The ‘Show-Me’ Prelate : Bishop Lives Up to Reputation for Taking a Hard Line Financially and Ecclesiastically

Times Staff Writer

The news brought more shock, really, than anger.

Like many U.S. Catholics, parishioners at St. Angela Merici in Brea had enjoyed a growing say in their church and school business. Young families, particularly, were drawn to the non-traditional practices there, such as the “Munchkin Mass” created by Sister Sarah Shrewsbury, the co-principal who has been described as “as popular as Mother Teresa, only family-oriented.”

Then suddenly last spring, memos announced that Sister Sarah had been told to leave. Her service of 18 years at the school was “way too long” in one place, in the eyes of Diocese of Orange Bishop Norman F. McFarland, who decided that Sister Sarah’s departure should coincide with the retirement of a longtime parish priest. Sister Sarah found out about it when she received a carbon copy of the letter suggesting her transfer.

Some parents wrote McFarland asking for at least an explanation. The letters went unanswered.


“It was impossible to answer them all,” said McFarland, unfazed by the protest. If he made any mistake, he said, it was in breaking protocol by notifying Sister Sarah at all.

Months later, the shock has subsided and Sister Sarah has a new job. But the incident seems to help explain some of the nicknames that followed McFarland to Orange County from his previous post in Reno. He is known variously as “Big Mac,” a 6-foot-5 truth-and-order authority; “Absolute Norm,” a Vatican loyalist who bluntly makes his opinions known, and “Stormin’ Norman,” a driven workaholic and a take-charge boss who makes subordinates toe the line both financially and ecclesiastically.

“He’s a tough-minded realist in an environment where you find a lot of idealists,” said Father Michael Harris, principal of the new Santa Margarita Catholic High School in Rancho Santa Margarita.

As a priest who means business, McFarland has won many admirers in his 20 months heading the diocese. For example, he sold $10.5 million worth of El Toro cemetery property to fund financial aid for Catholic high schools. The endowment fund is a first for the diocese, said Sister Kathryn Hennigan, principal of Rosary High School in Fullerton. “He has put his money where his mouth is. It’s wonderful.”


But others were accustomed to the participatory style of leadership of his soft-spoken predecessor, Bishop William Johnson, who died in 1986. Trained as a social worker, Johnson celebrated Christmas Mass at Orange County Jail, established the Department of Hispanic Ministries and in the last year of his life traveled in a wheelchair to the Nevada test site to protest the nuclear arms race.

They were disconcerted by McFarland’s early actions that seemed to be taken without discussion and in some cases left the bishop and his flock praying for one another.

For instance, McFarland has:

Forbidden a Santa Ana parish to use girls as altar servers.

Written articles defending the U.S. practice of stockpiling nuclear weapons as a deterrent to attack and defining women’s primary role as “a unique fount and nursery of love, the heart of the human family.”

Cut budgets, for the first time required monthly financial reporting from his 33 departments and tightened loan requirements for individual parishes.

Overseen final financing of the Santa Margarita Catholic High School with a “show-me” attitude that startled even his admirers.

When he arrived, the $25-million school was half-built and McFarland pressed its supporters to justify every new expense. “I’m used to someone saying, ‘Thank you,’ rather than ‘Dammit, show me,’ ” said developer and philanthropist Art Birtcher, co-chairman of the fund-raising campaign for the high school. “He’s probably one of the most challenging men that I’ve ever met.”


As the hierarchy’s top administrator, McFarland said: “I am the bottom line. The buck stops here.”

If he challenges people, he said, “I hope they’ll be challenged to good things.”

From his immaculate desk at Marywood, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange’s hilltop headquarters in Orange, Norman McFarland can look down on a portion of the 700,000 Catholics packed into the smoggy flatlands of his jurisdiction.

It is worlds away from the vast clarity of the Nevada desert he left nearly 2 years ago.

There, he cut a high profile as an opinionated prelate, opposing the Equal Rights Amendment and roaming the state on weekends to visit parishioners.

At 65, McFarland was planning his retirement and had even chosen his grave site in Reno when he got a telephone call telling him that the Pope had named him to replace Bishop Johnson, Orange County’s first and only permanent bishop.

