Tuesday, June 7, 2011

An Agonizing Decision in Kansas City-St. Joseph

My good friend and brother Deacon Greg Kandra reports on the recent decision of a candidate for ordination to the diaconate to decline ordination.  Read about it on "The Deacon's Bench" here.  In summary, the candidate in question agonized over the decision to "promise respect and obedience" to Bishop Robert Finn and his successors; such a promise is made by every candidate for diaconal ordination, and even under the best of conditions this is a most profound and challenging promise to make!  Given the recent scandals in the diocese, and Bishop Finn's own admission of negligence in reporting recent cases of abuse by a particular priest of the diocese, an open-ended promise of "respect and obedience" to this particular bishop and all future unnamed and as yet unknown holders of that office, becomes particularly challenging.

Of course there is much involved here, and we can spend a lot of time going over it if people wish.  First, there is the theological understanding of "obedience" which is quite different from the more common understanding we hear every day.  Second, we can reflect on the nature of the relationship between the bishop and his clergy, and third, the presence and action of the Holy Spirit working in and through the bishop, the ordinand and the entire church.  In other words, this is so much more than someone promising some kind of "blind obedience."

In the deacon candidate's letter to his fellow parishioners, he refers to the fact that he is not going to be able to "respond to the call to orders which he had received."  Many comments have been posted on Deacon Greg's blog and I'm sure elsewhere which take the candidate to task for not responding to God's call.  As I tried to explain, though, this is highly technical and canonical (legal) language.  Here's what I wrote:

I will not enter into the substance of this debate, other than to say that I applaud the man’s decision. This isn’t a question of ex opere operato or anything else. Consider the way the ritual flows at ordination. The candidates are first questioned, and they respond AS A GROUP. But then comes this last question, and the liturgical action changes. Each candidate steps forward individually, kneels in front of his bishop, places his hands in the bishop’s, and promises respect and obedience to the bishop and all of his successors in office. It is a profoundly PERSONAL moment between bishop and candidate. If the man cannot, after wrestling with all of the issues in the crucible of his conscience, make such a promise, he is right not to do so.
But the main reason I’m chiming in is to give a technical response to the question, “From whom does the call to orders come?”
Overall, of course, the call comes from God, AS DISCERNED BY COMPETENT CHURCH AUTHORITY. Both aspects are necessary. I can’t simply say, “God is calling me to be a , , , and that’s all I need.” But what the candidate in THIS case is saying is technically quite different.
See, shortly before ordination, the ordaining bishop will issue a formal document known as a “Call to Orders”; it is what officially informs the candidate that he’s supposed to show up at the ordination ceremony. For example, when I was ordained in 1990 by Cardinal James Hickey for the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, my wife and I went through our final round of interviews with him personally THE DAY BEFORE ORDINATION WAS SCHEDULED. At the end of those final interviews, the Cardinal opened his door, called in his photographer, and presented me with the official document calling me to orders. I was in the church the next day.
When I read the candidate’s letter in this case, it seemed perfectly clear to me that he was not speaking theologically or sacramentally but canonically: he had in fact received the official “Call to Orders” from Bishop Finn, but that he was not going to accept it.
Perhaps, in the future, he will.
So, what do you think?  Comments?  Questions?


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Thanks for an excellent clarification about the "call to orders." Even some of our candidates have found it difficult to accept the idea that the call they believe God has given them has to be extended through the Church, and sometimes the Church may decline to issue that call even as the hour for ordination draws near.

  3. Thanks, Ron. I'm not sure why Scott removed his comment, but, thanks to you, too, Scott!!

  4. Bill:

    Sorry. I stole it back because I. too, reluctantly decided to post on this. I thank you, as always, for bringing charity and clarity to this issue. My hope would be for Bishop Finn, who, to his credit, has not "holed up" after this incident to sit down with Jim.

  5. Thank you for a very thoughtful post on what must be such a difficult moment in Jim's life and in the life of that diocesan community.

    Peace and prayers for them at this time.

  6. Its embarrassing that only one clergy member int he world will take a stand against the church's practice of

    - raping children
    - covering it up
    - lying about it
    - denigrating the victims

  7. I went through formation with Jim McConnell. He is a man of deep faith. While I understand why he decided not to proceed to ordination, I disagree with the public way in which he did it.

    I wonder what those who praise him for his action think of the men who proceeded with being ordained to the diaconate by Bishop Finn? To praise Jim's actions seems to demand denigration of those who proceeded to holy orders. Which I think is an unfair judgment of them. All of who are also deeply holy men.

  8. Dear Deacon Dave,

    Thank you for your insight. I certainly don't intend any denigration of the men who decided otherwise in their acceptance of the call to Orders than did Jim!

    Those of us who have shared that moment of ordination, I think, fully respect the seriousness and complexity of the decisions being made. I have nothing but respect for ALL concerned, including those who choose to walk away from ordination and those who choose to embrace it. Ah, the beauty of free will!

    Perhaps SOME commenters on other blogs DO intend some kind of negative comparison, but for the record, I most certainly do not.

    Congratulations on your own ordination, my brother, and may God grant you many years in His service.

    Ad multos annos,


  9. Deacon Dave, this is Fran from the other comment in a different ID. I know that I do not hold any of the other deacons in low regard for making their choice to go forward.

    As for his public way, I'm not sure that in this day and age it could have been done otherwise, for good or ill.

    God bless you always on your ordination and may you always be of great service to God's people.

  10. As one who has just completed his first year of formal study during formation for the Diaconate I read this post with great interest. I must confess that it stopped me short in that it brought home some truths that I had not fully grasped.
    It is quite wrong to condemn either Jim or the people who accepted the Call. I cannot imagine that anyone of them did things lightly but only after a period of prolonged prayer and meditation.

    As Fran said; Peaec and Paryers for them all at this time.

  11. It would have been much easier for McConnell to just go through the motions. It also would have been much easier for him to keep quiet about it. If this had been me, it would have been terribly painful. I hope he is at peace about it.