From N&O archive: 'Worst beggar' a fine leader

Staff WriterAugust 16, 2013 

This story, by former staff writer Yonat Shimron (now managing editor of Religion News Service) ran on the front page of The N&O on Feb. 28, 2001.

As he mingles in the social hall of a Fayetteville-area church, Bishop F. Joseph Gossman seems to be enjoying himself. He shakes hands, embraces old friends. He even takes a stab at comedy. (“I heard a good one the other day, “ he says. “A guy gets a talking scale. The scale says, ‘Will one of you guys please get off?’ ”)

Mentally, though, he is preparing to do the thing he likes least: Beg for money.

A tall, thin man with white hair, a generic black suit and a Roman collar, Gossman is no stranger to public speaking. He’s in his element standing in 105-degree heat on the steps of the Wake County courthouse advocating better wages for farm workers. And he’s completely at ease serving the Eucharist at Central Prison to a group of Catholic men on death row. But when it comes to plying the faithful for money, he has been told he makes a pitiful pitch.

“Let me congratulate you, “ a man once told him. “You are the worst beggar for Jesus Christ I have ever heard. You’re so apologetic, it’s sickening.”

He knows it’s true.

But to some extent, it’s because all these other things he’s done that the Roman Catholic Diocese of Raleigh needs the money now.

In the 26 years since Gossman arrived, the diocese has more than quadrupled, from 38,490 members in 1975, to 167,537 last year – not counting the thousands of Hispanic immigrants who typically don’t register at their church. Catholics now make up an estimated 4.5 percent of the state’s population, and in larger metropolitan areas such as the Triangle it’s more like 8 percent. This past year, the state elected its first Catholic governor.

To keep up with the influx, the diocese plans this spring to start a $30 million capital campaign – the first such campaign in its history. The money will be used to build new churches, train more men for the priesthood and extend a wider network of social services. It will also help Gossman tend the new Catholic culture he has sown here: a culture that welcomes newcomers, does not stand on ceremony and exudes openness that many of the region’s newest Catholics appreciate.

“It’s a very friendly place, “ said Bob Whittaker, a member of St. Raphael’s Catholic Church in Raleigh. “The hierarchy are not distant. They’re visible at all kinds of events.”

And that’s why at 71, an age most people would consider ripe for retirement, Gossman is rubbing elbows with committed followers on a chilly Tuesday night, asking for money so he can complete his vision.

Twenty-six years ago, when he first arrived in Raleigh, Gossman felt as if he had traveled “from the inner city to outer space.” Only 350 miles separated Baltimore and North Carolina’s capital city, but it seemed as though he had landed on another planet.

He left behind one of the country’s oldest, most established Catholic communities. He was settling in a state where Catholics made up about 1 percent of the population.

In Catholic parlance, this was mission country, and Gossman thought he’d spend his days driving down two-lane roads visiting small parishes tucked away between tobacco fields, military bases and coastal salt marshes.

In one sense, he was right. The diocese still has 21 rural churches with fewer than 100 members each. But in the larger sense, he was wrong. By the early 1980s, working-class men and women from Mexico and Latin America began showing up at mass. At about the same time, middle-class Americans from Northern cities started squeezing into the pews. The immigration nearly overwhelmed the small diocese, which includes 54 counties in eastern North Carolina, from Chatham to Dare.

In many ways, the explosive growth has been a burden. Priests are responsible for too many parishioners, and crowded churches have lost a sense of community, the bishop says. But Gossman is clear: Growth has also been a blessing. Here in Raleigh, he has been able to avoid some of the entrenched bureaucracies of more established Catholic communities where leaders are often inaccessible to their flock. In this diocese, new priests are required to spend eight weeks in an intensive Spanish-speaking program, women oversee 10 churches and the bishop still drives his own car.

“When I come back from Ohio I feel like this is a real, living church, “ said Sister Joan Jurksi, who heads the office of peace and justice for the diocese and is a Toledo native. “Nobody can bring their Ohio or Michigan or New Jersey tradition here. It’s a mixture, and because of that there’s a newness.”

In a church that is often hierarchical and authoritative, Gossman has a reputation for being collegial and democratic.

Last year, for the first time in 25 years, he recommended that seven priests be given the honorary title “monsignor.”

But he is more inclined to treat all his priests as equals.

“You are not employees of the church, “ priests say he has told them. “You’re my brothers with me in the ministry.”

While some say he’s out of tune with the Vatican - which in recent years has modeled a more centralized, highly stratified leadership – Gossman hasn’t changed.

Not only does he know the names of the 116 priests and 76 nuns who work around him, but whenever he goes on vacation, and at Christmas too, he sends each of them a personally signed greeting card. “Praying for you, “ it typically says. “Your brother, Joe.”

The irony about Joseph Gossman is that while the church hierarchy may judge him by his ability to manage growth, his colleagues may appreciate him most for staying true to his beliefs – even when those beliefs do not always square with the church.

Take, for example, his views on the role of women. Gossman has made it a priority to include women’s points of view and give them added responsibility.

Not surprisingly, he has no bigger fans than the nuns who live and work in the diocese.

Sister Evelyn Mattern remembers the reception she got when she wrote to Gossman’s predecessor to tell him she was coming down to live in Raleigh and teach English at St. Augustine’s College. “Don’t come if you’re not wearing a full habit and living in an approved convent, “ Bishop Vincent Waters wrote to her.

She came anyway, joining a group of at least a dozen nuns in the Triangle, wearing civilian clothes and working in a range of jobs far from the bishop’s eye.

When Gossman replaced Waters, he asked one of the sisters to hold a supper meeting of the underground nuns so he could learn about the work they were doing.

Reluctantly, 12 to 15 women showed up one evening at one of the nun’s apartments in Chapel Hill.

