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The 26 teenagers sat stone silent as Bishop Richard J. Malone stepped down from the altar to talk with them about the sacrament of confirmation during Mass inside St. Francis of Assisi Church in Athol Springs.

A confirmation service often is the only direct interaction that many Catholics experience with a bishop in their lifetimes, and Malone, sensing timidity in this group, encouraged them not to be afraid “to talk in church when the bishop asks you to.”

He wanted to know how many of them played sports – a ready icebreaker in sports-obsessed Western New York. He professed his own loyalty to the Boston Red Sox and compared the practice of Catholicism to being a good teammate who trains regularly and keeps in shape.

Malone then ratcheted up the gravity of his homily, urging the young Catholics not to become complacent in their religion.

“One of the problems we face in the church is that an awful lot of good Catholics stopped learning about the faith at the point of their confirmation,” he said. “Don’t stop learning, please.”

The message was aimed at the adults in attendance as much as the newly confirmed teens.

Two years into the job as Buffalo’s 14th Catholic bishop, Malone probably is best known in Western New York for his decision to shut down 10 Catholic elementary schools. The 68-year-old bishop spent a good chunk of the year deflecting supporters’ impassioned criticisms of the closings.

But elementary schools are only a fraction of the sizable challenges confronting the New England-born bishop as he makes his mark on a diocese of 164 parishes, more than 600,000 Catholics, and a broad network of other schools, hospitals and human services agencies.

By canon law, Malone has broad authority over nearly all Catholic institutions in the Buffalo diocese, and, combined, those entities represent the single largest corporation in Western New York. So it’s no stretch to argue that Malone ranks among the community’s most powerful leaders.

Malone hasn’t been afraid to throw that weight around, especially in the political arena. He’s jousted publicly with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo over same-sex marriage, abortion and remarks the governor made about extreme conservatives. He chided State Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy, a Democrat and South Buffalo Catholic, after Kennedy voted earlier this year in support of an expansion of abortion rights. In July, as a representative of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, he wrote a letter accusing President Obama of discriminating against Catholics with an executive order that prohibits contractors from considering sexual orientation and gender identity in hiring.

None of those attempts to influence public policy succeeded, although it remains to be seen if Malone’s condemnations have any effect on Kennedy’s re-election bid later this year.

The bigger question is whether Malone has the kind of sway necessary to overcome a prevailing tide of indifference among many Catholics.

By almost any statistical measure, Western New Yorkers are drifting ever more swiftly away from their deep Catholic roots. While Catholicism is still by far the most practiced religion in the region, its future hold on that distinction is hardly assured.

Catholic baptisms and first Holy Communions in the Buffalo Diocese were down by about 40 percent over the past decade, a period when the Catholic Church was in the throes of an international clergy sexual abuse scandal, including some cases involving the Buffalo Diocese. There were a third fewer Catholic marriages in 2013 than in 2003.

The diocese has had trouble just getting young people to the point of being confirmed – let alone keeping them active and involved beyond their confirmations. The key sacrament is considered the rite of full initiation into Catholicism. And yet, in 2013, 4,399 area Catholics – primarily 10th- and 11th-graders – received confirmation, 27 percent fewer than in 2003, when 6,043 Catholics were confirmed.

As in many dioceses in the Northeast, membership in many area parishes has eroded significantly over the past couple of decades. The sacramental statistics portend even steeper membership losses in the future.

‘New evangelization’

Bishops have been wracking their brains for years trying to reverse the trends.

“It’s not that we’re sitting back and watching the numbers drop. We’re working on it,” Malone said.

Most recently, many bishops, including Malone, have been touting the “new evangelization,” an effort among church leaders and active parishioners to stir more fervor for the faith and bring lapsed or nominal Catholics back into the fold.

“I’d like to see the Catholics who are in the pews, I’d like to see them be able to embrace their role as sharers of the faith,” he said. “Don’t just keep the faith, share it. Most of these Catholics who are not going to church, they’re not atheists. But things happen, priorities shift.”

Still, the push to revitalize the Buffalo Diocese could not come at a more difficult time.

The Catholic Church hasn’t fully recovered from clergy sex abuse scandals that began rocking the American church more than a decade ago. A 2013 Pew Research Center survey found that 34 percent of American Catholics viewed sex abuse and its cover-up as the church’s most important problem.

In addition:

• For some Catholics, discontent lingers from church and school closings under former Bishop Edward U. Kmiec;

• A shortage of priests will only grow more acute as a large crop of pastors nears retirement age, with many clergy already feeling overburdened and underappreciated; and,

• After years of growth, overall Catholic parish collections, which reached as high as $101 million in 2002, are now headed downward, even as many costs increase, potentially hampering the diocese’s attempts to launch new evangelization programs. The diocese also estimates it has $85 million to $110 million in “long-term” financial commitments for which it must prepare, including priest and lay employee retirement plans and cemetery maintenance costs.

Meanwhile, parishes, as well as institutions like Catholic Charities, increasingly rely on older Catholics to provide the lion’s share of financial support in paying for utilities, building maintenance and programs.

“The people that are funding the day-to-day operations or week-to-week operations are senior citizens,” said Monsignor Thomas Maloney, pastor of St. Amelia Church in the Town of Tonawanda. “That’s where the bulk of the money is coming from. That leaves us with a little bit of concern about where we’re going to be in 20 or 30 years.”

