'I Would Prefer to Be Judged Too Kind than Too Rigid': An Interview with Bishop Patrick J. McGrath

This week in the print magazine Jim McDermott, SJ writes about the unique character of "The Church in the West." As part of that project he had the opportunity to interview a number of bishops about their experiences in their own dioceses and within the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops. This article is one of a series of six presenting those interviews.

Bishop Patrick J. McGrath, 69, is the second bishop of San Jose, California, in the Silicon Valley. Originally from Dublin, Ireland, Bishop McGrath trained in canon law before coming to the States to serve as a priest in the Archdiocese of San Francisco. He has served as bishop of San Jose for almost 16 years, after 11 years as an auxiliary bishop for Archbishop John Quinn in San Francisco.

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Nestled in the heart of Silicon Valley, the diocese of San Jose is 33 percent Latino, 32 percent Asian, and a melting pot of past, present and future, class and culture.

You’ve worked both in San Francisco and nearby San Jose. How would you compare the two?
San Jose was the country to the archdiocese. At the time [he became bishop here] I thought it was close to what I’m used to. But once I was here I realized it has a face of its own, it’s not just another face of San Francisco. We have old families here, married into each other, so there’s very deep roots here. In San Francisco there was some of that, it’s a big huge cosmopolitan city, but there were a lot of people that you got to know and then they’re gone. Some of that happens here but not so much.

I could never understand why the priests that were assigned here never wanted to go back to San Francisco. But now I love the Valley. I know this sounds weird, the Valley is only 59 miles south of San Francisco, but in reality I don’t go back unless it’s for meetings. I’m very settled here. I thought from the very first moment that this was a good fit for me, San Jose. I knew a lot of the people, and a lot of the priests as well.

What was it like becoming Bishop here?

I started out as coadjutor. And Pierre [DuMaine, first bishop of San Jose] was and is very supportive of me. We discussed everything. We sometimes did not agree, sometimes I did things and it turned out they were wrong. But he never threw it up in my face, told me 'I told you so.'

I like to form a plan, even though plans change. I like to have some kind of a trajectory. So [as a diocese] we developed a pastoral plan—who are we, how do we want to be seen in these valleys. We took three years. They came up with four hundred things. We destroyed primeval forests of butcher paper.

I asked them to reduce it to a few pastoral issues and organizational issues. They came up with: a church where all are welcome; a church not afraid to dream; a church that answers the real questions that real people are asking rather than questions that no one is asking.

And for organizational issues, a concern with youth and young adults—where are they and if they ever talk about us what do they say; lay ministry—we have the Institute of Leadership and Ministry set up by Pierre, training people to be parish leaders in a three year process; and the church’s social teaching. That was the one that surprised me—it wasn’t just handing out clothes and the sandwiches, which is very important. People wanted to know what the church’s teaching on social justice is. So we’ve been trying to answer that in various ways.

(If you're interested in reading the Diocese of San Jose's pastoral plan, it can be found here.)

It’s a living plan: we’ve also added the church’s liturgy and Catholic education. Like everyone, we’re challenged in our schools. I believe strongly that for any Catholic kid who wants to go to a Catholic school, money should not be an obstacle. We have a program called the Drexel Initiative, in which seven of our schools are banded together under one organization. It’s a blended learning model [which uses technology and advanced content to make students’ learning experiences more flexible and personalized]. The pastors are involved and should be, but they don’t do the day to day running of the school. There were schools that were hurting, and others that were not. The goal is to get all 29 schools under that model.

Also, the more I thought about it and prayed about it the more I realized, unless you have money you can do nothing. So we went out on an endowment campaign for one hundred million dollars. Of course with my Irish luck, the moment I started this the bottom felt out of the market. Billionaires became millionaires.

But people stuck to their pledges. We started the Catholic Community Foundation of Santa Clara County. It has thirteen members -- I appoint six and they appoint seven. And the reason for the Foundation is so that the money raised would not be used for any lawsuit. We wanted the money to go where the people intended it to go. And I wanted to save it from me and my successors. If I want a swimming pool in my backyard, I have to raise my own money. Same with my successor. Having a Foundation makes the money as secure as we think as you can possibly make it.

Was anyone nervous about giving diocesan money over to a board to control?

I didn’t see it as a major risk or leap into the abyss. We’re all in this together. If there was ever a rogue board, there’s a way in the bylaws to deal with that.  But I thought it was better to make it a separate foundation. And they’re already giving out money.

How would you describe your diocese?

This diocese is only one county—there’s only four dioceses like that in the United States. So when you talk about the lines of our diocese, it’s Santa Clara [County]. That was the big debate at the start of the diocese—do you call it the Diocese of Santa Clara or the Diocese of San Jose?

And there are not manmade or natural obstacles to get from one part of the diocese to the other. In San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge is beautiful, but it can take all day to get to Marin, etc. The area of our one county here is only a couple miles smaller than the archdiocese, but our diocese is compact, it’s a very compact place. You can move around easily. 

The other great thing I’d say is how blessed we are in the people, the religious and the clergy here. We believe we have 650,000 Catholics out of a population of two million. It might be a lot bigger with the undocumented people. And I see myself here as the conductor of the orchestra. They’re all out there playing hopefully in harmony. Every now and then there’s a discordant note and I have to tap the baton and say listen, get on the score.

It’s a new diocese, and it’s important to be in conversation with the people. That’s why I love Francis. I did not dislike Benedict, I liked him a lot actually. He was the most gracious person I ever met, both as Cardinal Ratzinger and as Benedict XVI.

