Bishop takes on a small diocese with big problems

Hurricane Ivan damage in Jamaica delays Bennett's installment

September 21, 2004|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

When Bishop Gordon D. Bennett, one of Baltimore's auxiliary bishops, was recently named to lead a small Roman Catholic diocese in Jamaica, he knew it would be a tough assignment. A 2 1/2 -hour drive from the beaches of Montego Bay, the Diocese of Mandeville lies in a poor, hilly farming area with just 2,700 regularly practicing Catholics.

After Hurricane Ivan ripped through Jamaica this month, Bennett's task grew even more challenging. Heavy winds tore the roofs off most of the diocese's churches and schools, knocking out electricity and water. Because of the damage, Bennett's installation service has been postponed indefinitely.

When Bennett, a Jesuit, arrives in Mandeville this week, his first job will be to help the fledgling diocese pick up the pieces.

"As far as repair, that will be my job, to raise that money and to pay for it," said Bennett, 58, adding that he had tried to contact Mandeville by phone six times last week without success.

Bennett, who grew up in Los Angeles and served as president of Loyola High School there, moved to Baltimore in 1998 to serve as urban vicar, developing a reputation as an engaging and personable leader. In addition to conducting outreach to African-American and Hispanic Catholics, he is credited with developing relationships between urban and suburban parishes and inspiring dialogue on issues of race and class.

So when the Vatican announced his selection to run Mandeville, some people in the archdiocese were puzzled. No one viewed Mandeville as a plum assignment, especially for someone who had never lived in the developing world. Privately, some wondered if Bennett had run afoul of the Vatican - something Cardinal William H. Keeler, the archbishop of Baltimore, vehemently denies.

"He's wonderful," Keeler said of Bennett, adding that Bennett's energy and enthusiasm made him a perfect fit for a challenging task.

Observers say one reason the pope probably assigned Bennett to Jamaica is that he is a Jesuit, or a member of the Society of Jesus. Renowned for their contributions to education, Jesuits also take a strict vow of obedience to the pontiff, who has historically asked them to tackle difficult jobs overseas.

St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, pledged total obedience to the pope in 1534 to help the church at a time when it was confronting the Protestant Reformation and struggling with internal problems. Since then, popes have tapped Jesuits for some of their most challenging foreign mission work, perhaps most famously in 1541, when Pope Paul III sent St. Francis Xavier to the Far East on two days' notice.

"Jesuits are very much street preachers, going where the greatest need of the church was," said the Rev. Joseph Rossi, chairman of the department of theology at Loyola College in Maryland. Mandeville "is a difficult assignment. I think the pope is sending Gordon there because he has faith and confidence in him."

Keeler says there is another reason: Mandeville needs an American who can raise funds here to help out the diocese. He noted that Bennett's predecessor, Bishop Paul M. Boyle, is also from the United States.

"There is no question in my mind that that is part of the picture," said Keeler. Keeler added that he has given Bennett two open round-trip plane tickets to Baltimore so he can return to make appeals for donations.

The Diocese of Mandeville was created in 1997 out of parts of Kingston and Montego Bay, the island's two other Catholic dioceses. Caribbean locale aside, Jamaica is not an easy posting for a Catholic bishop. It is one of the poorest nations in the Western Hemisphere, and the vast majority of islanders are either Protestant or follow African tribal religions, according to the CIA World Fact Book.

Only 4 percent are Roman Catholic.

Bennett said he was surprised but not disappointed to be sent to a foreign diocese.

"It's going to be tough, no doubt about it, but I feel honored to be asked," he said. "This is the meaning of my vows as a Jesuit: to go where the Holy Father asks me to."

Bennett will live in what he said is a comfortable house with Internet access, a TV and a cook/housekeeper. He described the surrounding area as lush, with hills and valleys where people grow fruits and coffee. Bennett expressed mixed emotions about leaving Baltimore.

"It's sad to move, because I've forged wonderful ties and relationships here," he said. "But at the same time, I'm very anxious to get on with this next phase and do what I can do to lift up this small, ... vulnerable church."

Bennett said he did not know how long he would stay in Mandeville, but added, "I'm presuming that it is for the rest of my life."

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