New Vicar General discusses views, priorities

BRAINTREE -- Msgr. Robert P. Deeley spoke with The Pilot Sept. 6 about his views and hopes as he started his tenure as Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia of the Archdiocese of Boston.

An excerpted version of the interview was published in the Sept. 9 printed edition of The Pilot.

Pilot: Please tell us about your upbringing.

Msgr. Deeley: I grew up in Belmont and I was in Sacred Heart Parish, Watertown, which was a wonderful parish to grow up in.

We had wonderful priests. Msgr. Fallon was the pastor when I was in high school and Father Keilty had come when I was in the fourth grade and remained there until I went into the seminary. He taught me to be an altar boy and encouraged me to become a priest; to consider it and to think about going into the seminary. There were many other good priests there through those years as well. I went to Matignon High School in Cambridge, and profited greatly from the Catholic education system in the Archdiocese of Boston after being in the parish school in Watertown and then four years at Matignon.

I have a great debt of gratitude to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Boston who taught me for those 12 years. As opposed to the present situation, I believe I may have had one lay teacher in those 12 years. When I was a senior the chemistry teacher was Mr. Curry. Apart from that, I had the Sisters all those years.

I worked in Harvard Square in the 60s, which was very formative for my life. I worked at the library at Harvard University in high school and it was a great experience. Then I entered Cardinal O'Connell Minor Seminary in 1964; I was there for two years when I got a scholarship to study at Catholic University, the Basselin scholarship, which was a philosophy and speech scholarship. I was there for three years, until 1969 and then I went to Rome and studied at the North American College from 1969 to 1973, when I returned to Boston and was ordained a priest in July of 1973.

Pilot: How was your experience in Rome as a seminarian?

Msgr. Deeley: My years in Rome were among the most important in my formation because they opened the world to me in a whole new way. It was a tremendous experience of the universality of the Church and of the world. To go outside of the United States and to have that opportunity to study, to travel, to meet other people in a very interesting era in the history of the last century was quite a positive experience for me; it gave me an appreciation of the universality of the Church and the wonders of education. I attended lectures at the Gregorian, which is the Jesuit University. I also attended lectures at the Dominican University of St. Thomas Aquinas, the Angelicum.

Pilot: Your first assignment was as parochial vicar in Needham…

Msgr. Deeley: Once I was ordained, I served at St. Bartholomew in Needham for five years, from '73 to '78 under Msgr. Robert Kickham. He was a great pastor and a wonderful man, a very wise man. Then, I was asked to become the secretary of the Tribunal, which I did from 1978 to 1981. I lived at that time at Mary Immaculate of Lourdes in Newton with Father Michael Doocey, another wonderful and kind priest.

Then, I went back to Rome to do my graduate studies in Canon Law. I was in Rome from 1981 to 1985. I got my licentiate in 1983, the year the new Code of Canon Law was promulgated, so I had the unique opportunity of studying with those who were writing the law, while they were writing it.

So in those years, when we were studying the text of the code, there was no text! Because it was being totally revised and there were various editions of it. The people who were giving us the lectures were the ones heading over to the Vatican in the afternoon and making comments, and so on, so it was a very interesting period.

I defended my doctorate in June of 1986; I was slowed down because I got pneumonia my last year in Rome. After spending some time in the hospital I didn't finish my whole dissertation. I wrote it on the mandate for those who teach theology in institutes of higher studies, an interpretation of Canon 812, which addresses that issue.

Then, I came home and became the adjunct judicial vicar at the Tribunal, which I did until 1989. Then when Father Connick retired from the position of judicial vicar for the archdiocese, I was appointed judicial vicar in spring 1989, a position I held for 10 years. During all that period I lived at St. Bridget's in Lexington with Msgr. Keilty. When I returned from Rome, he was the pastor there and he invited me to come live there which I happily did. I was also the chaplain to the provincial house, which is now an assisted living center, of the Grey Nuns in Lexington. It was a wonderful experience.

