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The InterVIEW

St. Agatha pastor seeks healing in relationships

A regular feature of The Catholic New World, The InterVIEW is an in-depth conversation with a person whose words, actions or ideas affect today's Catholic. It may be affirming of faith or confrontational. But it will always be stimulating.

Father Lawrence Dowling was, by all reports, a successful and well-loved pastor at St. Denis Parish on the Southwest Side until Feb. 1 this year. That was when he took the assignment as pastor of St. Agatha Parish, the West Side Catholic Community that took in members of several closed parishes in recent years, only to be rocked by the arrest of its pastor, Father Daniel McCormack, in January 2006 on charges of child sexual abuse. On Sept. 9, seven months after arriving at St. Agatha, Dowling was formally installed as pastor. Three days before that, he spoke with assistant editor Michelle Martin about his assignment.

Catholic New World: What did you want to accomplish when you first came here?

Father Lawrence Dowling: When I first walked in, it was really about making sure that the people knew that I wanted to be here, and talking about what the community has been through, how important it was for us to be able to “go deep.” The Scriptures for that particular Sunday happened to be Jesus sending Peter out in the boat and telling him to drop the nets into the deeper water. I asked, in what ways do we as a community need to go deep in terms of drawing from our history of faith, the good things that have happened, the experiences of grace that have helped us so far through this time?

We can build on that. Despite all the things that have happened here, despite all the devastation on multiple levels, the key is to find, with Christ, a sense of resurrection. Christ is still at work and we need to participate in that.

I tried to name the number of levels we needed to do that on. First and foremost, the care for the children who had been abused themselves and their families who were directly affected by it, the care for the school community, the parish community, the community at large—you know, there is a particular stigma that still exists about priests in general.

CNW: How have you related to the people?

FLD: I had to declare that I was really here to work with people. When I talk about priesthood, I typically don’t talk about my priesthood. Priesthood is something that I share with the people with whom and to whom I minister. I wanted to make it clear that I wasn’t here to change things. Initially in meetings, people were always saying, “Father, what do you want to do?” and my response was always, “Tell me what you’ve done, because I’d like to honor the good things that you have been doing.”

A lot of people, too, because of the gap of about a year without consistent leadership, stepped into the breach. There was a strong pastoral council, a strong finance committee that really kept things going. A lot of other people really stepped into the breach in liturgical ministries and coordination and things like that. When I came here, they said, “Do you want to now take this over?” and I said, “Well, uh, no. Do you enjoy doing this? Well, if you’re happy doing it, I’m more than happy having you do it.”

Celebrating Mass was a whole different change in terms of the culture and the way I celebrate. It was so unusual for me to hear, coming out I think on the second Sunday, “Father, Mass wasn’t long enough.” I was like, “Really? First time I’ve ever heard that.” They said. “We expect at least 20-25 minutes of preaching, Father.” It’s just adjusting my style.

CNW:Was leadership one of the strengths you found here?

FLD: I think [the strengths were] liturgy, leadership and a real sense of hospitality. People have gone out of their way to welcome people to their liturgical space. They go out of their way if someone that sits near them on Sunday hasn’t been around for a couple of weeks to call them and say, what’s up? Since I have come on, I have really made an effort to say, who left in the midst of all of this? Let’s see if we can identify some of them and reach out to them.

CNW: What areas are you trying to develop and make stronger?

FLD: When I first came, there was an article in the Tribune. There’s a Precious Blood priest, Father Bill Nordenbrock, who contacted me after he read that article. Bill wanted to see if I was interested in using a process called appreciative inquiry to help the community move forward, listening-wise. So for the last several months, the leaderhsip team, which is about 25 people, has come together and worked with me and Father Bill to develop this process.

For three Sundays in a row, we’re asking people to commit to a full afternoon of coming together for song and prayer, sharing a meal, and then talking about what are the stories about faith and grace that have come out of being part of this community, or any parish community, because we have a few parishes that have merged with St. Agatha recently. Then, with the good things that are happening here, how do we build on that? How do we dream St. Agatha is going to be in five years?

In the midst of all this for me is still the issue of the healing piece, and with the school community, trying to figure out how to continue to care for the teachers who went through this, to be attentive to the kids who were here at the time, to be attentive to the whole student body, again the dynamics of this, the reputation of the school in the community … it’s still out there. You don’t know what kids are hearing, what parents are hearing in the community. “You send your kids to that school?”

Another key piece of this is the kidswho have come forward. There is a desire in me and in the community to somehow reach out to them and encourage them, if they have not gotten counseling for what they’ve been through, in some way to encourage that.

There is a piece with the healing the parish has to do with the diocese. That’s a tough thing. The cardinal will be here this week (for Dowling’s installation), and I think it’s very important for the community and for him. As we talked about him coming here, people really said, we need this. We are part of the Catholic Church, we are part of the archdiocese, and we need to make that reconnection. He is our bishop, he is our cardinal, and we need to move beyond any pain caused by the diocese. There’s a sense that we need to welcome him, we need to embrace him because we know we need each other.

CNW: What would you like to see here in five years?

FLD: On a practical level, this is a dreaming level, a new school to bring all the kids together, which was in the works, and a new church, or take the old school building and turn it into the church. I compare the two buildings—Presentation (at the site of the former Presentation Parish), where the older kids are, and this, and for me, they basically have the same problems— and Presentation’s 100 years old, and this is only 25 years old.

On a spiritual level, we need to work on catechesis and evangelization. When I first came here, people said to me, “Father, we’re people of deep faith, but we don’t necessarily know what it means to be Catholic. Many people come from Baptist traditions and other traditions, and we need to know what this Catholic faith is about.” We need to go out and invite people to join us in the work and worship we do in the community. Work and worship, they go hand in hand.

CNW: You said you wanted to be here. Why?

FLD: The story behind me coming here is that when I was called to consider the position, I’d been at St. Denis for 10 years as pastor. I loved the community, I was comfortable, we were doing great stuff. When I got the call asking me to consider coming here, I said, “OK, let me think about it, let me pray about it.” When we got off the phone, the first Scripture that jumped into my head was Jesus and Peter after the resurrection on the seashore, and Jesus says to Peter, “Do you love me?” Then going on with that reading, at the end he says, “If you really love me, I may take you someplace you don’t really want to go.”

I loved St. Denis, and I’d love to stay another two years, but I was comfortable, and I felt the Lord was calling me to a new challenge, and in coming here, I said the same thing to the people here. I want to be clear: I did not want to leave St. Denis. I was comfortable there. But I left there because I feel that I was called here, and I continue to feel that I was called here.

The telling thing for me, and one of the ironies, is that St. Denis is a sharing parish with St. Agatha, and so the sign they put up on my final day was: “Our ultimate sharing: We send Father Larry with our blessing to St. Agatha.” When I read that, I was obviously very touched by it.

It’s been a very challenging six months, seven months. I think we’re in a new moment, a very positive moment.