October 24th, 2016

Father Michael Morris

At roughly six-thirty on Sunday night, the Lord’s day, Jesus came and offered his hand to our Father Michael Morris who went home to the God who gave him to us after a long period of battling cancer. From diagnosis to death he carried this cross with faith, with dignity and with resignation without resentment. All who knew him during these days, myself included, could do nothing but marvel at his resilience and trust in the Lord. He was a model for us of trying everything, even if there was little hope of a successful outcome while carrying on his duties as a chaplain on the United States Air Force.

Father Morris lived his life with certainty whereas I tend to live my life in a gray area which stretches from uncertainty more often to certainty ever so occasionally. Already a Captain in the Air Force and working for CENTCOM at McDill Air Force Base in Tampa about fifteen years ago, he walked into my office and said he was certain that God wanted him to be a priest, to be a priest working as an Air Force Chaplain and as a priest of the Diocese of St. Petersburg which would lend him back to the Military Archdiocese for service to God and nation. He was always so certain, assured, confident. When near the end of his seminary training I had doubts about whether or not be could be flexible enough for ministry in the Church, I hurt him by asking the formation faculty at the seminary to revisit their approval of him. Thank God I listen to others because he and they were right. He was capable of very successful ministry after ordination at his beloved Espiritu Santo parish in Safety Harbor. He was and is loved there even to today.

It would not be the only time that he taught me. His last and most perduring lesson taught was dealing with a form of cancer for which there had been practically no cure and submitting to one experimental treatment protocol after another – always with resignation even if it was likely that it would not work. He bore his suffering like one of those badges of honor he wore on his uniform and he continued to serve as White House chaplain liaison with the Defense Department and at Bolling Air Force Base. He was an iron man of iron will and the very thing which once worried me the most became the bulwark for his fight for life.

Monsignor Bob Morris and I  spent an evening with him and with his loving brother, Harry, and sister-in-law Lana in Dallas earlier this month. I went to say good-bye while he could still comprehend the challenge I was having, not he, with his impending death. Grateful for our presence, he ministered to us rather than the other way around. With tears I took my farewell and with tears he shared an embrace that did not wish to seem to have an end. A father, albeit a spiritual father, was saying goodbye to a son, albeit a spiritual son – but it does not hurt any less because it is a “spiritual” and not a blood relationship.

His Chief of Air Force Chaplains, now retired, who pinned his lieutenant colonel’s eagle on his shoulder, came to see him last week to say good-bye as did Bishop Hennesy of the Archdiocese of Military Services, at his bed side and in their home for last three months have been his loving brother and sister-in-law dedicated to taking care of him till it might no longer be possible. He died surrounded by love. I also wish to thank Father Kevin Larsen of the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, who offered our Father Mike a home at St. Bernadette’s parish in Springfield, VA.,  when he was no longer able to take full care of himself and offered him a parish to inspire as he carried his cross until his separation for medical reasons from the Air Force in June.

With his funeral in Dallas on Friday I will have buried two of the men whom I ordained to priesthood (Father Thomas Tobin the other). It’s hard, know it hurts. I know my time, if not coming is closer than it ever has been before. I hope I can continue to minister, to love and to serve as did Reverend Michael Morris (Lt. Col., US Air Force retired). May life now far beyond the “wild blue wonder” be perfect and all you ever truly wanted.



October 10th, 2016

It has been quite a week for this bishop. First, I spent three days with a majority of our priests in our annual convocation which was held at our Bethany Center. We had three superb presenters, we prayed well, and we recreated well. In all likelihood, this will be my final convocation with these priests for some time. As regular readers know, I intend to absent myself from the diocese for one year beginning on the evening of my successor’s installation. After that, late Spring, Summer, and most of October will be spent in Northern Michigan and traditionally the convocation is held the first week of October – a week or two before God’s manifestation of change and beauty, aka. “Fall foliage.” So there was some hidden, I hope, emotion surrounding my presence at convocation this week.

Yesterday (Saturday), we celebrated Hispanic heritage day with a joyous celebration at the Cathedral honoring this year Our Lady of Aparecida, patroness of Brazil.


Processing in with Our Lady of Aparecida. Photo kindness of Oscar Calabi.

The Hispanic and Portuguese communities filled that worship space and prayed and sang their hearts out. You can watch the live streamed video of the Mass here. More photos will be posted on the diocesan website soon.

