The 14 Catholic churches in the Diocese of St. Petersburg's Upper Pinellas Deanery are opening their arms, their hearts and their doors for Easter.
The churches placed a large ad in Tuesday's St. Petersburg Times welcoming Catholics who have fallen away from the church to return for Easter, the holiest of Christian holidays.
Leading the welcoming committee is Monsignor Colman Cooke, who has overseen St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church in Clearwater since 1997 and has headed up the Upper Pinellas Deanery for three years.
A native of Ireland, the soft-spoken priest is retiring effective July 1. We sat down with Cooke to talk about the effort to bring people back to the church and where things stand on a number of current issues.
Can you discuss where the efforts the deanery is making originated?
The advertisement, "Come Home for Easter,'' was the idea of Father Jacob Monteleone, pastor of Light of Christ Parish. He presented it at our deanery meeting. Originally, the idea was that it would be the cluster of the five most northern parishes, but the other pastors thought it would be a good idea as well.
How do you handle Catholics who approach you with possible frustrations concerning the church?
I let them speak and make sure to let them know that I'm meeting them where they are. I respect their story. Everyone needs an opportunity to share their concerns. I attend all Masses on the weekends, even when I'm not celebrating, to stand at the door. This is where you can make contact with people.
What is your perception of Pope Benedict?
He's not a person who will let the crowd decide. He hasn't that type of ego. He's a German-trained scholar. You don't get any better than that. He's different from Pope John Paul II in that he isn't seen as much. He's more retiring.
What changes have you seen during your years with the Diocese of St. Petersburg?
Now more than ever, the people own the church. Over the past decade, there has been an increase in cooperation between clusters of parishes, sharing certain ministries, such as youth ministries. There is the conviction that not every parish is able to provide all services and a better product is achieved if parishes pool resources.
Can you talk about women in the church, including the decline in the number of nuns?
There has been a great decrease in the numbers of women religious (or nuns). Why that is so is quite complicated. There are many angles to it, but, while there is this decrease, there is a significant increase in the number of professional women in the education and formation programs. At another level, many of the senior positions at the diocesan level are held by women. For example, my former secretary, Joan Morgan, is now the chancellor of the Diocese of St. Petersburg. That's the third senior position in the diocese.
Do you see the church changing with the times?
We must. We have no choice.
Regarding the priest/sex abuse scandal, now that a few years have gone by since it was on the front pages, how has it affected your work?
It has left deep wounds. It has cast a pall over priests and the ministry. It changed relationships with us and the parishioners. But, out of it, now positive work is being done. Every volunteer, every staff member has to undergo a thorough background check and training.
What concerns do you have for the priest who will take your place?
I don't think I'd say concerns. He will bring his own personality to this parish that's in a positive situation. It's a parish not in debt. It's an active church with more than 200 volunteers.
On Easter Sunday, when you look out at many unfamiliar faces, Catholics that visit church on only special occasions like Easter, do you want to scold them and say, "Shame on you"?
No. I say the opposite. I say, "You are very welcome here." They don't have to be here, and hopefully, they will want to return.