“A Jesuit pope by the name of Francis sends you a Franciscan bishop trained by the Jesuits.”
Those were the words of Lexington, Kentucky’s new bishop, John Stowe, as he introduced himself at his first press conference last week.
The words came as a breath of fresh air to progressive Catholics in the Lexington Diocese. As a resident of that diocese, they came as a refreshing breeze to me.
In his opening statement, there was not a word about abortion, contraception, or gay marriage – the dreary, unvarying drum beat of doctrinal rigidity that has (in the pope’s words) turned the lives of Catholics into an endless “Lent without Easter.”
Instead, bishop-elect Stowe follows the lead of his boss who emphasizes the “Good News” of the Christian faith, and not right-wing doom and gloom. While not ignoring those other matters, Pope Francis (and, it seems, bishop-elect Stowe) would have Catholics engage the big issues such as the failure of corporate capitalism and its resulting wealth inequalities, wars, climate chaos, and particularly exclusion of those conservatives consider “outsiders.”
In his progressive stances, however, Lexington’s new appointee is not merely a disciple of Pope Francis. He also has a long personal history social activism, community organization, and inter-faith cooperation.
In his earlier posts in Ohio and Texas, the bishop-elect has been a consistent peace and social justice leader, and a critic of reactionary politics – especially as they affect immigrants.
Father Stowe recognizes, for instance, the parallels between the experience of today’s undocumented workers and that of his Italian grandmother who along with her compatriots were routinely called “WOPS,” or immigrants without papers.
More specifically, in 2006, when Fr. Stowe addressed the Mayor’s Congress on Immigration Reform in El Paso, Texas, he rejected the “Minuteman” and vigilante approach to border security. He criticized the U.S. Congress saying, “We shudder to imagine what the inscription on the Statue of Liberty might read if it had been erected by the current U.S. Congress.”
The bishop-elect is fluent in Spanish. His introductory conference featured a long paragraph in perfectly delivered in that language. I’m sure that gladdened the hearts of the growing Hispanic community in the Lexington diocese. Hispanics, Stowe says, (along with his Franciscan emphasis on service to the poor) have formed him as a priest and pastor.
In summarizing his priorities and agenda, Rev. Stowe said he will focus on worship and the service that inevitably flows, he said, out of meaningful liturgy. But like his papal mentor, he would do lots of listening before acting.
In all things, he would take Pope Francis as his inspiration and guide, and would follow his example. “I love Pope Francis,” he said, and will do whatever he asks.“
That augurs well for progressive Catholics, for the Lexington diocese, and for the Commonwealth in general.