Bishop Etienne (photo courtesy BIshop Etienne's blog)

Bishop Paul Etienne (photo courtesy Bishop Etienne’s blog)

However, the larger Church I serve and love has been quite active in my life and not in the manner most of you who regularly read this would expect. First came the announcement last Tuesday that Pope Francis will transfer my dear friend, Paul D. Etienne, from serving as bishop of Cheyenne (all of Wyoming and all of Yellowstone National Park which lies within the state of Montana) to serve the Archdiocese of Anchorage, Alaska as its fourth Archbishop. Archbishop-elect Etienne, 57, once worked with me, as a lay man at the time, on the 1987 visit of Saint John Paul II’s second visit to the United States. During that time we became very close, as collaborators and friends. I came to know his parents well, his hometown of Tell City, Indiana well (that didn’t take too long), his siblings Rick and Angela who are married, Nicolette who is a member of the Benedictine Community at Beech Grove, Indiana, Bernie and Zack who are priests of the Evansville diocese. The new archbishop extended to me the privilege of preaching at both his first Mass as a priest and at his episcopal ordination/installation seven years ago. He has been the spiritual moderator for one of our convocations for priests and they fell in love with him. I suspect that there might have been some local disappointment here, among the clergy, when Pope Francis announced “Anchorage”.

He has been a marvelous shepherd in a huge diocese and from all I have heard, there is ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth” there at the moment. For a lover of the outdoors, an avid hunter and fisherman, the new archbishop gets to change his prey to bears and moose and caribou and from trout and bass to salmon. Previously, driving for hours to be present in the Wyoming peripheries, he now will have to use float planes in a few instances and Alaska Airlines in others to reach his people. But, and this is important, this balanced and deeply spiritual  priest/bishop as an archbishop will have a role to play in further shaping the Francis vision of Church which the new archbishop enthusiastically supports.


Bishop Kevin J. Farrell. Photo courtesy of the Diocese of Callas.

This morning (Sunday) Pope Francis named three of my brother bishops to the College of Cardinals: Bishop Kevin J. Farrell, previously Bishop of Dallas, Texas, who the Holy Father asked to come to Rome to administer the new super congregation for life, laity and the pursuit of

Archbishop Blase J. Cupich. Photo courtesy of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Archbishop Blase J. Cupich. Photo courtesy of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

happiness; Archbishop Blasé J. Cupich, Archbishop of Chicago who has been in this diocese on numerous occasions, like Archbishop Etienne as spiritual moderator at one of our priest convocations and delivering talks on the new missal, new translation, and new vision for the Church. He also has on occasion found our locale useful for rest, reflection and writing;

Archbishop Joseph Tobin, CSsR at the Cathedral last year. Photo kindness of Dana Rozance.

Archbishop Joseph Tobin, CSsR at the Cathedral last year. Photo kindness of Dana Rozance.

finally, Archbishop Joseph Tobin, CSsR, Archbishop of Indianapolis, who one year ago almost to the day celebrated Mass and preached at our Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle as we celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of “Perfectae Caritatis”, the Second Vatican Council’s document on religious life. After two terms as head of the worldwide Redemptorist order, Archbishop Tobin became Secretary at the Congregation for Religious at the Vatican. He is also a great choice. Today was a “red letter day” for myself and for the Church.

Now, what is all this business about the “Lord and the rings?” When I was announced as bishop of St. Petersburg a number of dear friends “showered” me with regalia. I am grateful for them all. The first was a gift from the late Archbishop Paul C. Marcinkus with whom I worked closely in the first visit of St. John Paul II to the US in 1979. He gave me a beautiful ring designed and struck by the Italian artist Scorzelli depicting Easter and the Resurrection of the Lord from the tomb. It was one of two prototypes which the artist had prepared in two sizes as gifts to Pope Paul VI. The Holy Father found the rings too large, too heavy for his personal use so he gave them to Archbishop Marcinkus who gave one to the late Archbishop John L. May of St. Louis (a Chicago seminary classmate of Marcinkus who sat immediately in front of his next in the alphabet friend for their entire seminary experience). That ring was subsequently given by Archbishop May to Bishop John Gaydos of Jefferson City, Missouri who wears it today. I wore it for my ordination day and on major occasions but gave mine which I cherished to Bishop Etienne within days of his announcement to Cheyenne.

The second ring I received was the night prior to my episcopal ordination and was given to me by the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin who came to preach the homily at my ordination the next day. It was a simple but beautiful episcopal ring, struck by a Chicago jeweler. All of his auxiliaries were given similar rings. I wore it from the day after my ordination on January 26, 1996 to the third week in October in the same year when I spent the night at his Chicago residence with the Cardinal only days before his death to cancer.

On that occasion Cardinal Bernardin lamented the changes which had taken place in the national episcopal Conference over the two and a half decades since he himself emerged as General Secretary and later its president. With me those special moments that night were Archbishop Thomas C. Kelly, OP of Louisville and Monsignor Daniel Hoye my predecessors in office. The Cardinal showed us some painful letters received from several of his cardinal colleagues, a supportive letter from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith, and recounted a phone call from the Holy Father expressing gratitude for his service to Chicago and the Church universal. That night he felt that the vision of the Council which he had devoted so much of his ministry to was on the wane. He died two weeks later and I removed his ring from my finger promising that I would wear it again when and if the pendulum would begin to swing again to the Council’s and my mentor’s, the Cardinal’s, vision for the Church.