In 1989, happily, I was made pastor of St. Ann's in Wollaston where I spent 5 wonderful years. Then I was asked to go to Rome.

Pilot: For the past six years you worked at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome. What were your duties there?

Msgr. Deeley: Originally I was sent over at the request of the American bishops to help in the congregation with the cases of priests from the United States, because the number of cases were so great that the congregation was fairly overwhelmed. Within three months, I was asked to offer some names to the congregation of other priests from the United States who might work in the congregation, since there was an opening.

I came home for Christmas and when I returned I was informed that Cardinal Ratzinger, who was then the prefect of the congregation, wanted to know why my name wasn't on the list that I had made! I answered that I didn't think I was eligible because I was a little too old for that work. I was informed that they wanted me to consider it and then Archbishop O'Malley approved it. Over the next few months it was all worked out and, in the meantime, Cardinal Ratzinger went and got himself elected pope. He went on and I stayed on at the congregation. What was temporary, became a full time assignment.

The congregation does all kinds of work. I worked in what would be called the discipline section. I worked on cases that involved the more grave crimes, which include the sexual abuse of minors by clergy, but also include other horrible things such as the violation of the seal of confession, solicitation in confession, profanation of the Eucharist, and things of that nature.

There are also bright parts of my work there, including working with the Pastoral Provision, giving permission to former Anglican priests who are married who wish to become priests in the Roman Catholic Church. We processed those cases. We did work in more recent years on the Anglican Ordinariate in England. I was also able to be there long enough to participate in some of the initial discussions on the Anglican Ordinariate in the United States.

Pilot: How will your experience and work in Rome affect your work here in Boston?

Msgr. Deeley: I think the most important thing is the notion of the worldwide Church; therefore we are not alone in arriving to solutions to problems that we have. So we have two things: we have a recognition that the problems that we deal with are not our problems alone to deal with, but they are problems that are being dealt with throughout the Universal Church. That's the first thing; that we are not unique and that the issues we are dealing with are shared by other people, not necessarily everyone, but by other people.

So, then, where are the resources? It gives us the opportunity to seek ways in which we can find out what kind of solutions are being offered in other places and different ways, so we can tap into those resources and contacts. I think it's important to see ourselves more universally, that we are part of the Church and the Church is dealing with these issues.

Pilot: What was your reaction when you were asked to become the next vicar general?

Msgr. Deeley: In Canon 274 it says that a priest is to accept an assignment that is given to him by his ordinary. When I promised to Cardinal Medeiros, who ordained me, my obedience and respect, it was to him and to his successors. When Cardinal Seán asked me to do this, he said that he had confidence in my ability to serve him in this way. There was no other answer for me than to say yes. In fidelity to what I had promised, that was the way it had to be.

The other part of that is that if you really believe, that it's not just a question of control, if you will, it's also a question of seeking God's will in our lives. By accepting the invitation of the cardinal to do this work, I believe that God will provide. This is a very difficult job, with a lot of things attached to it, that the cardinal has asked me to do. I have said yes. In my prayer now, I lift my head up and say "Ok, it's up to you to see to it that I am able to do the job that you have asked me to do."

Pilot: What do you like to do in your free time?

Msgr. Deeley: First of all I come from a large family; I am the fourth of five brothers. My younger brother is a priest and has been serving for the last 16 years as a Navy chaplain, and will soon be returning to the archdiocese. But my older brothers are all married; my nieces and my nephews are almost all married and have children of their own. I enjoy spending time with them. I enjoy also playing a round of golf, skiing and things of that nature, when time permits.

Pilot: What do you think are the main issues, the main priorities, at this time in Boston?

Msgr. Deeley: I think it is very important to continue and not to lose focus on the seriousness of the sexual abuse crisis. We cannot lose sight of that; the serious harm that has been done and the need to continue to help the Church to heal in the ways that we can. We cannot pretend in any way that we have moved beyond this crisis. It has to be there with us as we move forward.