But Pope Francis, I met him in September just for a few minutes, and he was the most extraordinary ordinary person. He slaps you on the back. The others were nice, but there’s something about this man. You can see it when you look in his eyes: this guy’s no push over, this man is strong. I felt like I was talking to another bishop, which he is; but I was also aware that I was talking to the pope. He’s very with you when he’s with you. And he met all kinds of bishops that day, but I think each bishop felt the same, that you were the most important person in the world when he met you.

I love the church, I love the people. I wish there were some relief that could be given to the people in difficult situations, a tangible welcome, not a perfunctory “You’re not all bad.” You’re not just part of the periphery of the family; you’re a part of the family and you’re welcome to the table.

How would you say the church in the West relates to the larger USCCB?

In the past our nation was divided north and south politically. Now it has divided ecclesiastically east and west. I don’t mean that as a pejorative thing; our vision of Church is just different east and west.

I think [in the West] we’re more connected with the people. For example: a Harvard University class took our pastoral plan on as a study. For the final class they asked me to be there. And one student said, “Bishop, this is a revolutionary plan you have.”  And I thought, What the heck is revolutionary in this plan? Will I be getting a letter from Rome?

So at the end I asked her to explain herself a little better: What made this revolutionary? And she said, You asked the people. And I was stunned. How could you come up with a pastoral plan and not ask the people?  And she said, Oh, in my diocese the plan would be worked on by the diocese and then given back to us.

That would never enter our mind here. You’d never even think of that. The church here is very hands on. “Revolutionary”: that was her word.

I’ve served on some USCCB committees in the past. I don’t run for anything now. We do get some people elected out here, but not much. One election that was very disappointing to me was when Bishop Kicanas [of Tucson] was the Vice President of the Conference and he was not made the President. There was all kinds of caucusing. I found it disingenuous. And he was from here, and they put in Cardinal Dolan. As a Westerner I felt that it was a little slap in the face, that someone who’s close to our side of the country gets passed off. Now he’s a very gracious man and he dealt with it, but....

From the floor of the conference you can see it. We’re always polite to each other, and I think that’s very important, but we have major differences.

The ones that were really great were [Chicago Cardinal Joseph] Bernardin and [San Francisco Archbishop] Quinn. I remember when there would be war on the floor, people would come up to myself and Carlos Sevilla [then Auxiliary Bishop of San Francisco] and ask, Is John going to say anything? I don’t know how he could do this, but John could take all the disparate opinions, tie them in a little bow and we could go home. We were very proud of the fact that he was president of the Conference. Bernardin had the same kind of gift for that.

Another, an Easterner, Wilton Gregory [of Atlanta], we’re classmates from Rome days, he was president of the conference at a terrible time. And everyone’s great at Monday morning quarterbacking, but I thought he did a great job.

There are differences east and west, but we respect each other. I think it’s lame to talk in terms of conservative and liberal; I don’t think we’re different in the fundamentals. But it’s up to the individual to decide what truly matters. 

The bottom line to me would be kindness, compassion. I would prefer to be judged that I was too kind than to be judged that I was too rigid. The canon law would not be the major focus of my interest; my interest would be how I would be able to serve better, how are we able to help people with their relationship with God.

And even as I say that, I don’t have all the answers. I think that’s something you work out every day.

In your opinion, what do the people of the diocese want?

They want a church that’s welcoming and understanding. All families have their concerns and they want their concerns to be addressed in a human way by the church. Parents love their kids, and they want their kids to practice. And sometimes [when the kids don’t practice any more] they ask, What did I do wrong. I say, You didn’t do anything wrong. We have to make it a church where those kids would be welcomed back.

I think it’s a simple thing with the people: they want the church to be relevant. That doesn’t mean you agree with everything that comes down the pike, but it means you do look at everything that comes down the pike, and then you ask how do we work together and still remain faithful to the deposit of faith. How do we present it in such a way that we won’t be burdensome to people, that in fact they will feel helped, rather than turned off or rejected.

Actually, it’s relatively easy if you listen to the people. I don’t think they’re asking extraordinary things. But I do think they’re asking for a church that is welcoming to all. Many families have gay kids that they rightly love and respect and some of them are in lifelong relationships. And I think it’s very hard to dislike people let alone to hate them when you get to know them. So my thing is, let’s get to know them better. Then we’ll all be better prepared to deal with the different challenges that arise in normal, daily life.

It’s not Einstein. We didn’t invent the wheel. There are all kinds of things that we can do; just don’t be harsh to people. There are some that are; I don’t think that is a Christian virtue. Be truthful, but speak the truth with kindness, don’t just beat people over the head.

Or at times to say nothing, just keep your mouth shut—I think that can be a virtue too. If you’re going to condemn people I think it might be easier to keep your mouths shut.

There are people who are ideologues—this is the way it should be and it has to be for everybody. I don’t think that’s true. I think there’s a broader spectrum way of looking at things. I think you have to respect the conscience of people. As we know from school, even an erroneous conscience has its rights.

It’s the whole idea of gradualism—meet people where they are and then walk the journey with them or they with you. We’re all on the same road. We all of us have our idiosyncrasies. Be able to recognize that fact, an I think you’ll have a lot more humanity and be a lot more simpatico. The challenges that we face ourselves as priests, they’re not that much different than the challenges that lay people face. And it’s good to keep in mind the idea that we’re all in this together, and most of the time hopefully rowing in the same direction and not rowing around in an circle.

When I’m talking to my seminarians, I try to imagine them standing outside a church on Sunday, talking to people. If they can’t do that, they can’t be a priest for the Diocese of San Jose.

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