Six months after my episcopal ordination I received what is called a “Council ring” gifted to me by Cardinal Roberto Tucci, SJ, Archbishop Emil Paul Tscherrig, and Dr. Alberto Gaspari, the “dream team” for planning papal visits. The ring is a simple gold band with the Apostles Peter and Paul standing at either side of Christ. I have worn it with the hope that the vision of the Council fathers, Blessed Pope Paul VI and the bishops it was my privilege to serve would begin to take root once again. I think it did today and the Bernardin ring is back on my finger till the Lord comes for me.

With deep gratitude to Pope Francis.



October 7th, 2016

Matthew has come, gone, and may make another appearance later next week. Matthew has left his path of destruction behind, a bad memory for a lot of people and a challenge for us all. Like many other Floridians I watched that storm for almost ten days, always with a funny feeling that “it is the one – the big one” and for the people of Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and the Bahamas it certainly was. For many in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, it will also be a bad memory, although we seem spared the worst of its powerful presence.

I am amazed at the ability which the National Hurricane Center possesses to warn us of the likelihood of getting to know a storm. In my lifetime we have progressed from “guess” to almost pinpoint accuracy in predicting which act of nature is likely to befall us. With their computer base and spaghetti models, the NHC called this one perfectly, if one allows for the fact that such storms have a mind of their own. Government acted as good government should and the population responded as expected (sometimes listening and acting and sometimes in either denial or rejection). Here in the states, we have the ability to react in advance. In our island nation neighbors there is no such freedom.

These words are being penned on Friday afternoon while Matthew continues to challenge northern Florida and later tonight Georgia and South Carolina. Yesterday a majority of the priests of the diocese and I finished three days together in our annual October convocation. We knew what some of the least among us would have to endure from this storm and we prayed for them.  We also resolved that we would do more than pray.

Our presenter yesterday was Carolyn Woo, the President and CEO of Catholic Relief Services. On your behalf, I presented her with a check for $250,000 to assist our brothers and sisters in the hemispheres most desperately poor nation, Haiti, as well as in the Bahamas. Even our government recognized that when it comes to disasters, CRS responds quickly, effectively and well in helping people survive, rebuild, and renew. US AID (a branch of the federal State Department) yesterday made a multi-million dollar donation of money, food and supplies to CRS and the Red Cross for help for Haiti.

As a diocese we do not have $250,000 to throw around but I simply advanced it as the pastors present for the convocation said they would appeal to their people, to you, this weekend and next in a special collection to begin to stitch together again the lives Matthew tore asunder. I hope our response might approach the $1.7 million we raised for the tsunami in the Indian Ocean a few years back or the $1.9 million we raised nine months later for Hurricane Katrina assistance. If we receive more than $250,000 in the next few weeks, we will keep an eye on the needs along our Florida and Georgia east coasts and share it with Catholic Charities USA. Here in Florida, we bishops have a disaster response program located within the Florida Catholic Conference which is being mobilized along our east coast as I write this. CRS will be present in Haiti and the Bahamas, making you proud. None of the money raised here will go to our national episcopal conference where in the recent past a portion is often used to rebuild church infrastructure but directly to Catholic Relief Services to help those people whose nearly hopeless faces appear on our TV screens tonight and in our papers and media tomorrow.

The sun will indeed come up tomorrow, for everyone in Matthew’s path, and for many, their future is a matter of our generosity. Please respond as lovingly as you have done often in the past. God bless you.



October 3rd, 2016

Doctor David Abdulai, a hero to me, went home to the Father last night. He died of stage four thyroid cancer after a life of public service in his native Ghana and years of medically treating the poorest of the poor and the most destitute in his two free clinics in Tamale, Ghana. I grieve his loss today deeply. Those readers who had children confirmed by me this year know that I devoted my homily to this good man in the hopes of striking a chord in the hearts of the young for service to the poor.

Doctor David Abdulai, his wife, Christopher Mertens and I last Christmas.

Myself, Doctor David Abdulai, his wife, and Christopher Mertens last Christmas.

David Abdulai was born a Muslim in northeast Ghana almost seven decades ago. His father had died of Hansen’s disease (leprosy) when David was still a young boy and most of his eight siblings also suffered from the disease. Irish missionaries saw intelligence and fire in the young boy and approached his single mother asking her permission to allow David to attend a Catholic boarding/elementary school in the small city of Tamale. She agreed and David started a Catholic education in the first grade that would accompany him until secondary school graduation. He was bright, exceedingly bright and an outstanding student.

After winning a scholarship to and graduating with highest honors from the University of Ghana in Accra, he chose medicine as his profession, specializing in surgery. He won a fellowship in surgery to a Medical College in Liverpool, England and came home with a wife and family and practiced his calling in Accra, the capital city.

