Bishop Robert J. McManus, 70, is the fifth bishop of Worcester, Massachusetts. He is a faithful prelate whose stand for Catholic orthodoxy has brought him criticism by activist groups. Last month, for example, protestors gathered at his chancery to criticize his insistence, in an April 3rd letter, that Jesuit-run Nativity School of Worcester stop flying gay pride and Black Lives Matter flags, stating that the beliefs behind these symbols are at odds with Catholic teaching.
Bishop McManus was born and raised in an observant Catholic home in Providence, Rhode Island. He was the third of four children; his father worked for the post office and his mother was a stay-at-home mom. He lived three blocks away from Blessed Sacrament Parish, where he attended school. He and his two brothers were altar boys, and his sister assisted the nuns assigned to the parish by helping take care of the church and sacristy.
He began attending high school seminary in 1965 and later received a scholarship to attend Catholic University in Washington. In 1974, he went to the Toronto School of Theology where he earned a master of divinity degree. After serving a year as a deacon, he was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Providence in 1978. He served in a variety of roles, including as rector of Our Lady of Providence Seminary, a time he refers to as “the happiest six years of my life.” When he arrived at the seminary there were seven seminarians, he noted, and when he left there were 20.
He was ordained an auxiliary bishop in 1999, and came to the Diocese of Worcester in 2004. Worcester was created by Pope Pius XII in 1950, and it now serves a quarter million Catholics, with 99 parishes and four missions. It has 120 active diocesan priests and 50 retired priests, as well as many religious community priests. There are also several women’s religious communities, but, as the bishop notes, their numbers are “getting smaller every day.”[Editor’s note: This interview was conducted before news of the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion broke this past Monday evening.]
CWR: You have fond memories of your Providence parish in which you grew up.
Bishop McManus: Yes, it was a very close-knit neighborhood and we enjoyed the triangle relationship of home, school, and church. It was called the “Holy Land,” as our parish produced four bishops and 95 priests, as well as many who went into religious life.
Every night at the parish there was a different devotion. We had four or five priests assigned to the parish, and the bishop would always send newly ordained priests to us as it was a great environment for young priests to learn about parish life. I played basketball in elementary school, and every time we played one of the priests was there to support us. We had lots of vocations; in my class 13 went to the seminary and four were ordained to the priesthood.
The nuns who taught us in the parish school were Faithful Companions of Jesus. They were a semi-cloistered community, with most of the nuns educated in Ireland. They were very strict.
CWR: Did the example of the priests lead you to the seminary?
Bishop McManus: Yes. In those days, the priests were our heroes. But the sisters were really the best vocation directors. One time when I was in eighth grade, one of the sisters came to my class. She told the girls to go to recess, and told the boys to stay in their seats.
She told us boys that becoming a priest was not only a good thing, but the best thing. I was a kid of 13, and I believed her then, as I believe her now.
CWR: How has the Church changed since you were a boy?
Bishop McManus: It has changed in a lot of ways. If you would have told me on the day I was ordained that the Church would be in such a difficult situation in American society as we find ourselves today, I never would have believed you.
My first assignment was at St. Matthew Parish in Cranston. It was a wonderful, wonderful assignment. We had four priests celebrating six weekend Masses, and the church was packed with 500 people at a time. It had a convent with 16 Sisters of Mercy and a parish school. Today, it has a single priest, and its convent and school are closed.
CWR: What went wrong?
Bishop McManus: The sexual abuse crisis in the Church, which became public in 2001, was a watershed moment in the Church’s loss of positive influence in the lives of Catholics. We couldn’t have gone through anything more devastating than that. Many of our Catholics drifted away after these revelations.
Also, the Second Vatican Council was not implemented correctly, and the “spirit” of the Council led priests, religious, and lay people off the theological and ecclesiastical rails. At the close of the Council in 1965, we were swept up into the “perfect storm” of the Sexual Revolution, the Vietnam War, the rapid secularization of society and a lack of trust in public institutions, including the Church. Trying to implement the Council in that social chaos was not effective.
Many of our women’s religious communities lost confidence in the importance of Catholic school education. They went into other ministries. But what can be a more effective use of your time than educating children in the Catholic faith?
I think it’s going to take many generations to figure out what went wrong.
CWR: How is Worcester doing for vocations to the priesthood?