That being said, there are ramifications, there are difficulties that have been exacerbated by the crisis. The number of people going to church had already begun to go down before the crisis hit, but it has made it worse.

Our faith is a beautiful thing; we are not just an organization, we are a Church. A Church is a way of finding meaning in life through our relationship with God. We believe as Catholics and Christians that is found in Jesus Christ and the power and beauty of his message and the joy it brings to our lives. We have to convey that message to people, so that they realize the Church is not just something you go to on Sunday as an obligation, but it is something that gives root and foundation to the rest of your life. So even though the Church has made mistakes, it's the people in the Church who have made mistakes. But the truth of the faith continues. Somehow we have to help people to once again embrace that, for the good of their own lives, for the good of their own souls and for their eternal peace. The Church sets the goals for us in what it is that we do, we cooperate with God's grace in bringing about those things as best we can.

Pilot: So the main issue continues to be the consequences of the abuse crisis…

Msgr. Deeley: The consequences, yes; but the main issue is evangelization. The main issue is how we help people to know, love and serve the Lord. As it was in the second grade at Sacred Heart School in Watertown back in 1955, it is so the same today. We have not changed our goals. My goals as vicar general have to be consonant with the direction the Church is to go in.

The abuse crisis is an important part of that and we can't lose sight of the people who have been harmed by that; but the issue behind all of it is, how do we present the Gospel? Part of that is going to be pastoral planning, which is something extremely important. We cannot financially, maintain the size of the Church we have. We need to increase vocations. But in order to do all that, we need to increase the number of people we have in church. If we think of ourselves as a Church that has 20 percent or less of the numbers that we are, then perhaps we are ordaining enough priests. But if we want to be the Church that incorporates the other 80 percent of the people who aren't here, we need more priests. It's as simple as that. We cannot continue to operate with 20 percent of the faithful, 20 percent of the priests that we should have in order to be the Church in Boston that we want to be.

Pilot: What would you say to those people who, because of the sexual abuse crisis or reconfiguration, have separated from the Church?

Msgr. Deeley: I would encourage everyone to continue to understand what we are as Church, what we are about. The message of the Gospel, the message that Jesus gives us and the joy and the peace that he brings into our lives, should not be set aside. The way that that is most celebrated for us is at the Eucharist, when we gather together as a Eucharistic community, not just when we receive, but when we gather and we pray that God will once again send the Spirit over this bread and wine and make it into the body and blood of Christ. We do that when we gather together as Church. There is no more powerful means that God has of aiding us.

For those who are alienated and who are separated from the Church, I would encourage them to rekindle the faith which allows them to come and to join us in the celebration of the Eucharist. To be Church we need each other. We are going to make mistakes, we are human beings. It's the Church which is indefectible, not the individuals within the Church. We have to recognize the failings of each other, but we also have to recognize that we are necessary to each other, that we depend on each other. Gathering together in the Eucharist is the way that we most powerfully ask God to help us in life, to help us with the issues we are dealing with. Without that, I can't imagine being able to do what I do, therefore I can't see how other people can.

Pilot: You mentioned the need for pastoral planning. How do you balance the need of pastoral planning with the reaction of the faithful to resist change as during reconfiguration?

Msgr. Deeley: I think perhaps the most difficult part of the reconfiguration of 2004, which I was here for, was the swiftness with which it had to be done. I was a pastor and a vicar forane at that time. I think that the committee that the cardinal has appointed is a very good committee under Msgr. Fay and Deacon Clough, I think they are thoughtfully considering this process. They are talking to many people, they are seeking council and advice. These things are always going to be painful, but if people are heard and have the ability to enter into the process, I believe that the results will be that much better. But we have to realize that we cannot afford to continue in the way we are going.

Pilot: You mentioned before evangelization as a key issue for you. Pope Benedict is pressing forward on Blessed John Paul II's call for the New Evangelization. How will you help to advance that in Boston?