As an adult, having been surrounded by Christianity and Catholicism in his formative years, he decided to become a Catholic and entered the Church with baptism, confirmation and first Eucharist on the Solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord. He recounted to me that moment last Christmas when I met and visited with him for what for me, sadly, would be my first and last time, that the readings that day from the Old Testament offered this line: “Comfort my people O Lord, comfort my people.” It would serve to drive his ambitions and desires for the rest of his life.

With his children largely grown, he returned to Tamale and served as the Minister of Health for that Ghana province. But soon he would make a life-changing decision, give all his fame and fortune up and open a clinic for the nation’s poorest of the poor. With acreage given to him by a tribal chief, he built and opened the first of what today are two Shekinah clinics. Here he treated all who came and who could not access, for whatever reason, the government health care system. And they came, for over twenty years.

He would arrange his daily schedule so that he could see 120 patients each day, ninety new cases and thirty follow-up cases. He erected an operating theatre where he would perform some minor surgeries, like hernia repairs.


The operating room at the clinic.

He scrounged and managed to stock a pharmacy. He built wards for the surgical patients to recover and huts for the lepers in which to live.


Wards and residences for patients and Hansen’s disease residents.

Through volunteers with gifts of food (Catholic Relief Services through US AID for many years provided food) he served all who came to the clinic, those who lived there and those who were simply overnight residents.


The kitchen and cooks at the Shekinah Clinic.

Several times the government tried to shut his clinic down but they never succeeded because everyone knew of the work of this great man, his wife and his volunteers.

So magnetic was his personality and deep his devotion that he assembled a team of volunteers who assisted him 24/7/365. No one was paid. Not even the doctor who lived off what he had saved from his earlier practice of medicine. He opened a second clinic, as people would cross the border from Burkina Faso to see him. When confronted with a patient with such a serious disease that he could not treat them, he would have them wait for him to finish his daily work and then would drive them in his jeep to the local government hospital and insist that they be cared for, not leaving until it was done.

Every Christmas he and his wife would feed Christmas dinner to the poor of the region at their home, a total numbering in excess of 3200 last Christmas. On the 27th, the day I arrived, he had a second Christmas dinner for the blind, deaf, lame, widowed and leprous who for physical reasons could not come on Christmas. Talk about feeding the 5000. My task that day was to simply give them a Christmas present of one super large bar of shea butter soap (from the region) and a new dishtowel plus some candy (all donated).

They called Dr. Abdulai “the male Mother Theresa of West Africa”. To watch him work and interact with people lacking in hope was life changing. His energy level far exceeded anything I could give. His love of his Catholic faith and the joy that Pope Francis brought to him was palpable. In both clinics there is to be found a small mosque at the entrance, a chapel where Mass is celebrated at times throughout the week, and a Star of David is painted on the wall of the examining room – his desire to show and share that all are welcome regardless of faith.

How did I come to know him? That is a story in itself but I will make it short. One summer two seminarians at that time, brothers, and one sophomore at Notre Dame talked to me about spending the summer working in Africa. I called my beloved Catholic Relief Services knowing that they had such a program, and they arranged for the three to spend ten weeks in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Ghana. The Notre Dame student, Christopher Mertens, an Eagle Scout, the St. Petersburg Times male scholar athlete of the year in his senior year at Palm Harbor University High School, a member of the Diocesan Youth Council and son of an elementary school teacher at Guardian Angels school in Clearwater, was sent to the Clinic in Tamale and spent the summer with the Doctor.

His emails home to his parents and to myself radiated a respect for Dr Abdulai that spanned the ocean. Then Chris came down with malaria. Doctor Abdulai rushed to his side and prescribed the necessary medicines. Chris could have come home because of the malaria but he stayed. He lived in the clinic at bare subsistence level, but every new day brought new patients to the clinic and he helped as best he could. The love that the staff and the doctor had for Chris was abundantly evident when Chris took me to Tamale and to the doctor on Christmas day last year.

I’m off to my chapel to offer Mass today for this great man, thankful to God for having had the opportunity to meet him and see where and how he performed the works of mercy. I am thankful to Catholic Relief Services for their help to the clinic in the past and I am grateful to Christopher Mertens for unwittingly and unknowingly being the catalyst for allowing me one of the great moments of my adult lifetime. Dr. David Abdulai and the clinic staff welcomed us on December 27th and he was proud that his young American was then in his fourth semester of Medical School at Tulane in New Orleans. God takes and God gives. It happens all the time and we just don’t seem to want to notice it.

Rest now in the peace of the Lord you servant, good doctor to the poor, and may the Divine Physician embrace you for your life lived on earth.



September 22nd, 2016


This particular blog subject has been “stewing” in my mind for some time now. Quite simply put, can some divorced and remarried be readmitted to the sacraments? The question has received a lot of mileage of late due to a reading of Chapter Eight in Pope Francis’ Post-Synodal Apostolic Instruction entitled Amoris Laetitia (simply “AL” from this point on in this reflection).

