Sometimes-controversial Greensburg Bishop Brandt to retire

He consolidated parishes, started tuition aid program

Greensburg Bishop Lawrence Brandt often recites a quote attributed to the 19th-century English Cardinal John Henry Newman: "To live is to change, and to have lived long is to have changed often."

Things have changed, and changed often, in the decade in which Bishop Brandt has led the Roman Catholic Diocese of Greensburg.

He has overseen the wrenching closings and mergers of numerous parishes and schools; strategic planning sessions; a capital campaign that exceeded its goal; sometimes-controversial spending decisions; and a growing use of foreign priests and permanent deacons in the face of declining ranks in the pulpits and pews.

Whether such changes have been for the better has been debated from cyberspace to the Vatican, which is considering a last-ditch appeal by Fayette County parishioners who want their churches reopened.

More change is in store when Bishop Brandt, as required under church law, submits his resignation upon turning age 75 on Thursday. Typically, a pope takes months or even years before accepting a bishop's resignation and naming a successor.

"You have to manage change," Bishop Brandt said in an interview this month in a conference room in the stately Greensburg offices of the diocese, which includes Westmoreland, Armstrong, Fayette and Indiana counties.

Closing 16 parishes and merging or partnering numerous more in two major consolidations in 2008 and 2013, represented "some of the most difficult decisions I ever made," Bishop Brandt said. "I can understand when people are angry about this. It's like losing a member of the family."

But, he said, "We can't pretend we're not going through major demographic changes."

In areas of Fayette County, burials outnumber baptisms by 4 to 1, he said.

Opponents of the closings say some of the parishes closed or merged still had solid finances and membership numbers. In 2013, Bishop Brandt announced the merging of six Fayette County parishes into one, St. Francis of Assisi, meeting at two former parish sites.

"I feel that Bishop Brandt's done his best. However, we feel that the closing of the four churches [no longer in use] was a mistake," said Kathy Dunlevy, one of the parishioners who has appealed the merger to Rome. She said the parishes were doing well on their own and some had just invested in such improvements as roof repairs, tile and cement work and refurbished pews.

Ms. Dunlevy said she recently received word from the Vatican's Congregation for Clergy that it would rule on their appeal in May and requesting more information.

"We're just hoping that the Vatican will fix this."

Meeting critics face to face

Bishop Brandt said the two rounds of closings came only after the recommendations of regional and diocese-wide commissions as well as numerous hearings and dialogues earlier in his tenure, which drew 9,000 participants.

Bishop Brandt said he made it a point personally to preside at inaugural services for each newly configured parish and pay tribute to those being closed -- and then meet face to face with those affected in receptions afterward.

"Some of them were friendly, some of them were not friendly and some raised their voices, but I was not hiding behind my desk in Greensburg," he said.

A group called Ambrosians of Greensburg -- named for the ancient Bishop Ambrose of Milan, who was chosen by popular acclamation -- has launched an online petition ( for greater lay input into the next bishop's selection. The group wants the Vatican to ask locals for names of potential candidates -- rather than just checking references on a nominee submitted by insiders.

Thomas Severin of Ambrosians said Pope Francis' call for a "church for the poor" has inspired many. "Perhaps a bishop [in Greensburg] could foster that same attitude."

Tom Balya of Greensburg, who attends Blessed Sacrament Cathedral and put his name on the petition, added: "A lot of folks have felt a sense of marginalization under this bishop. I'm a baby boomer. I know countless baby boomers who were educated in Catholic schools who don't participate in churches anymore for a number of reasons. I certainly wouldn't lay it all on this current bishop's lap, but he didn't help."

Mr. Severin said Catholics have been upset about other issues, such as the amount spent during cathedral renovations on a cathedra, or bishop's chair.

"It was very expensive; that really scandalized a lot of people," he said.

The marble, round-backed chair, with carved busts of lions on the arms, was modeled on the historic church in Rome where Bishop Brandt celebrated his first Mass in 1969.

Bishop Brandt said the renovations, part of the capital campaign, provided everything from a needed roof and other infrastructure repairs to new murals and convincing faux marble details in the apse -- improving the spiritual hub of the diocese, from which a bishop exercises his teaching, leadership and sacramental authority. While the costs of the chair and other projects weren't itemized, "we paid for everything within budget," Bishop Brandt said. "There were no cost overruns. We got a lot for our $2.5 million."

A global education

Born in Charleston, W.Va., and later educated in Columbus, Ohio, Bishop Brandt later studied in Paris and Florence, Italy, and received doctorates in philosophy from the University of Innsbruck, Austria, and in canon law from Lateran University in Rome. He served as a Vatican diplomat in Ecuador, Madagascar, Algeria and West Germany. Such service gave him "the experience of the church universal," he said.

Returning home in the 1980s in part to care for his aging mother, he served in the Diocese of Erie in such roles as chancellor and pastor before Pope John Paul II named him Greensburg bishop in 2004.

During his years abroad, he said, his mother regularly wrote to him, and she lived with him for several years in Erie and Greensburg and is now, at 106, at a senior home in Greensburg. "I never thought if I were ordained a bishop that my mother would be there," he said, but she was.

Bishop Brandt cited numerous accomplishments during his tenure. That includes overseeing a capital campaign that raised $55 million -- $10 million above goal despite the severe recession, which he credited to "overwhelming support" from Catholics. He has arranged to bring a rotating group of Filipino priests to work here for five-year periods, and he has approved the diocese's first permanent deacons, who can preach and preside over some sacraments.

He also created a tuition scholarship program for students transferring into Catholic schools and a new poverty-relief program. Yet challenges and controversies lie behind some of these changes.

The poverty-relief collection replaced an annual collection for the national Catholic Campaign for Human Development, which provides grants to groups seeking to redress social structures that cause poverty. Bishop Brandt and some other bishops dropped it after critics said some recipients diverged from Catholic teaching, although the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops still endorses it. He also said the annual collection is better used for the emergency needs of the local poor.

The foreign priests and deacons are partial responses to the declining ranks of Greensburg's priests, with more decline projected despite new recruitment efforts.

The tuition aid comes amid declining parochial-school enrollment, listed at 2,279 in 2013 -- down nearly 50 percent from a decade earlier.

Such trends span what some call the "Catholic Rust Belt," as dioceses like Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Chicago have shuttered or merged hundreds of parishes and schools following declining ranks of priests, worshipers and pupils. While Sun Belt dioceses grow, there are 9 percent fewer parishes in the United States now than in 2000, according to Georgetown University researchers.

While the four-county region lost 3 percent of population in the past decade, the decline in registered Catholics was 17 percent, for a total of 151,221, according to Official Catholic Directory figures.

The U.S. Catholic population is rising, but many spiritual vital signs are declining nationally and in Greensburg -- including baptisms, first communions, confirmations, and church marriages and burials.

Evangelism, Bishop Brandt said, "is our spiritual capital campaign. It's not just the death statistics [accounting for declines]. We have to get out and knock on doors and invite people back."

Sister Susan Jenny, provincial secretary and counselor for the Greensburg-based Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill, said Bishop Brandt's call for evangelization "resonates with our mission." "For me as a Sister of Charity, his emphasis on catechesis, faith formation for children and evangelization are most critical," she said.

Bishop Brandt said he doesn't have specific retirement plans but expects to stay in Greensburg and minister in some way: "I became a priest to make a difference," he said.

Peter Smith: or 412-263-1416; Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.

Peter Smith: or 412-263-1416; Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.

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