Interview: Bishop John R. McGann

"Guiding the Faithful In Turbulent Times"


By Thomas G. Lederer


Rockville Centre, New York October 15, 1989


  In 1957, the Diocese of Rockville Centre was established to oversee all Roman Catholic parishes in Nassau and Suffolk Counties.  Previously, the Island's Catholic churches had been a part of the Brooklyn Diocese.


     Following the retirement of Bishop Walter  P. Kellenberg in 1976, the first prelate of the new diocese, Auxiliary Bishop John R. McGann was appointed Bishop of the Rockville Centre Diocese.  He still serves as leader of Long Island's Catholic churches and its 1.3 million Catholics.


     During his 14-year episcopacy, Bishop McGann's stands on social issues have been strong, outspoken and unwavering.


     Although traditional in his views on church doctrine, he has often found himself in the midst of social controversy, marching in anti-abortion demonstrations, closing Catholic high schools despite considerable opposition or injecting criticism of American policy toward Central America into a eulogy for William G. Casey, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency.


     Bishop McGann was born in Brooklyn in 1924, grew up and attended school in that borough and completed his six years of theological studies at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington.


      After being ordained in 1950, Bishop McGann was assigned to St. Anne's Church in Brentwood, serving as a parish priest as well as the assistant chaplain at Pilgrim State Hospital.


     Under his direction are 133 parishes, 578 priests, 4 Catholic hospitals, 88 diocesan and parochial schools, 9 homes for special care and 4 orphanages and child-welfare centers. (Editor's note: Bishop John McGann retired in 1999--ten years after this interview--and he died in January 2002.)


      Q. Earlier in this decade, the American Bishops spent six years preparing a pastoral letter called "Economic Justice for All." In what context do you view the letter on the economy?


       A. The Bishops were involved in the economic question because of its moral implications.  We are not business experts, and we don't pretend to be, but we do feel that there are limitations in our economic system that must be challenged for moral reasons.


     Through social-action groups, the Catholic Church has tried to continually talk about the proper place for the economy in our lives, while advocating concepts like health benefits and profit sharing, and, more generally, advocating the moral responsibility of an individual to value money as a means to develop the quality of life.


     There was a case recently where people on Long Island were fighting over lottery winnings.  That incident suggests that money doesn't always have the proper place in our society; yet we have to face the fact that money is necessary to do almost anything.


      Q. Isn't the diocese one of the more affluent in the country?


      A. I don't really know how you measure affluence in the context of a diocese.  If you use average income, it is probably true, but I can assure you that the Diocese of Rockville Centre has the same financial burdens that every other diocese has.  One of my greatest concerns is the uneven commitment that people display toward support of the church.


     It isn't the affluent people who make this diocese function; it is people of average means.  There are some very generous affluent people in our diocese, but there are also many others who are committed elsewhere and are not convinced that we need their help.


      Q. You have actively involved the Rockville Centre Diocese in housing issues.  Can you describe some of what you have done and the philosophies behind it?


      A. Years prior to my 1987 pastoral letter on affordable housing, we were active in housing programs because of my strong belief that adequate housing is essential for the healthy development of society.  There was, and is, a housing crisis on Long Island, and it will affect the quality of life in every way imaginable.


     The $10,000 houses of the 1950's are now the $140,000 houses of the 1980's.  Single people and young marrieds aren't going to be able to afford to live on Long Island without an increase in multiple housing.


     Apartment buildings have a bad name on Long Island, but we're going to lose these young people and lose our labor force, leaving behind our aging and graying population if we cannot get the Federal Government, towns, lending institutions and churches to team up in advocating some innovative housing programs.


      Q. You said that the Bishops don't look upon themselves as business experts, yet you must run a diocese or a parish like a successful business. How do you view some of the economic changes on Long Island over the last two years?


      A. Long Island's economy is greatly dependent upon its defense industry.  But the American Bishops have also written a pastoral letter on peace, in which they asked some tough questions about the stockpiling of weapons.


     Thanks be to God, there are now ongoing talks on the international level about putting a limit on armaments.  As world leaders begin to fear annihilation, the net effect unfortunately impinges upon a company that locally has all its resources in developing defense.


     Grumman is Long Island's largest employer and has treated its employees pretty well, but it has to learn to look at the possibilities of diversification so that that type of industry can still prosper here on Long Island without being so dependent on the defense contracts.


     Unfortunately, Grumman is presently diversified in other areas of the country-for example, where boats, buses and postal vehicles are manufactured-but not here.  And that could very well be due, in part, to our housing crisis and the resulting labor shortages.


      Q. What about Lilco (NOTE: now known as LIPA)?


      A. Utility costs affect all diocesan and parish buildings similar to the way they affect homes and businesses.  I am not a nuclear expert, but I don't have to be to know that there had to be a better way to plan for Shoreham.

     But no matter what we do now, there is no quick fix to reclaim what wasn't properly explored before we got into it.  And everybody has to pay for that in some way.