The simple and plain fact of the matter is that some divorced and remarried have been returned to the sacraments for years by virtue of what is referred to as the “Internal Forum Solution” or perhaps more simply put, advised by a priest within the sacrament of confession to do so. It is not an approach with which I personally and pastorally feel comfortable as I think most couples who find themselves in this situation want something more than a single priest’s adjudication of their situation. When it is working well (which is not always the case), the annulment process provides a measure of healing and authentication that many Catholics wish and need. It also allows for a marriage ceremony of some type while the “internal forum” approach allows the couple a secret and furtive (in some minds) return to the sacraments.


Internal forum solutions have been applied when one or both of the couples in the second marriage morally and with a deeply formed conscience feel that their first marriage was never a sacramental or real marriage but they just cannot prove it in a canonical procedure. Properly used, the internal forum solution usually follows an unsuccessful search for an annulment decision and rarely should be the first response to the desire for a return to the sacraments.


Neither I nor any bishop has any way of knowing how many Internal Forum Solutions are being utilized in a given diocese for even reporting a number would likely be a violation of the seal of confession.  It is simply a pastoral application which begins and ends with a priest in confession.


Some say that “AL” encourages greater and perhaps a more liberal use of this opportunity. Several bishops of this country and of two provinces of Canada have recently said, “oh no it doesn’t.” Several bishops in the area of Buenos Aires, Argentino, have said “yes” it does, only to receive a letter of encouragement from Pope Francis saying basically, “keep at it men, you are on the right track.” So what’s a local bishop like this one to do? In one word, punt.


I have not yet suggested that my priests signal “fair catch,” and then run with the ball. I think the game has yet to begin and it is too early. There is an ambiguity to be found in “AL” which I think is purposely placed there by Pope Francis. I believe he wishes the church universal to talk about this pastoral issue of the divorced and remarried and their readmission to the sacraments in a deeper and more penetrating way than simply a knee-jerk reaction to wrap oneself in history or in the reverse, anything goes. He wishes a conversation, a dialogue and has opened up possibilities of pastorally assisting our sisters and brothers in this situation. He knows that someone who murders another can, if truly contrite, receive absolution for his/her sin, almost instantaneously but someone who made a mistake in choosing a marriage partner at ages 20-26 cannot be as easily forgiven, if ever. He wants his shepherds to accompany them, dialogue with them, explore the possibilities with them, reconcile them whenever possible and recognize the new realities of culture and human behavior, for weal or woe. So how do we move from ambiguity to acuity? Slowly, deliberately, patiently.


First, we bishops should have listening sessions with our priests to gauge their pastoral opinions on this since they deal with it regularly.  Many bishops come from academic backgrounds or, as in my case, from bureaucratic backgrounds and don’t always personally feel the human pain and suffering. Our priests can teach us a lot that we have only read or heard about. A presbyterate needs to be as close to one mind on this matter so that a local church responds consistently and clearly. I see this matter as so important that here in the Diocese of St. Petersburg I think that with a new bishop months away, the discussion should await his arrival and participation.


Second, once we bishops have the smell and feel of the sheep from our presbyterates and those who work in tribunals and with marriage cases and particularly with the RCIA program, we need to have an open conversation among ourselves because I feel territorial morality creeping in on this issue. Several bishops (as is their right) have already published guidelines for their dioceses but I know sometimes their next door neighbors do not fully concur. The danger here is something akin to “geographical morality.” There is a committee dealing with this which has been formed but its chair is one who has already spoken his mind on the matter.


Third, lots of other people with fine backgrounds have much to say and offer on this subject. If I had my way, which I do not and will not, I would love the USCCB to hold geographical listening sessions on “AL” before we issue anything – much like was done on the peace and economy pastoral. Father only knows best when he knows the minds of the experts, the daily practitioners, the wise and sometimes even the foolish (not always any harm done).


These are some pastoral thoughts ruminating through my mind. I’m sure I will hear from more than a few in reaction but all I am doing is what Pope Francis asks: discernment, dialogue and accompaniment.




September 16th, 2016

I have been made aware of a recent advertisement that appeared in the Tampa Bay Times as well as a number of other publications throughout the United States which offer us an opportunity to proclaim with renewed vigor that God, the author of life, is a God of love Who has endowed every human being with a sacred and inviolate dignity which bears His very image and likeness and which has been touched by the Incarnation of His Son, Jesus.  Together with the prophets of sacred Scripture, our Catholic Social Teaching heralds that God has known each and every human being from the time of conception within the womb and values human life from this moment until natural death.