Suddenly McFarland was catapulted into a complex, fast-paced, affluent society to head California’s second-largest diocese: a multimillion-dollar organization with seven times the staff and five times the flock.

In Orange County, he encountered a well-organized diocese with a burgeoning community of diverse believers: Nearly half the county’s Roman Catholics are Latino, many poor and traditional, while others, who compose the Catholic establishment, tend to be affluent and independent.


Raised in Martinez, educated at St. Joseph’s College Seminary in Mountain View and St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, all in the San Franciso Bay Area, McFarland obtained a doctorate in canon law at Catholic University of America in Washington. He was ordained as a priest of the Archdiocese of San Francisco 42 years ago.

Sent in 1974 to the Reno-Las Vegas Diocese as an apostolic administrator, he was credited with rescuing the diocese from a $5.7-million debt and near bankruptcy. He became bishop of the Reno-Las Vegas Diocese in 1976.

When he received his orders to go to Orange County, McFarland thought he was “past the time of change.” The mandatory retirement age for bishops is 75. “Maybe they figured 10 years is a good stint,” he now says.

At first, McFarland said, he was overwhelmed. A clean-desk style administrator, he was faced with one piled high with accumulated business.

Perhaps the most pressing issue he had inherited was Johnson’s vision of a new Catholic high school in south Orange County. It was a vision McFarland was not predisposed to share.

“He was challenging basic, inherent concepts before he bought into it,” Birtcher said.

“It wasn’t any kind of opposition at all, but I wanted to make sure we knew what we were doing and that we had the resources and that it was possible,” McFarland said.

Due to costs and the lack of teacher-priests, “no other Catholic school was under construction in the U.S. at the time, and hadn’t been for many years,” said Harris, the school’s principal.

Half of the school, whose cost had risen to more than $25 million, was to be paid for by the diocese (from Catholics countywide taxed in their parishes) and half by private fund raising.

“The bishop’s experience (in Nevada) did not jibe with the realities of Orange County--people willing to make financial investments, both Catholic and non-Catholic. It flew in the face of what’s happening in the nation. He said, ‘Show me,’ ” said Bob Sharp, fund-raising consultant for the high school.

Eventually, after a lull when “people sorted out loyalties and commitments,” Sharp said people raising money “rose to the challenge of show-me” and fulfilled all pledges this summer, including large contributions from non-Catholics, Sharp said.

The 2,000-student-capacity college preparatory school, in the instant town of Rancho Santa Margarita on the edge of the Cleveland National Forest, is considered a state-of-the-art high school. Tuition is $2,700 a year.

McFarland said he is pleased with the school and defended the financing system against criticism from those who believe that it forced the poor, mostly in the north county, to help build a high-tech school in the affluent south county.

McFarland applied the same “show-me” approach internally as he settled into his role as chief executive officer in charge of 52 parishes, with an annual operating budget of $17.5 million and a real estate portfolio comparable to that of a large shopping center developer.

“If a parish wants to build something, he’ll tell them, ‘I won’t give you permission until you show you’re capable of paying for it,’ ” said Lee Meyer, financial administrator of the diocese.

“I’m fiscally conservative in that way,” McFarland said. “I don’t want any parish or any group to bite off more than they can chew.”

The diocese serves as a financial middleman, loaning excess funds from some parishes at lower than normal interest rates to those who need money.

“I ask for two things,” McFarland said. “To demonstrate the need; and as a corollary, how your proposal would satisfy the need, and how you propose to finance it.

“I want any borrowing amortized, principal and interest, over a 10-year period.”

Pastors of several parishes whose plans were rejected at first are now scaling down their projects or coming up with more money down, finance director Meyer said.

In each case, he said, there was no “long-term bitterness.”

Father Timothy Dolan, a secretary at the Vatican’s diplomatic mission in Washington, said that in choosing a bishop, Pope John Paul II consulted nearly two dozen local Catholic lay leaders and clergy on the diocese’s needs and scores of others on qualities of specific candidates.

