From confronting a wayward university to finding a wandering priest, Kevin Rhoades' first year as shepherd of a 160,000-member flock of Roman Catholics was challenging at times – but so comfortably rewarding that he feels right at home.
“It was a very good year,” said Rhoades, who in November 2009 succeeded John M. D'Arcy as bishop of the Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese after holding the same position in Harrisburg, Pa. “I've visited 50 of our 81 parishes, our high schools and universities and some of our grade schools, and given hundreds of homilies. The first task of the bishop is to celebrate the sacraments.”
But just as D'Arcy discovered during his nearly 25 years in office, the bishop's pastoral duties must sometimes compete for time with less-pleasant but essential administrative duties.
One of those duties concerned the highest-profile institution in the diocese: the University of Notre Dame in South Band, which drew national attention and heat when it bestowed an honorary doctor of law degree on Barack Obama during his commencement address in 2009. Given Obama's pro-choice stance, and the church's belief that abortion is intrinsically evil, D'Arcy boycotted the event and instead addressed 2,500 protesters.
Rhoades made it clear he shares D'Arcy's concern.
“I've been on campus 20 times (as bishop). You can't be a Catholic institution without a deep communion with the bishop, and the bishop needs a strong relationship with the (university) president. And that has happened,” Rhoades said, noting that the bishop has limited authority over the secular decisions of an institution governed by a religious order (Holy Cross in this case), “but I do have the power of persuasion. How can I promote an authentic Catholic identity?”
Rhoades said he also shares D'Arcy's well-publicized determination to attract more and better-qualified men to the priesthood, doing whatever possible to screen out applicants who might represent a step backward in the church's efforts to weed out abusive priests.
“We aren't going to let up. We have nine applicants now, which is an increase, and we will continue to care for victims. That is part of my ministry: I feel a responsibility to help people heal,” Rhoades said.
One of those people may be Dominique Carboneau, a former Fort Wayne priest who had been missing from his South Bend church for nearly a month before he turned up safe late last month, saying simply that he had needed time away. Rhoades said he must deal with Carboneau as a concerned pastor, but also as a superior who may have to impose some kind of discipline.
As with leaders of most denominations, Rhoades hopes to revitalize people who are listed as members – but seldom in church. So around Christmas, when even inactive members tend to show up, churches throughout the diocese distributed 50,000 copies of a book called “Rediscovering Catholicism.”
But Catholics have an obligation to the world, not just the church. That's why Rhoades said he and other leaders must continue to speak out against abortion and in support of traditional marriage. The church's social agenda isn't all “conservative,” however: He also wants the church to remain involved in economic issues, pointing out that a moral foundation is the best counterweight to greed and materialism.
Rhoades' motto – “Truth in Charity” – seems to capture his approach. Some religious leaders who protect true orthodoxy do so at the expense of humanity, just as some are so desperate to seem human that they stand for nothing. Fort Wayne's serious yet personable bishop is a welcome combination of the two.
But charity, they say, begins at home. At age 52, what about Kevin Rhoades, the man?
“I'm never bored. It's a diverse diocese, but I'd like a little more time for daily prayer, maybe take a day off.”
If one Lutheran's opinion means anything, the area's Catholics seem to be in good hands – and might want to respond by taking good care of Rhoades and all the other priests to whom they have entrusted their very lives, and more.
Troubled star in town
The church exists not for saints but for sinners, which leads me to this item about Charlie Sheen, the increasingly troubled 45-year-old star of TV's “Two and a Half Men” who is taking some time off for rehab.
According to a report on Radar Online, and confirmed by several local sources, Sheen was in Fort Wayne early last month to visit 23-year-old adult film star Bree Olson, a local resident whose real name is Rachel Oberlin. “(Sheen) really likes her,” one local adult-entertainment source told me. Apparently Sheen spent a lot of time at the downtown Hilton Hotel while here.
E-mail Kevin Leininger at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call him at 461-8355.