Malone, who oversaw a successful capital campaign to raise $40 million during his eight-year tenure as bishop of Portland, Maine, is considering a similar effort in the Buffalo Diocese, with a goal of as much as $100 million. The money would go to create endowments for Catholic education, lifelong faith formation, scholarship assistance and direct support to parishes, among other areas.

Reviews from priests

But can Malone pull the Buffalo Diocese from its doldrums?

He’s received mixed reviews for his work so far. Some observers laud his vision, candor and willingness to try new ways of doing things. Others are critical of his leadership style, saying he’s autocratic and has yet to show any real spiritual stewardship.

Malone’s handling of the school closings exposed a significant rift between the chancery and many of the priests of the diocese, who traditionally serve as the bishop’s primary collaborators.

Malone even convened an emergency meeting with priests in April at a Kenmore parish to hear their concerns and try to mend fences.

Some pastors appreciated the overture, which they viewed as an opportunity for a fresh start. Others weren’t impressed.

“I think the priests are very discouraged,” said a longtime pastor, one of several who spoke to The News on the condition that their names not be used.

Another priest characterized the dissatisfaction as “pretty widespread” and said Malone’s heavy-handedness and lack of consultation with clergy have contributed to a morale problem.

“He doesn’t have a good pastoral sense,” the priest said. “If we ever ran parishes like he tries to run us, our parishes would be up in arms.”

Some priests complained of being inundated with memos and new mandates from Malone, while receiving no help from chancery staff to implement anything.

“The bishop relies on the priests to provide programs. But a lot of priests are saying, ‘Sorry, not interested. We’re not going to do that in my parish,’ ” another pastor said.

Many priests agree on one thing: Vatican officials didn’t do Malone any favors by having him stay on as administrator of the Portland diocese during his first 18 months in Buffalo. It wasn’t until February of this year that Malone was fully released from his duties in Maine.

Some clergy say it’s way too early to judge his tenure here.

“I don’t have anything negative to say against the man. I think he’s trying very hard and he’s up against it,” said the Rev. Mark Wolski, a retired priest, who described Malone as intelligent and well-rounded. “My sense is you’ve got to give the guy a chance. He really started out in a very difficult position.”

Malone said his relationship with clergy will never be perfect, but he believes he has a good rapport with most priests.

“I respect them. I feel most of them respect me,” he said. “It’s new. I’m only here two years, so it’s a building relationship.”

Priests retiring

As many as 50 of the diocese’s 165 active priests will reach retirement age within the next five years, with fewer than a dozen seminarians scheduled to be ordained in that time.

Malone is aggressively pursuing more priests from clergy-rich areas of the world, such as India and Africa, to work within the Buffalo Diocese.

Malone also authorized liberal use of a provision in Catholic canon law that allows him to entrust the “pastoral care of a parish” with someone other than a priest, paving the way for people who are not ordained to be appointed as “pastoral administrators” of parishes.

Sister Marcia Ann Fiutko commended Malone for “trying to get ahead of the curve” in making sure area Catholics have access to the liturgy and the sacraments, even if priest numbers continue to fall.

“You can’t just be an ostrich and have your head in the sand. This problem is going to be upon us when all these priests retire en masse,” said Fiutko, associate general minister of the Franciscan Sisters of St. Joseph in Hamburg. “He cares very much about the people here in the Diocese of Buffalo and is trying the best he can to make changes that are necessary in the diocese.”

Malone’s biggest gamble might be his decision to sink more diocesan resources into Christ the King Seminary, the sprawling, underutilized campus in Aurora where priests-to-be, as well as a growing number of laypeople, receive theological training.

The seminary costs more than $3 million annually to operate, and has leaned heavily on its endowment to help cover those expenses. There’s been considerable debate for years within the diocese about whether it would be more practical and economical to sell the property and send seminarians to another theological school.

Malone came to the conclusion the seminary was too valuable to lose.

“It’s a very precious entity to have a seminary, and I’m just committed to continuing it,” he said.

Inviting Catholics to return

St. Francis of Assisi Church was about half full during Malone’s visit for the confirmation service on a pleasant Thursday evening in June. The bishop talked for nearly 25 minutes, sticking to the team theme throughout. He described the people sitting next to each other in the pews as “teammates,” and on Sundays, during Mass, “the team comes together.”

“Don’t become an occasional Catholic, become an intentional Catholic,” Malone implored. “Strive for excellence.”

Jean Hymes, the parish’s religious education director, estimated that “a good half to three-quarters” of the people in attendance for the confirmation service were Catholic, but not regular Mass-goers.

“Those are the people he needs to reach,” Hymes said. “The adults who were there said they really liked what he had to say.”

She expressed confidence in the bishop’s ability to stem the tide of nonpracticing Catholics.

But, she added, “It’s a long, slow process.”

When asked what a successful tenure as bishop of the Buffalo Diocese might look like, Malone said he wouldn’t point to any “measurable kinds of milestones.”

“I just want to be able to do the very best I can do with my own gifts and within my own limits,” he said. “I want to invite Catholics back to church, not because the numbers are important to me, but because living a Christian life ... makes a person more human and more joyful and it gives a person a peace they can’t find anywhere else.”

email: jtokasz@buffnews.com