Bishop McManus: I am ordaining seven to the priesthood in June. We have 25 seminarians, with three more young men coming in as first-year college seminarians. If we can keep ordaining four or five a year, we’ll be in good shape. We’ve been doing very well for vocations as compared to other New England dioceses.
Some of our seminarians are international seminarians, from South America and Africa, which has been a great blessing to the diocese. However, we need to attract more American vocations to the priesthood. We have a very fine vocations director, Fr. Donato Infante, who has been doing a wonderful job of promoting vocations. I also ask all of my priests to pray for vocations at their Sunday Masses, and I tell each of them that they should see themselves as vocations directors and promote vocations among those they know. That message has resonated with them.
CWR: What memories do you have of your time as a seminary rector?
Bishop McManus: When I took the job, I told the bishop I wanted to run it like a seminary, a sense that had been lost in many of the seminaries at the time. Seminarians need to be held accountable, and to understand that they are in the seminary to discern if they have a call to the priesthood. I had our seminary adopt a horarium [daily schedule] like that I had known as a college seminarian. I expected them to participate in community exercises, learn to pray the liturgy of the hours and how to serve at Mass.
I went into the seminary at age 14, and I was in seminary for 12 years. The best formation I received was in the high school seminary. But in my later years in seminary the formation was lacking. I’m grateful for Pope St. John Paul II’s 1992 apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis (“I Will Give You Shepherds”), as that document completely changed how seminary formation was done throughout the world.
CWR: In your activities with the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, you took part in the development of a new document on the Eucharist. What are some of its highlights?
Bishop McManus: We decided to create that document around the time President Biden took office. People thought we were crafting it to embarrass him and other Catholic politicians who held positions in opposition with the teachings of the Catholic Church. But the main thrust of the document was the importance of approaching the sacrament with proper moral worthiness and recovering the idea that the Eucharist is the gift of Christ’s own Body and Blood to help us become saints. We cannot approach the Eucharist casually.
We called it The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church. We drew from the teaching of Pope Benedict XVI, one of the best theologians of the 20th and 21st centuries, that the Eucharist is not something we create, but something that God has given us, so we need to celebrate it worthily.
The document does talk about Catholics in public life, but we include not just those in politics, but also those who have public roles in such institutions as hospitals and schools. They must live a morally correct life to be worthy of reception of the Eucharist. If they publicly and repeatedly promote policies that go against the teachings of the Church, they have placed themselves outside of communion of the Catholic Church.
One’s communion with the Church is not just interior and spiritual, but public. While no one but God can judge if another person is in the state of grace, public actions can be judged in accordance with the teaching of the Church and we can assess if such actions are mortally sinful.
CWR: You spoke at a Worcester Catholic Women’s conference in 2021. You said there were powerful forces in society that have an agenda to curtail the Catholic Church, and that “We are the last institution in American society that will not bend the knee.” What do you mean?
Bishop McManus: Many of the social and political phenomena we see today are bad for the Church and bad for the society. These include the acceptance, promotion, and celebration of transgenderism, the attack on religious liberty, abortion on demand, and euthanasia and assisted suicide. Here in Worcester we had a major battle with a public school committee over the implementation of a sex education program for grades pre-K through 12th grade that was pornographic. It is scandalous that there were Catholics on the school committee who would promote such a curriculum.
Our culture is in a moral decline, and our Church and its authentic Catholic teaching offer the antidotes to these evils.
CWR: You spoke at the Worcester Diocesan Catholic Men’s Conference on April 2. What were some highlights of this experience?
Bishop McManus: First off, thanks be to God we have our women active in the Church. If it were not for them stepping up to the plate, many more of our Catholic schools would close.
But we have a crisis of masculinity. There are many broken homes with children being raised solely by mothers. Young men are lacking in role models of what it is to be a man and a husband and how to treat others.
Our Worcester men’s conferences started by my predecessor Bishop Daniel Reilly in 2002, and up until the pandemic, we were drawing 1,100 participants. We have returned to in-person meeting and drew 500 or 600 at this last one, so we hope to build up our numbers back up to pre-pandemic levels.
These conferences are extraordinary. We see generations of Catholic men spending a day listening to talks and going to Mass and confession. Thirty of us were hearing confessions of many of the participants from noon to 2 p.m. Some of these men were dealing with serious issues, and many of them had been away from the sacraments for years.