      Q. The abortion issue seems to intensify and become more controversial every year.  What are your views on abortion?


      A. In the last 20 years, certainly since the Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision, abortion has been a very crucial issue.  We believe, and not just for Catholics, but for all people, that life of the unborn is real life, and that it must be championed and given the opportunity for growth and development.


   Q. Do you feel that the problem of unwanted pregnancies might be prevented with intensified sex education or through frank discussions about birth control?


      A. There should be responsible parenthood, but it should be an integral part of marriage because that is where considerations about parenthood belong.  Within marriage, parents should learn the best way to bring children into the world and how they can reasonably care for the children that God gives them.


     In terms of importance, the abortion issue is right at the top of the list, but right on the same parallel is the meaning and quality of family life.  With all this affluence we talk about, family life is still disintegrating.


     The Holy Father once wrote a paper on this-"Familiars Consortium"-in which he said that every family should be, in sense, a church,  a family church where values are being taught.  If that were being done and was successful, abortion wouldn't be the issue that it is today.


      Q. What about those who express a belief in a woman's right to abort as part of control over her own body?


      A. As a church, even as people, we are stewards.  We don't own.  God owns all things, but He gives them to us with a relative ownership that requires a responsible use.


     That can apply to money, property, the environment and the world itself.  The same principle can apply to our bodies.  If we smoke or drink or use drugs, we are not being good stewards of that body.


     The excessive claim that a woman's body is her own-and that she therefore can do whatever she wants with it-is ownership, not stewardship.  She is not looking upon her body as a part of God's gift to life.


     But while the life issue is highlighted in abortion, it flows into other areas as well.  All too often and in a variety of different ways, we see examples where human beings may no longer be viewed as productive.  Therefore, we do not use all our resources to protect their lives.


     I think that mentality is having an effect not just on the unborn, but on the question of crime and punishment, on the question of aging, on the question of terminal illness.  It may be expressed very delicately, but there seems to be a kind of passive euthanasia in our society today.


      Q. What do you see as the woman's role in church leadership?


      A.  It is the better organization that recognizes the talents of both men and women, and the church has not always done that.  I can't say that the church is doing it effectively everywhere, but since the Second Vatican Council there have been many more opportunities for participation by women.


     For example, a woman religious is presently overseeing the diocesan school system, a married woman is heading our committee for developing lay leadership in the diocese and a woman lawyer is very prominent in the Catholic Charities operation.


     Most of our residences for the handicapped and retarded are managed by women, and the Catholic hospital systems have been run almost completely by women.


     Of course the question that comes up very often is whether or not there will be women priests.  I would say that the present Holy Father and his advisors tell us no.


     His reasoning is that, theologically, it has not yet been established that a woman can be a priest; not that she is inferior, but that she has a different responsibility.


      Q. While the Vatican continues to look upon with disfavor any suggestions to open up the priesthood to a wider range of people, what steps can be take to ease the burden presented by the current shortage of priests?


      A. It is true that the shortage of priests is a very real problem, but there are ways of lessening  the physical and psychological burden of those presently serving as parish priests.


     For example, we found that many functions being carried out by priests could be filled by others, either religious or lay people.  We also have a permanent deaconate program, in which married men are trained for a three-year period to assist priests in visiting the sick, going to wake services and preparing a couple for marriage, among other important duties.


     We will continue to use foreign priests to help us in parishes, and we will continue to provide training programs to help them adjust better to their assignments.  We are also looking at ways for lay people to assume more administrative roles in parishes, thus relieving some of the burdens from the shoulders of pastors.


      Q. Attendance at mass has dropped considerably over the years.   Why?


      A. There is a diminishing number of people coming regularly to the Sunday liturgy.  That has to be a major concern of ours, and we have to take steps to find some reasons.


     Some of it might be attributed to the theology of Vatican II, which placed more responsibility on the individual.  Prior to the Vatican Council, people were more serious about coming to church and had a sense that, if they did not attend mass on Sunday, they would be guilty of serious sin.


     Since it is now more up to the individual, people might look for reasons not to attend mass and some of those decisions may be wrong.


     Vatican II brought about some other changes, not doctrinal, but pastoral and liturgical changes, and that may be a factor.


     For example, there are some people who never have been able to accept the change in the language of the liturgy from Latin to English.  It is possible that we haven't been enough of a presence to these people and have not sufficiently explained this change, or other changes, or the reasons for them.


     We also have to look at the size of some our large parishes.  There can be a sense of impersonality, and we might have to look toward prayer groups and social efforts to bring people together better.


      Q. If this trend continues, do you think you will have to take some steps to realign or possibly close some churches?


      A. No, we haven't had to close any churches, and we don't anticipate having to.  As  a matter of fact, we have started three new parishes in the Ronkonkoma-Nesconset area.   But that doesn't tell the whole story.


     If your percentage of attendance is going down, you have to be less concerned about numbers and more concerned about people not being actively committed to the church.


      People must look at the effect their religious beliefs are having on their work, their fidelity to the quality of workmanship, the justice that they inject into the work ethic and their concern for other people.  The mission of the church is not just to develop and maintain a large organization; rather, it is to continue the values of Christ in our society.