Our Catholic faith calls us to champion a consistent ethic of life and to commit ourselves to working for a social reality which evidences God’s own preferential option for the most vulnerable. Therefore, the Church steadfastly and irrevocably condemns procured abortion as a moral evil which fails to honor that every human being is a child of God who bears the image of Christ.  Together with Pope Francis, we proclaim the joy of the Gospel which inspires us to show particular love, concern and care for the unborn and commit ourselves to reject contemporary efforts aimed at denying the dignity of these most innocent and defenseless among us.  Our conviction is that a human being is always sacred and inviolable in any situation and at every stage of development (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium #213).

Because of this consistent teaching of the Church, even any slightest inference that being “pro-choice” is compatible with Catholic social teaching is simply not true and is disingenuous. If those who paid at great expense for this advertisement in the nation’s major newspapers truly embrace Catholic social teaching, they might best have spent the money on post-abortion trauma counseling, residences for pregnant women facing birth alone or in desperate poverty, or providing for homeless families with small children bereft of employment and sometimes even hope. That’s what the socially conscious and committed baptized Catholic does and that is what the Catholic Church in America does.

Therefore, as we prepare for Respect Life month, let us re-double our efforts to be heralds of human dignity and commit ourselves to social action which seeks to ensure the protection of all life and to create a society which reflects and gives witness to the values of God’s Kingdom. There is no commitment to the common good if there is not a commitment to all life.  Below please find links to some of our Diocesan and National resources which provide us with opportunities to serve life and to learn more about Catholic Social Teaching.


Life Ministry Pregnancy Center Alliance:

40 Days for Life:

Project Rachel Post Abortion Healing:

Catholic Social Teaching:






August 31st, 2016

The Church of St. Petersburg bade a fond farewell to one of its best-known and beloved priests today. Monsignor Laurence Higgins, for forty-nine years the pastor of St. Lawrence parish in Tampa, went home to the Father’s House last week. The feelings of love and gratitude many felt for him was clearly demonstrated by the many who filed past his body at his beloved St. Lawrence.

He was just days shy of his eighty-eighth birthday when God came for him and sixty-three years a priest. I shall not repeat the biographical information here as the Tampa Bay Times did all that last week and they will cover the funeral as well, I am sure. I will try to share some thoughts from my perspective as his bishop for the last twenty-one years and perhaps let you see why he will be missed.

Monsignor Lawrence Higgins loved his faith and gave great credit to his parents for their role in raising him. He also loved Tampa (and disdained St. Petersburg). He loved sports, especially the Bucs, for whom he served as chaplain for as long as his health would allow. He always thought the Tampa Tribune was a great newspaper and the one across the bay was hopelessly liberal and anti-Catholic. He brought Larry Rothschild, the Ray’s first manager into the Church quietly (he did a lot of the sacraments “quietly”) and he adored John Lynch and Tony Dungy for their deep faith in God, Christ and humanity.

He was very proud of his parish, St. Lawrence, that he founded. He often said that the late Archbishop Hurley, when he assigned him to start the parish, told him to stop the invasion of the Jesuits from the South, the Redemptorists from the west and east (and there was no threat at the time from the North). Larry Higgins liked nothing better than a challenge.

St. Lawrence became a successful parish because he knew that if he ran a good school for children, their parents would follow and fill the pews on the weekends. To send your children to St. Lawrence School, one needed to register for the parish (no matter where you lived), attend Mass and support the parish through the Sunday collection, and volunteer on special projects when asked. In return, he guaranteed a first class education, almost automatic admission to Jesuit for the boys, and orthodoxy in religion. He built it and they came and they still come. Amazingly, the 2010 census identified St. Lawrence parish as having the highest concentration of Hispanic families in the whole diocese but the majority of its present worshipping community comes from outside the parish boundaries.

I always admired his ability to reach out to the underdog. He was a friend to those who suffered from many types of addiction and addictive behavior. His final community effort was in starting a program at USF in addiction and its cures. He loved St. Peter Claver, a small and always struggling parish in central Tampa with a school for mostly African-American children. In this he had two great allies whom I also admire deeply, Joe Capitano and Ted Couch. If it were not for the three of them, St. Peter Claver School would likely have closed long ago and to this day, though I have doubts about its long-term sustainability, I regularly ceded my judgments to the troika that believed, supported and sustained that important presence.

Back at St. Lawrence, Monsignor Higgins made his feelings known about a number of things from bishops to women serving Mass (he never allowed it), Eucharist under both species (he never allowed it) and married deacons (nowhere to be seen in his time as pastor). I could have forced him but he would have outwitted me some way so I took the road less travelled by. However, the community who gathered for prayer on weekends filled the Church, coming from all over Hillsborough county if they had children in the school and I would not want to begin to count the number of weddings, baptisms, and funerals the good Monsignor performed. Even after retirement, they still came knocking for his presence at major occasions and he obliged right up to the time his body would no longer allow it. Simply amazing in many ways.

