He joked that he didn’t campaign for the position, but Toledo Bishop Leonard P. Blair said he happened to be in Rome when he learned he was being named Archbishop of Hartford and was able to thank Pope Francis in person.
“I asked for his blessing on the church in both Hartford and Toledo,” Blair said at a press conference Tuesday.
Blair, 64, will be installed on Dec. 16 as the fifth archbishop of the Hartford Catholic Diocese. He succeeds Archbishop Henry J. Mansell, 76, who served the diocese for 10 years and is past the mandatory retirement age of 75.
In recent years, the Catholic church has been plagued with priest sex abuse scandals and the Toledo diocese was not immune. According to news reports, Catholic officials in Toledo waited six months to investigate the sexual misdeeds of a Catholic school counselor in 2010.
Blair said his predecessor already had removed a number of accused priests and “subsequently I had to remove some as well, but I think there’s been a great process of healing and I think our diocese responded appropriately.”
In 2012, members of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, a Chicago-based organization, protested outside Blair’s offices in Toledo to encourage him to tell parishioners about “the whereabouts and status of predator priests in the diocese.”
Blair also was at the center of a controversy involving a group of religious women headed by Sister Pat Farrell. He was ordered by the Vatican to conduct a doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). The group, which was founded in 1956, represents about 80 percent of Catholic nuns in the United States.
He concluded that the group was undermining Roman Catholic teachings on homosexuality and birth control and promoting “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” During an NPR interview last July, Blair said LCWR is “promoting unilaterally new understandings, a new kind of theology, that is not in accordance with the faith of the church.”
But it’s unclear if his views on these matters put him at odds with Pope Francis, who in September gave a lengthy interview in which he opined that the church had grown “obsessed” with abortion, gay marriage, and contraception.
“Like all of you I’m very intrigued by this new holy father and very challenged by him in the best ways,” Blair said. “I find that I think he’s given new energy to the church.”
During the press conference, Blair spoke warmly about how the new pope engages people.
“I think the people feel he speaks directly to them,” Blair said. “Now you understand Pope Benedict addressed many of the same themes. Pope Benedict is a superb teacher of the faith.”
He said each pope and each archbishop brings their own personality and insight into how they perform their ministry.
He said Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis are different and they’re both good popes, but “I think Francis is particularly engaging to people.”
Blair used the example of Pope Francis’ recent visit to Assisi, where the pope encountered a woman frustrated that her son in his 30s didn’t want to ask his girlfriend to marry him.
“The pope said ‘Madame stop ironing his shirts’,” Blair said, paraphrasing the encounter he had read about.
“That’s not the way popes usually speak,” Blair added as the crowd gathered for the press conference laughed. “But it’s certainly not unworthy of a pope.”
Meanwhile, despite the separation of church and state, many times the church has weighed in on issues such as gay marriage or physician-assisted suicide for terminally-ill patients.
“Whether I was an archbishop or not, I certainly subscribe to the teaching of the church on these matters that is rooted in the gospel and I believe rooted even more in just human reason and the difference between right and wrong,” Blair said. “That would mean a tremendous respect for the God-given institution of marriage and respect for human life.”
In Connecticut, gay marriage has been legal since Nov. 12, 2008. Lawmakers debated a bill that would allow physician-assisted suicide this year, but it failed to make it out of committee.
Blair said he knows those issues are contentious but he believes people understand where the church is coming from on that and “as part of the process we do have to bear witness to these truths.”
The Archdiocese of Hartford is made up of about 591,528 Catholics and 213 parishes. The diocese has about 446 priests and about 299 deacons. It covers Hartford, Litchfield, and New Haven counties.