ROME —Bishop Frank Caggiano of Bridgeport, Connecticut, has become one of the most closely watched American prelates at a time when the Church in the United States is in full crisis mode, making it perhaps unsurprising that he was the first bishop to raise the issue of clerical sex abuse during this month’s Vatican summit on young people.
His name is now often rumored as a potential replacement for Cardinal Donald Wuerl in Washington, D.C. or for Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia when he reaches retirement age next year.
Even so, Caggiano brushes off such rumors, insisting that he’s focused solely on his diocese and, particularly, building on the energy and ideas coming out of the Synod of Bishops on “Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment,” where he has joined nearly 300 bishops around the world for his first go at a synod.
Among the topics he discussed in an interview with Crux last week are:
- The upcoming meeting of U.S. bishops next month where he insists that the issue of accountability of bishops must be settled.
- His plans for a youth synod in his own diocese.
- Why hearing stories of Christian martyrdom have challenged him to consider what he’s willing to sacrifice for the faith.
Crux: Since this is your first Synod of Bishops, give us your impressions of the experience thus far.
Caggiano: The presence of the youth here has been tremendous. They’ve given an energy and a focus to everything we do, which I did not expect to happen. I think there’s general harmony, and the bishops seem to be moving in the same general direction, which in my greater fears I was wondering if that would happen, but it is, in fact, happening.
I’ve been so involved with young adults back home that a lot of these themes resonate in my heart. The one take-away, which has changed me the most, is the global sense: what other bishops are struggling with young adults, we are not. It’s basic human needs, human problems, that have been a sobering experience for me in the Church, that we in the United States don’t have.
Give us some examples.
Human trafficking. Martyrdom. Some of the bishops gave beautiful, compelling stories of young women and young men who literally gave their life because mobs wanted them to renounce their Catholic faith. I’ve read it in books in the ancient Church, but this is going on in Asia and Africa right now and in our midst, and I think it’s something our young people need to hear.
Not only is it inspiring, but also it calls them to greatness, to say “What’s the skin in the game for us — for me and for you?” These young people gave everything and that was spiritually compelling for me, and I’ve been praying about it ever since. Even personally, “What am I willing to give as a spiritual leader, as a mentor, and as a man of faith?
In the synod, you were the first to raise the issue of sexual abuse. Certainly in the first part of synod, and now in the small groups, that’s continued to be discussed. Realistically, what do you expect this synod to produce with regard to forward movement toward reform on sexual abuse?
The day before I left, I met with a number of young people from Bridgeport. I said to them, what message do I bring and every single one of them began with this question of abuse. The real question was the credibility of leadership, and the real question was “can I trust you?” One young woman said, “can I trust you?” Meaning me, not “you” in the plural. So, I promised them I’d bring it, and it confirmed in my heart what I knew I had to raise.
I think that since there’s the February gathering where they’re going to get in the nuts and bolts, that is the venue where we’ll get in the details.
[Editor’s Note: Pope Francis has convened a meeting in Rome in February 2019 for the head of every bishops’ conference from around the world to discuss the issue of sex abuse and the protection of minors and vulnerable adults.]
I think young people need to understand and hear from us: A. We understand the problem. B. We sympathize and empathize with the position they are now in — that we need to earn their trust. And C. That we stand with survivors. If there’s a characteristic that marks young people, it’s that they understand the underdog and they want to stand with those who are victimized, and they want us to stand with them, and we have to. So, I think if we can state that, and apologize earnestly for what happened, that will set the prelude to the February meeting.
We’ve heard apologies before. We’ve heard Francis apologize, we’ve heard Benedict apologize, and we’ve heard the U.S. bishops apologize. At the same time, we still see mistakes that shouldn’t be happening, so how do you think trust can be regained?
Yesterday’s homily that I gave at the synod, the most important words that I gave were the last ones. I spoke about broken hearts, and I said we’re going to re-learn how to be physicians “one broken heart at a time.” The last six words is the method.
There is no document on earth that is going to heal the broken trust that one individual has. We have to find the courage in this generation to come to sit with individuals and let them express what they’re really feeling and be able to answer to that. To a certain extent, I think it’s good that we empathize, but when I go back to Bridgeport, it’s going to have to be my ministry and to allow that forum to tell me directly how they feel and to be able to answer that, because that is where we’re going to be able to rebuild trust.
Speaking of going back to Bridgeport, what are you going to take back from the synod? What new things are you going to bring into the conversation?
I think the immediate task would be to say, “Whatever the Holy Father tells us is the direction” and ask how do I translate that into Bridgeport? That translation is going to be from affluent communities to some of the poorest communities in Connecticut. The bottom line is, I think we have to gather together — I think youth and their mentors and on a diocesan wide level have some assembly, some gathering, maybe even a synod — to be able to ask where do we go next? I think a synod shouldn’t be an exercise in visiting the dinosaurs, and it should be a regular experience in the life of the Church.
When you get back to the States after the synod, there is also the meeting of U.S. bishops coming up in November. What do you expect?
My hope is that the question of the accountability of bishops be definitively addressed. On Facebook I got a posting from someone who was a colleague of mine in Brooklyn before I was a bishop. We were together in Albany for a gathering on the Charter [adopted by the U.S. bishops in 2002 in response to sex abuse]. She reminded me that I turned to her and said, “we’re talking about priests and deacons, but what about the bishops?” I wrote back to her and said, “thank God I said that!” We definitively have to answer that question in November and refer something to the Holy See to get approbation.
On the question of former Cardinal McCarrick, I’m not sure what will happen with that, but I think the people of my diocese would really appreciate hearing a direction going forward. In either case, I haven’t heard anything concrete, but on the first matter, it’s something we need to do and on the second matter, it’s something I’m hoping we’ll do.
Last question: are you going to go home more or less optimistic about the prospects of the Church because you took part in this synod?
More — much more.
Two reasons. Because the youth — the ones who are here — are committed, and they’re the tip of the iceberg. They’re willing to slug it out even in these times for their faith and for the Church, so it gives me great hope.
The second is that no matter what happens with the aftermath of what we’re going through in the United States, this may be a period of humility, and it may even be a period of humiliation for the leadership of the Church. But, in that being stripped, you people will see leaders who are not standing over them but are standing with them. They’ll respond to rebuild the Church. I think there’s a whole army of young people who are willing to say yes.
When you take away the pomp and circumstance, and if you’re just standing with them in the rags, they’ll be with us. And I think that could be a moment of great grace in a moment of great woundedness and great hurt, so I think that’s what I go back with.