About a year ago I stopped by St. Lawrence unannounced to see Monsignor Muhr, the new pastor, and Father Dornquest, the new associate. I was blocked by the police from entering the parking lot because my name was not on a list. I finally convinced the officer that I was the bishop and owned the property and I found a parking place and went into the Church (it was about four pm). It was full of the biggest men and women I have ever seen and there was Monsignor in his cassock and surplice preaching. Someone recognized me and came to my side. There was a huge coffin in front of the sanctuary. I said, “Whose funeral is it?” “Dusty Rhodes, the wrestler” came the reply and Monsignor was going on and on about the Brisco brothers and Florida Championship Wrestling. All of the WWE constituted the congregation that day. Dusty Rhodes was not a Catholic but he was a friend of Monsignor Higgins. I shook my head in amazement, wonderment and admiration.

But these last few days belonged to the simple people, parishioners of St. Lawrence, who saw Monsignor as the embodiment of the Good Shepherd of which Jesus spoke. They came to say “thanks, for what you did, for what you said, for whom you worked so slavishly.” Except for an annual vacation, like most of the Irish priests of his generation, he was on the job, 24/7, 330. When his friend from his earliest days of priesthood in Miami, Bishop W. Thomas Larkin, asked his assistance in managing the diocese as Vicar General he added that to his resume while still managing St. Lawrence. At that time he preached a “Gospel” that everything good in the Church originated in the central offices of the diocese. When he was no longer involved there, he changed the “Gospel” to the Church much be present in the larger community, at the Capitol in Tallahassee, at City Hall in Tampa, at the School Board in Hillsborough.

I will miss his presence. We had our moments but they were mostly minor and in the end, who could do anything but admire the accomplishments even if occasionally they were done, “his way, the Higgins’ way.” Of this I know – there shall never be another like him.



August 17th, 2016

There is a plethora of good news which I would like to share with you today. First, yesterday Florida’s First District Court of Appeals in Tallahassee ruled against the Florida Teachers Union and in favor of low-income and at-risk children whose parents can exercise “freedom of choice” in picking a private school for their children. The appeals court, like the trial court below it, found that the union did not have standing to bring the legal action since monies for this program come from private businesses directly to a foundation. In other words, those businesses get a tax credit and the children get a better chance at a future. The program is called “Step Up Florida”.


Eighty per cent of the students receiving this scholarship assistance are in private schools primarily serving African American and Hispanic children. While historically this is not an initiative of anyone to populate Catholic elementary and secondary schools, there are a small percentage of children in our schools who gain access only because of the law. Qualification and need is assessed by the private foundation which awards the scholarship assistance to the students.


A great deal of time, energy and money has gone into defending this program against the legal assault of the state teachers union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The presence of the latter as plaintiffs baffles the black pastors of the state as well as the principals of largely black schools where the children are getting a better chance at success than they would elsewhere. The Florida Association of School Boards were initially plaintiffs but they subsequently withdrew.


Then there are the public school teachers whose union is spending a king’s ransom to overturn the law even though as both the trial and appeals court pointed out, there is absolutely no guarantee that the money now being used in the form of a tax credit would, if the law were to be declared unconstitutional, be directed to public education. I believe in teachers unions. I even started one in Columbus, Ohio in 1967. Florida’s union is rated as one of the most inefficient and unsuccessful unions among the fifty state teacher associations. On this law, they are out to prove their reputation correct. Drop the suit, teachers, and continue to enjoy the support of many for millage increases and other ways of assisting your school districts in raising standards and retaining good teachers.


Today word from Pope Francis brought the news that one of the more gifted bishops in the United States would be going to Rome to take a lead position in the curia as first head of a new department merging the Pontifical Councils for the Laity, Youth, Family and Life. Bishop Kevin Farrell will be leaving the Diocese of Dallas which he has shepherded for ten years to assume this position and thus become the highest ranking American in the Roman Curia. I admired Bishop Farrell from my perch as General Secretary of the USCC/NCCB and he was a gifted priest of the Archdiocese of Washington. We also served on the USCCB Finance Council together where I witnessed his wisdom and compassion. He writes, thinks, administers and dreams like Pope Francis and that is all good!


School is open in the diocese once again and I am happy to indicate that enrollment is slightly up which is far better than being slightly down. Among the high schools, there are significant increases at Tampa Catholic (its highest enrollment in my twenty plus years here), Clearwater Central Catholic and Bishop McLaughlin (also its highest enrollment since opening). While some of the elementary schools are down slightly, enough of them are showing enrollment increases to give a bishop temporary heart relief. Soon our Christian Formation programs will resume in the parishes of the diocese and I hope there will be more young people involved there as well.


Finally, in the category of “if you build it, they will come”, last week with a number of other people I broke ground for a new Catholic residence hall adjacent to the Catholic Student Center at the University of South Florida. To be built and opened in two phases, hopefully, the combined occupancy of the facility will eventually be over 416 undergraduate students (208 in the first building). The new hall has already been named and is to be called “Bellarmine Hall.” Each student will have their own bedroom in either two or four bedroom units with an efficiency kitchen and a common space and bathroom. There will be ample parking at the three story residence hall and easy access to the campus ministry chapel, and facility. Each of the two wings (two when totally built out) will have rooms for common activities, meetings, prayer services, etc.


