’ bishop

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Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

Always appreciate constructive feedback! Thanks.