Pope John Paul’s appointments over the past decade show that he looks first of all for qualities of “piety and holiness,” followed by “skills in theology, men who are able to articulate very clearly and very cogently Catholic teaching, and men who are pastorally oriented,” Dolan said. “They have the talents to get along with people, open and approachable.

“Sometimes people might say, ‘We need someone attuned to the political and social situation, that you might keep in mind that the area has a reputation for conservatism,’ but it would be a general thing. There would never be a recommendation that you’d better appoint someone acceptable to the Republican Party,” Dolan said.

“I don’t know if it’s fair to say the Holy Father appointed a man known for his conservative viewpoint.”

Many, however, were pleased by the appointment.

“We like his conservative views. Those are things we believe in,” said Mary Muth, who along with her husband, Peter, both in their 70s, contributed to the high school.

Others, such as Father Wilbur Davis of St. Joseph’s Church in Santa Ana, appreciate the bishop’s forthrightness. “He’s up front, not unreasonable. He deals with immoral behavior and malfeasance of office directly.”

But some see a leader miring the community in anachronisms, preventing its flow toward inevitable change.

“He’s trying to turn the clock back to before Pope John XXIII,” complained Terrence Halloran, 53, of Garden Grove, a former priest now working as a computer programmer.

What bothered the protesting parents at St. Angela’s most was the perceived aloof, authoritarian manner of McFarland’s decision to remove Sister Sarah.

In response to changes occuring in some U.S. Catholic communities, the parish had built a strong lay board, allowed girl altar servers, and was using innovative programs such as the “Munchkin Mass” to draw young families to church. They felt the parish belonged to them.

“It is our parish,” said Steve Kasper, a film producer who lives in Carbon Canyon and has been a member of St. Angela’s for 3 years. “Some communications at least could be heard before the decision was made.”

Kasper and others felt the bishop had treated them like a parent treats a 4-year-old child, saying, “ ‘You must obey me on blind faith. I know what’s best.’ ”

Some parishioners at St. Barbara’s Roman Catholic Church in Santa Ana felt the same in September, 1987, when McFarland forbade the Rev. Richard Delahunty from admitting girls in a parish program training altar servers, who assist the priest in serving Mass. As a result, 10 girls were dropped from the program.

The Vatican had ruled against girl altar servers and it was a matter of discipline, McFarland said. “It happens to be right now what the liturgical rules are. . . . I know it is a legitimate authority; I do not go against it or the whole structure crashes down.”

But as far as Barbara Brown and her children were concerned, it was an injustice.

“We know other parishes and other states in this country where girls are allowed to serve on the altar. It isn’t uniform across the nation or across the world. It’s how you interpret the directive from Rome,” said Brown, a Fountain Valley council member whose daughter, Samantha, then 14, had been in the program for 2 years.

“One of the things we asked our pastor was, ‘Is there room for dialogue?’ He said, ‘There is no room for dialogue.’ ”

Now, Brown said, “all I’m going to do is pray until our bishop is enlightened.”

On the altar girl issue at St. Barbara’s, McFarland said: “There’s no dialogue possible. I hate to call a meeting to say I feel obligated by oath to follow the direction of the Holy Father.”

He said he feels sorry for the girls. “But there’s a principle here.”

A reason for disallowing altar girls is that their presence discourages boys from serving and that altar boys provide a much-needed pool for priests, McFarland said.

When girls approach him asking why they cannot be altar girls, he said he replies, “You know, dear, you’re so cute, they would look at you instead of at me.”

Also praying for the bishop is Anaheim peace activist Jackie Dudek, 54, who hopes to change his stance in support of nuclear deterrents.

“He said he was praying for us too.”

She recalled their conversation at a luncheon:

“He said, ‘Are you a pacifist?’

“I said, ‘I’m a person of nonviolence as Jesus was a person of nonviolence.’

“He said, ‘Jesus carried a whip.’

“And I said, ‘But he never used it.’

“It was a good exchange,” she recalled. “It was friendly. He got very loud, but he’s a very big, boisterous person, and I have a big-sized voice too.”