The diocese is partnering in this effort with Newman Student Housing who has built similar Catholic residence halls around the country. Father Justin Paskart is the chaplain at the moment but this has been a dream of two of his predecessors, Father Alan Weber and Father Michael Smith. My successor will surely get to bless this facility as I suspect I shall be gone, but like that “field of dreams” in the baseball movie, I can’t wait to come back and behold what has transpired. Parents, if you have a son or daughter likely to attend the main campus of USF, and you will be looking for a faith-based residence facility for them, think Bellarmine!



July 24th, 2016

Pope Francis gets (understands) the human condition as well as any Catholic I know. He also understands, appreciates and supports Church teaching and has changed nothing. Yet he gets a lot of flack from certain segments of our ecclesial community which is much more comfortable with “law and order” than “love and forgiveness.” Since the publication of his post-synodal exhortation, The Joy of Love dealing with love, marriage, family life, procreation, sexual attraction, doubts have been raised in certain sectors of our faith community about its teaching authority (is it a magisterial document?), its guidance in dealing with divorce, remarriage, and return to the sacraments, and voices have been heard questioning its authority as well as it meaning and interpretation.

I have now been a priest for approaching thirty-nine years and from the very beginning of my seminary training, I was introduced to something called “internal forum” solutions, which was available to me when I accompanied a divorced and remarried person or couple. We don’t talk about it or preach about it precisely because it is “internal forum” which means it is accorded the same level of secrecy as sins confessed in the sacrament of reconciliation.

I have always thought it is an inferior way to deal with these situations because almost inevitably a person in a second, non-sacramental marriage wants to remarry in a public ceremony which is not possible using this pastoral approach. Also for older Catholics something like this is not “real until there is a document saying that it is real” (a declaration of nullity, for example). Our diocesan marriage tribunals perform a needed, effective, and deeply pastoral ministry of mercy. The process is long, burdensome, almost always reopens old wounds, which have been psychologically cauterized following a divorce decree. The process is free in this diocese and has been for some time and thanks to Pope Francis, it has the potential to be speeded up.

But there are those cases where a previously married person deeply believes in good conscience that his or her first marriage was never sacramental but it just can’t be proven to or accepted by an ecclesiastical marriage tribunal. Pope Francis recently spoke a somewhat offhanded remark that a majority of young people getting married were probably in invalid marriages because they were incapable at the time of understanding the full measure and consequences of the sacrament into which they were entering. Many priests I know, and I myself, agree with that.

In the internal forum, priests for years have been accompanying the divorced and remarried back to participation in the sacramental life of the Church of their baptism. Probably not in great numbers (since it is internal forum or “under the seal” and there are no statistics), and I for one do not think the number is staggering because of the reasons outlined in the two proceeding paragraphs.

In the “The Joy of Love” I sense that this loving and caring pastor, Pope Francis, without changing any laws per se, wishes to remind priests of this option of accompaniment and accomplishment. So all of this is by way of sharing with you one of the best defenses of this document, which I have read since its publication, and it comes with the approval of the Holy See. It also joins a spirited defense of the same exhortation given by Cardinal Christoph Shoenborn of Vienna, no theological slouch!

As is often the case, I owe public thanks to the mother of all ecclesial blogs and to its doorkeeper, Rocco Palmo for making it available to me, to you and to a wider audience. A well-known and highly respected theologian Rocco Buttiglione worth your time to read the article pens it. It appeared last week in English in the normally all-Italian L’Osservatore Romano, and someone in our upper echelon of management had to look at it and approve it for publication. You may access it by clicking here.

I am going to begin a dialogue with the priests of the diocese about implementation of the apostolic exhortation locally and to see what, if anything. troubles them or excites them. It will also serve as a good reminder of a pastoral solution we have had for some time and which the Holy Father resurrects.

Please take time to read the article in its entirety. Thanks.



June 27th, 2016

Apropos recent comments concerning my last blog entry on the Orlando massacre I simply offer the following:

I think that the Church must not only ask forgiveness – like that “Marxist Cardinal” said (laughs) – must not only ask forgiveness to the gay person who is offended. But she must ask forgiveness to the poor too, to women who are exploited, to children who are exploited for labor. She must ask forgiveness for having blessed so many weapons. The Church must ask forgiveness for not behaving many times – when I say the Church, I mean Christians! The Church is holy, we are sinners! – Christians must ask forgiveness for having not accompanied so many choices, so many families… (Pope Francis’ in-flight press conference from Armenia, June 26, 2016).

The history of homosexuals in our society is a very bad history because we have done a lot to marginalize them, and so as church and as society we have to say, ‘Sorry’ (Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Trinity College, Dublin, June 23, 2016).