Msgr. Deeley: It's needed because it's our call as a people of the Gospel to do it. Period. Under any circumstances we are called to bring others to know the goodness and love of the Gospel. The cardinal's Pentecost Letter on evangelization was an excellent invitation to the people of the archdiocese to give consideration to the way they can bring others to share the joy and wonder of the Gospel and the Good News of Jesus Christ.

It's a word that people find somewhat confusing at times because they take evangelization to mean something similar to going down to Boston Common and standing on a milk crate and starting to make announcements. In fact, if you read the cardinal's letter, he speaks of the different ways in which we evangelize and the first way which we evangelize is with the witness of our lives. If we believe in the Gospel and the transformative nature of the Gospel and what it has done for us, then we are already evangelizing by just reflecting in our lives the truth that we find in Jesus Christ. The way in which we treat people, the way in which we respect people, the way in which we are joyful in going about our own lives, is the way in which we are already evangelizing. That's the first place in which everyone evangelizes.

And then when people ask us 'Why do you feel this way?' Then we share the message that we believe in and might even invite others to join us in celebrating the Eucharist or coming to the community. But the first way which we do it is simply with the witness of our lives. I do think it is essential; but it has always been essential and it needs again to be raised up.

We live in a culture which does not appreciate religion and has raised up secularism as its way of thinking, its way of being. We need to remind this culture of its roots and where its respect for the importance of the individual has come from; that is a Judeo-Christian tradition.

Pilot: How do you see the role of the Archdiocese in terms of educating Catholics and the rest of society on moral issues that are often challenged by elements in society, such as same-sex marriage, abortion and others?

Msgr. Deeley: I think the Church has a voice that should be speaking to the issues that are most important. We would not expect the Church to sit on the side when respect for the person is being challenged by a culture. Therefore, on the issues which you speak of, I think the Church has as much right to have its voice heard as anyone else. I think the Church should be heard.

Pilot: How would you describe your leadership style?

Msgr. Deeley: I said the other day when I was introduced to the staff, that throughout my 38 years of priesthood, whenever I have been asked to do different jobs I have always realized that there were people there to help. My leadership style is to recognize that this job is a large one. You have the responsibility to assist the cardinal in the administration and leadership of Catholics in this area; close to 2 million, with 290 parishes. There is a great deal of work to do. I always see myself as working with others. I am the coordinator, the one expected to bring together the opinions of others and to bring to the cardinal the best way in which those people whom he has charged with the responsibility of assisting him have concluded is the direction that he should go in.

Pilot: Part of your responsibility is also to manage and direct the priorities of the Pastoral Center. Are you planning or thinking about any significant changes?

Msgr. Deeley: Obviously each person who takes this position has a different way of being, so each obviously have a different way of doing the job. Are there any great plans? No. In the next few weeks, I hope to meet with all of the people who are assisting me in the work of assisting the cardinal. I hope to meet with the priests and I hope to listen, as I go about, to know what it is that people would like to happen. But it really is the cardinal who sets the direction. It's my task to assist him in articulating and bringing into effect his vision. That's the way I see my role.

Pilot: What would you like to tell your brother priests as you take this position?

Msgr. Deeley: That I want to be supportive of them; that we should all be supportive of them. Without them, we have no Eucharist. Priests are essential to our being Church and we need to take care of our priests in a way that makes it possible for them to take care of us. I want to be as supportive of them as I can, in challenging them to bring others to the Lord in their ministry.

Pilot: What would you like to tell the people of the archdiocese? What are your hopes for the Church in the future?

Msgr. Deeley: To recognize who we are as Church and the wonderful, powerful message of joy that the Lord gives us, that he asks parents to pass onto their children and he asks all of us to pass on to one another. My wish is that we all rekindle in our hearts that fundamental message of the Gospel; of our own importance, of God's love for us and of the need to bring that to others.