McFarland likens the world situation to a “rash of burglaries in my neighborhood. If I’m sick and tired of it, I go to the neighborhood gun store and bring home a pistol and wave it around and say, ‘Let anybody come into my home.’ So I don’t load it, but I hope anybody with an inclination to come into my bedroom and burglarize my house (will be deterred). I don’t tell them whether it’s loaded or not loaded.”

The analogy does not mean he approves of guns, however, he said.

Priests close to him say the bishop invites debate and is a voracious and eclectic reader of magazines, from Sports Illustrated to Architectural Digest.

He rises at 5:30 a.m., exercises on a stationary bicycle and rowing machine, then says Mass at the Holy Family Cathedral in Orange, within walking distance of the home he shares with Msgrs. John Sammon, Michael Driscoll and Father John Urell.

Most of his day, from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., is spent behind his desk at Marywood. Evenings, he reads magazines, dines with his roommates, then writes and reads until midnight.

On weekends, he visits parishes “to retain my sanity and to be with the people.” So far, he has visited half the county’s 52 parishes.

The bishop, say those close to him, is spiritual but does not always display his personal devotion publicly.

Many believe that his talents in administration tend to overshadow his spiritual qualities. But that is a mistaken impression, Art Birtcher said. “I have experienced many of his Masses, and his aura of spirituality and his strength as a priest are overwhelming.”

After nearly 2 years, Birtcher said, the diocese has become more cohesive, “now working as a unit rather than 52 separate city-states. Unless there is strong spiritual and managerial leadership, that’s what you would have.”

Said McFarland of his administrative role: “Most of my life is made up in administration. . . . It isn’t what I obviously would have chosen. It’s not what any priest chooses. But someone has to do it. . . .

“Administration is a good thing so that things can be done. What we’re doing here hopefully must serve the parishes. That’s where Catholic life is.

“If that’s the price I have to pay to be a priest, I’d do it all over again.”

His life has been based on his “absolute conviction, absolute faith,” McFarland said. “Nothing makes sense to me without God.”

McFarland is more comfortable now in Orange County. He knows his career will end here.

He has changed his cemetery plot from Reno to Holy Sepulcher Cemetery in Orange, where Bishop Johnson is buried.

When the time comes, he wants his epitaph to read, In Veritate Ambulare-- “He Walked in Truth.”

But it is at least one decision, the administrator said, that he will leave to others.


Here is where Bishop Norman F. McFarland stands on:

Equal Rights Amendment: He publicly opposed the amendment, which was defeated in 1982. “I think women should be more protected. I don’t see women fighting on the battlefield.”

Arms Control and Disarmament: Believes the use of strategic nuclear weapons is immoral, but stockpiling as a deterrent is morally acceptable. Boxing: Boxers are sinners since their goal is to physically harm someone.

Abortion and Birth Control: Opposes birth control devices and abortion under all circumstances. Created a memorial for aborted fetuses at Holy Sepulcher Cemetery in Orange and has urged priests to get training in post-abortion counseling.

Confirmation: Effective in 1989, raised the age of confirmation in the diocese from seventh-eighth grade to ninth-10th grade.

Altar girls: Banned them in line with Vatican policy as a matter of “discipline” even though they are not prohibited by church dogma. “I do not go against (Vatican authority) or the whole structure crashes down.”

Female priests: Does not envision the possibility ever, on the grounds that Jesus Christ did not appoint any women apostles. McFarland is known to oppose the customs of biblical times in other cases.

Immigration sweeps and sanctuary: Supports Immigration and Naturalization Service attempts to reform U.S. immigration policy, but drew the line when agents entered a church during Mass, calling the act “stupid and irresponsible.” Believes the church ought to help immigrants in need of food and shelter without checking their status.

“The Last Temptation of Christ”: Called the film “a premeditated cruelty that cannot be condoned by a shallow-brained appeal to First Amendment rights under the Constitution.”

What Society Needs: A decent respect for God. “I feel like a football coach whose team has been clobbered, who has to go out on Monday and say, ‘Gentlemen, let’s get back to basics: blocking, tackling.”

Source: Interviews with McFarland and his writings.