CWR: In your April 3rd statement about the gay pride and Black Lives Matter flags at Nativity School you said you would not make any comments on the matter until you had concluded discussions with the school. Have you finished these discussions? Were you able to reach an agreement on the issue?
Bishop McManus: We have not reached an agreement. Our discussions are continuing. I expect these discussions to end soon and I will make another public statement then.
CWR: You are going to be the commencement speaker at the first graduation ceremony of Thomas Aquinas College’s East Coast campus on May 21.
Bishop McManus: Yes. I was formerly administrator of the neighboring Diocese of Springfield, where the new campus is located. They began their first academic semester while I was in this role. [Bishop William Byrne has since been installed as head of the Springfield diocese on December 14, 2020.] The president of the college, Thomas McLean, invited me to the campus to celebrate Mass and to preach. The college invited me back to celebrate Mass and speak to their first graduating class.
I am pleased to do it, as it is a wonderful, wonderful school. It is thoroughly Catholic, and unambiguous about its stance for the Faith. In my previous visits, I was there in cassock, and the students are always so polite and welcoming to me. They’d say, “Good morning, your excellency, welcome.” If I were to go to some other Catholic colleges dressed in cassock, they would look at me wondering what planet I’m from.
I’ve found Thomas Aquinas College students to be bright, mature and solidly rooted in their faith. The whole atmosphere is both serious and joyful, but always very Catholic.
CWR: You have participated in 40 Days for Life. In 2020, the Massachusetts state legislature voted to override the governor’s veto of a bill that would legalize abortion up to birth and lower to sixteen the age girls can get abortions without parental knowledge or consent. Has the pro-life movement had a hard time making headway in Massachusetts?
Bishop McManus: The pro-life movement here is very vocal and well organized. It is made up of wonderful people. Unfortunately, the legislature in Massachusetts is filled with liberal Catholic legislators who completely ignore the teachings of the Church. When Catholics oppose such horrible legislation as this bill, their protests fall on deaf ears.
Also, about ten years ago there was a state referendum on assisted suicide. Catholics here mobilized parishes, and after an uphill battle, we won by two or three percentage points. We’ve had to fight against it every year since. The politics here are very liberal.
CWR: Flyers were distributed in parish bulletins in April in opposition to the latest efforts to would legalize assisted suicide in Massachusetts.
Bishop McManus: Yes, in all of our parishes. Last time, we had people contact their legislators. The legislators begged us to stop, as their phones were ringing off the hook. The people in the pews realize that the pro-life issue is a fundamental one to the common good and central to a civilized society.
CWR: What is your prediction for the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, which has the potential to overturn Roe v. Wade?
Bishop McManus:I prayerfully hope it does. Roe has been very destructive to our culture. I have read, however, that Chief Justice John Roberts wants to hit a mean in terms of the decision, which is silly, as we’ll be going back to the Court again and again.
CWR: Who are your Catholic heroes?
Bishop McManus: When I was named a Catholic bishop, Pope St. John Paul II invited me to come to Rome. I went, and was able to concelebrate Mass with him in his private chapel. He noticed that I didn’t have a pectoral cross. He started tapping me on the chest, saying “Where is your holy cross?” He had his personal secretary, Cardinal Dziwisz, bring one, and he put it over my head. He tapped me on the cheek and said, “Be a good bishop.”
Whenever I have to make a decision that is not widely accepted, I remember the pope’s admonition, “Be a good bishop.”
CWR: What spiritual practices would you recommend to the typical Catholic in the pew?
Bishop McManus: I would begin with daily Mass. Not everyone can do this, but it is important to remember that to be Catholic is to be Eucharist-oriented. As Bishop Cozzens stressed in his Catholic World Report interview in April, the Eucharist is at the heart of Catholic life. If we do not recover a love for the Eucharist, we are going to remain lost.
We also need to have a great devotion to the Blessed Mother. The rosary is a powerful instrument. Anyone can find time to say a rosary.
Another common practice I grew up with that I recommend is making regular visits to the Blessed Sacrament. We also need regular confession.
We cannot merely go from Sunday to Sunday Mass. Our culture is to antithetical to the Catholic way of life. To counter it, we have to be active in our devotional life.
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