Greensburg bishop's time at helm draws to a close
Closing, merging or partnering two dozen parishes because of dwindling funds, a shortage of priests and declines in parish population was the most difficult decision Bishop Lawrence E. Brandt faced as leader of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Greensburg, he said.
“People relate to a parish in a way they relate to no other building. They feel as though their identity was lost,” said Brandt, who will reach the mandatory retirement age of 75 in slightly more than two weeks and must submit his resignation to the Vatican. It will then start a secretive search for his replacement that could take a year or longer.
“All of a sudden, a huge part of their life is gone,” he said of the restructuring that ignited a firestorm of controversy and harsh criticism aimed at him. “When people become angry, I understand that. It is a grieving process.”
Brandt, who was born on March 27, 1939, in Dunbar, W.Va., was named bishop of Greensburg in January 2004, replacing Anthony G. Bosco, who retired in August 2002. Bosco's retirement plans were put on hold when he was named to serve as diocesan administrator until Brandt's installation. He died on July 2 at the age of 85.
Brandt, too, might stick around after his resignation. The replacement of bishops could take longer under a new pope, one Vatican watcher said.
“My feeling is it's taking longer because of the transition to (Pope) Francis,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter and author of “Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church.”
Brandt came to Greensburg amid diocesan budget shortfalls and escalating sexual abuse scandals involving priests.
When he became bishop, the diocese had about 188,000 Catholics in Westmoreland, Fayette, Indiana and Armstrong counties. It now counts about 153,000 faithful.
Back then, its $7.7 million operating budget included a $750,000 deficit. The 2013 operating budget of $9.84 million includes a $300,000 increase in revenue from 2012, diocesan records show.
The diocese has been deficit-free for the past few years, spokesman Jerry Zufelt said.
“I think the bishop has done a lot of great things to keep the diocese on track,” said Lawrence Barkowski, president of the Greensburg Chapter of the Knights of Columbus, a fraternal and benefit society of Catholic men, founded in New Haven, Conn., in 1882.
“He did not skirt the hard issues,” said Barkowski, who called the 2008 and 2013 reorganizations of the parishes “a very bold accomplishment.”
The bishop's embrace of technology “keeps us current and prepared for the future,” Barkowski said.
Brandt has been “a thoughtful and deliberate, forward-looking decision maker,” said Michael Walker, who co-chaired a recent capital and endowment campaign that exceeded its $45 million goal by $10 million. “He's been influential in our family's journey.”
Others disagree, dubbing the parish reorganizations “Obrandtacare.”
“I love the wordspeak — restructuring. Why don't you just call it closing?” said Sylvia Rattay, a member of the former St. Mary, Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Leckrone, Fayette County, which was merged into the new St. Francis of Assisi Parish of western Fayette County.
Rattay, of Edenborn, German Township, attends a church in the Diocese of Pittsburgh because she believes attending a church in the Greensburg diocese would be agreeing with the reorganization plan.
“We had a First Communion service the day it was announced our parish was closing,” she said.
Fewer parishioners, priests
Brandt's successor will face challenges.
The Greensburg diocese has 70 priests for 78 parishes, including 34 parishes partnered with one or two others. The number of priests is projected to drop to 48 in five years and by 2025, there could be slightly more than two dozen priests.
Those issues are affecting churches across the country, said Dennis Doyle, a professor at the University of Dayton and author of “The Church Emerging From Vatican II.”
“In some areas there is growth, but in Pennsylvania and Ohio, certainly, the Catholic population is declining,” he said.
In Erie, Bishop Lawrence T. Persico is facing the same challenges and is in the preliminary stages of developing a strategic plan.
“There is not a diocese in Pennsylvania that is not facing this,” said Persico, who served as vicar general in Greensburg under Brandt. “Something has to be done.”
The total number of priests in the United States dropped from 45,699 in 2000 to 39,600 last year while the number of parishes without a priest went up, according to The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.
“There's never going to be enough priests; there never were,” Brandt said. “Just look what 12 apostles did.”
The process to name Brandt's replacement is hard to predict, Reese said. An announcement could be made as early as summer or much later and could name a priest or auxiliary bishop, he said.
A local website hosts an online petition by lay people seeking to have input in the selection of Greensburg's next bishop. More than 300 people have signed it.
“We know the church is not a democracy,” said Tom Severin, 66, of Connellsville, a retired religion teacher and spokesman for the group that calls itself the Ambrosians, after St. Ambrose. “We're sort of planting a seed. It may not have an impact on our next bishop, but it says, ‘In the future, we hope to have a say in who the bishop might be.' ”
St. Ambrose was one of the four original doctors of the Latin Church. Unanimously elected bishop of Milan by the clergy and laity in 374 A.D., he immediately adopted an ascetic lifestyle, apportioned his money to the poor and donated all his land.
Brandt, who studied in Innsbruck, Austria, and Rome and served at Vatican embassies in Madagascar, Germany, Ecuador and Algeria, has no specific retirement plans but said he wants to remain active in the diocese and complement the new bishop's ministry.
He said he will stay in the area, where his family has roots. His great-grandfather, Sebastian Brandt, was a butcher in Crabtree. His grandfather, Giles Andrew Brandt, was a bricklayer who helped build the St. Vincent Basilica. His mother, Priscilla, 106, lives in Greensburg.
Canon law dictates that the church provide a “level of care for retired bishops,” including a place of residence.
Brandt said that despite the challenges, he remains optimistic about the future and is looking forward to the work of Diocesan Heritage Center he announced this year to collect, preserve and display the history of the diocese.
“The diocese was built by people of heroic faith,” he said. “This will celebrate the Lord's footsteps through history.”
Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or firstname.lastname@example.org.