“The bishop came and sat like the rest of us, with his plate on his knees, “remembered Mattern, now a program associate at the North Carolina Council of Churches. “He made us feel we were an important part of the church.”

In the past decade, Gossman has appointed 10 nuns to supervise churches where there is no resident priest. These “pastoral administrators” do everything but perform the sacraments, such as the Eucharist, baptism and confirmation.

This year, he has invited a core group of sisters to speak to the priests at their annual assembly. “Maybe they can tell us what we ought to be thinking about - what hadn’t entered our mind, “ he said.

Gossman struggles with his church’s teaching - reiterated by Pope John Paul II - that women can never become priests.

“When you have those kinds of exclusions it’s important to talk about it and help people understand why they’re there. The reasons are terribly hard for the ordinary person to understand. There are times when I’m not sure I understand it myself. The pope is the chief teacher in our church, and we have to listen to him. But he has a habit of saying something is true without giving the underlying reasons.

“Maybe in Poland you don’t do that, “ he adds, referring to the pope’s native country. “But you certainly do it in other places, I think.”

The people who work at the Catholic Center apologize for the appearance of their building, and privately wish Gossman would build them something classier.

But the bishop would rather leave that task to his successor.

The Catholic Center has few qualities to recommend it. A squat, cinderblock structure, barely noticeable from the road, it was built to house a Catholic orphanage. Its bedrooms, overlooking Centennial Parkway in West Raleigh, now serve as offices for the diocesan staff.

Gossman’s office, though slightly larger than that of his co-workers, bears none of the perks of his position. The boxy armchairs are folksy, 1970s vintage. The bookcases are plain, and the carpeting an institutional gray. Framed on the wall near his desk is a homely work of needlepoint. “If Moses had been a committee, “it reads, “the Israelites would still be in Egypt.”

In its way, the center says a lot about Gossman - where he came from and where his values lie. Though the diocese has experienced a phenomenal transformation, its leader has changed very little. Those who have known him all these years say constancy is his virtue. Despite his success, he remains unassuming, humble and a little shy.

Francis Joseph Gossman was born to a devout working-class family in a mostly Catholic neighborhood of Baltimore.

His father worked as an accountant for the railroad. Gossman and his two siblings attended Catholic schools. In those days, he said, there were two kinds of kids: Catholics and publics. “Catholics went to Catholic school. Publics went to public school.”

When he was in the sixth grade he came under the influence of the church pastor who roamed the parish school urging students to think about religious vocations. At the age of 14, he decided to enroll in a high school that trained men for the priesthood.

“I thought it was a good thing to do, “ he said, summing his reasons in one sentence.

His mother disapproved. She felt he was too inexperienced to make that kind of decision. The young Joseph insisted and transferred to the seminary school. Two years later, when he started dating a girl on his summer vacation, he considered that maybe his mother was right. But by then his mother argued that he ought to follow through.

Gossman deliberated for six more months. Then he decided to stay. He has never turned back.

His rise within the Catholic hierarchy was swift. After studying theology in Rome, he was asked to return for an advanced degree in canon law. At 38, he became one of the youngest men in America to be named bishop. The church sent him to work with struggling inner-city churches, where he saw the interplay between poverty, racism and the American flight to the suburbs.

“It can be a very demoralizing experience when dioceses try to scale back, “ he said. And that gives Gossman a unique perspective on his good fortune these days.

Those who have followed Gossman say the longer he raises money, the louder his pronouncements about those without any.

To some extent, it may be his perception that American values have changed, leaving people like him on the margins.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having enough financial resources to have a decent life, “ he said recently. “But I think there are a lot of people who never have enough money no matter how much they have. We’re affected by that, sometimes unconsciously. It’s a glitzy world. There’s nothing wrong with glitz as long as you know it’s glitz – all show and no substance. A lot of people don’t realize it.”

But Gossman’s beliefs about wealth are also formed by a long tradition of Catholic social teaching that links Jesus’ presence among the poor with present-day economic injustices.

For that reason, one of Gossman’s first actions on becoming bishop of Raleigh was to side with the workers of the J.P. Stevens textile mill in their decadelong quest to organize a union at the plant near Roanoke Rapids.

It was followed in the late 1980s by a decision to set aside $2.5 million as an endowment for the poor. The endowment, which came from the sale of land to to N.C. State University, has since doubled in value and is used to fund job training programs and other causes.

But his signature statement on poverty came in 1997 when he joined Bishop William Curlin of the Diocese of Charlotte, in issuing a rare pastoral letter to the Catholics of North Carolina.

“We speak because our American economy has expanded dramatically, and many have prospered, “ the two bishops wrote. “Yet we are still haunted by how the least among us are faring. There is too much poverty and too little economic opportunity for all our citizens.”

Two years ago, he topped that by going where no other North Carolina religious leader has gone. He declared a boycott of the Mount Olive Pickle Co., in an attempt to pressure its contracted farmers to improve conditions for their workers. The letters to the editor were sharp.

“I call on all Catholics to stop giving money to the church until Gossman resigns or stops supporting this communist-inspired boycott, “ wrote G.R. Quinn to the editor of The Sanford Herald.

Other Catholics wonder whether the emphasis on worker rights is not misplaced.

More “attention was paid to the inadequacies of labor practices by Mount Olive Pickle Company, than focusing on whether the country was to continue a course of accepting the daily death of one thousand innocent children in the womb, “ wrote Charles Hosler.

But the growing Hispanic immigrant population - many of whom work at the pickle plant - cheered Gossman on.

A coworker likes to tell about a trip to Edenton that Gossman made a few years ago with staff members. Someone suggested the group take a detour to see a $1 million home being built nearby. When they got out to gawk at the home, Gossman would have nothing to do with it.

He stayed in the car.

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