The Rev. Charles Ritter has an unusual temporary job.
Less than two weeks ago, he became the diocesan administrator for the Catholic Diocese of Toledo, the priest filling in as head of northwest Ohio’s diocese until Pope Francis appoints a new bishop. Toledo’s bishop for 10 years, the Most Rev. Leonard Blair, was named archbishop of Hartford, and took his seat there Dec. 16.
The interim job could be as short as three months or as long as 18 months.
“I think for all sorts of reasons it is helpful for the diocese to have the interim period be as short as possible,” Father Ritter said. “It’s not as though the diocese needs a discernment period to decide what kind of bishop to call, which of course would delight a lot of people, and it would have some pluses and some minuses, but it doesn’t work that way. A new bishop is going to be sent to us, so why don’t you go ahead and send him quickly so we can find out who he is and get used to hearing the frequency on which he broadcasts and go from there?”
In the meantime, Father Ritter isn’t the acting bishop, and he gets no ring or special vestments. Instead, “The role is administrator, and so that implies keeping the mechanisms going,” Father Ritter said. “No innovation” is the actual command. “I think the folks out in the parishes and the pastors see it as also there’s a pastoral dimension.” Besides keeping up with the paperwork, Father Ritter will give some moral leadership until a new bishop is appointed.
He will fill in on some dates that were on Bishop Blair’s calendar, including “an event going on with the black Catholic community in Lima, and there’s going to be a new church dedicated out at Oregon.”
Still a pastor
And, to the best of his ability with the added demands, Father Ritter will keep ministering in his regular assignment, as associate pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Sylvania.
Because the crosier is only figurative for his role, he resists the label of shepherd. He prefers to walk alongside rather than lead, he said, and that’s demonstrated by the choice he stated in his initial news conference Dec. 19 to rely on the College of Consultors, a body that advises the bishop and chooses the diocesan administrator, to meet frequently so he would not make the biggest decisions alone. Father Ritter is one of the consultors, which might have contributed to the selection process taking only about three hours.
Father Ritter knows the lay of the land. He has led urban and rural parishes and had a 10-year stint in the diocesan office as director of the social justice office. He also knows the area geographically from serving in the pastorate at large and small churches, including 15 years at St. Patrick Parish in Bryan and driving back roads early in his career to minister to migrant farm workers in Sandusky County and elsewhere.
The diocese “covers 19 counties,” Father Ritter said. “I know there’s at times a sense that if you’re in Van Wert or Mansfield or Vermilion, does Toledo know we exist? And I think part of my job is to say, ‘Of course we do, and you’re just as important as Blessed Sacrament or the cathedral or St. Joe in Sylvania.’ ”
It is more than the distance from Toledo, he said. “The nature of the thing changes. In Bryan, the town, the parish, the school system went sort of coterminous and so you’d run into parish people in all sorts of places. Whereas here in Toledo, you have a large parish where people literally live all over the metropolitan area, shop all over the metropolitan area, and so how people connect is different.”
Parishes are not all the same, and the parishes and diocesan offices, or curia, also have different perspectives. When he started as associate pastor at Most Blessed Sacrament in Toledo after leaving the social justice office, he said, in the first week, “It just really struck me that that’s a whole different dynamic out here in the parishes,” he said. “I knew that but tended to forget it downtown. Downtown, it’s about programs, it’s about goals, it’s about direction. In parishes, it’s about the schedule and it’s about specific, distinct, individual people. It’s the couple coming in this afternoon that want to get married, or I’ve got to get over to the hospital sometime, or we’re changing the morning Mass on Thursday. ... There’s a concreteness, a specific to, say, the next 24 hours, that was simply not the perspective downtown.”
With those perspectives known, Father Ritter said, “I think the diocese is in healthy condition for an organization of human beings. There’s lots of good things going on. The diocesan life basically takes place at the level of local parishes and schools. That’s out where the folks are. We’re dealing with all the normal things in society as a whole: The employment situation is still not good; health-care concerns; everybody’s worried about that. It’s Christmas, where everybody is hoping that ... there’s money to deal with January and February. So we’ve got probably the same amount of folks that are in a crunch as a lot of places, as any other churches would.
About the transition
“I think, religiously, certainly the transition thing, there’s always the ‘Gee, what will the new bishop be like? Will he be about where Bishop Blair was, a little to the right, a little to the left?’ And you simply don’t know until the new bishop is there. My sense is that the pastors, the priests of the diocese, are a pretty positive group of guys. We kind of tend to think of ourselves as survivors, with ‘We did that and it was great,’ ‘We did that and it bombed,’ and ‘We did this but we’re still here and we’ll be up tomorrow morning and going at it again.’ ”
The administrator also watches over the Catholic school system. “Long-term, we’ve had a major commitment to Catholic education, and I think we do it well,” Father Ritter said. “I think we do it very well.”
Father Ritter was born in Toledo; his father was Lutheran and his mother Catholic (and a grandfather was a pressman for the former Toledo Times). He attended Roosevelt Elementary and Robinson Junior High before entering Central Catholic High School and graduating in 1959.
He started college at Xavier University, and two years later he transferred to Mount Mary Seminary and began formal studies for the priesthood. His first assignment as pastor, rather than associate, was at St. Mary in Leipsic, where his predecessor was the Rev. Bill Richter, and then after Father Ritter left, the Rev. Mike Ricker took over. That “got confusing for the people … It took them years to sort that out.”
47 years as a priest
Father Ritter has been a priest 47 years and, at age 71, is the last active priest of those with whom he was ordained. Though eligible for retirement, after taking sabbatical time in Jerusalem in 2010, he indicated interest in serving as associate at St. Joseph alongside its pastor, Msgr. Dennis Metzger, with whom he had served at Most Blessed Sacrament. He found that, perhaps not coincidentally, some personnel shuffles were made and Bishop Blair assigned him to St. Joseph. “I walked in, Monsignor hands me the keys, and says, ‘Here. Go to work.’ He doesn’t have to spend six months walking the new kid around and showing him where to find things. So I think we were both happy with it. I think we both continue to enjoy working together; I know I do.”
Father Ritter is not easily labeled in terms of his theology. He said that his extensive work in social justice “would tend to make people think, aha, one of the liberals. Well, OK, if that means liberal, it’s liberal.” But, he added, “It is the basic job of the church, whether I’m the associate pastor or pastor or the diocesan administrator, to be faithful to the handed-on deposit of faith. I just described a conservative.”
He quoted a priest friend as saying, “All parishes are inherently conservative; it’s their job.” Father Ritter said, “It’s not like I have to get up on Monday morning and recreate the message; the message is there. So I think theologically I’m fairly middle of the road.”
On that road, he gives pastoral care. For people who are hurting, including victims of abuse by priests — which he recognizes has not completely gone away, though the Church has taken many measures to address its crimes and other violations — it is “basic to the Gospel as the Christian community understands it: You respond to people that are hurting. How you respond, how you’re able to respond, how you choose to respond, whether you always choose to or are able to respond in exactly the way that the hurting person would like, that’s a very broad perspective. ... For starters, you have to listen, you have to genuinely care, you have to ask the question, ‘OK, what can we do to alleviate the hurt?’ And, you know, there may be one, may be multiple answers to that.
“Balance and prudence aren’t always the virtues that the human community is really good at,” he said, “so we keep working at it. We keep working at it.”
His work, for now, is to keep the diocese in balance.
Contact TK Barger at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6278, or on Twitter @TK_Barger.