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Shocked by Bishop Holley’s Forced Retirement


Installed in October 19 of 2016, Bishop Holley generated controversy soon after arriving in Memphis when he ordered the transfer of about 75 percent of the diocese’s pastors, an unprecedented move. The Diocese of Memphis has about 65,000 Catholics and 42 parishes. There was no set policy on assignment times when Bishop Holley arrived and many had spent inordinately long periods in certain parishes, accruing strong followings. Successful pastors at the more lucrative parishes were also frequently allowed certain autonomy. Bishop Holley wanted to impose a policy that was followed in the Archdiocese of Washington. Bishop Holley decided to appoint pastors for six-year terms, with a possible renewal of the term for six more years.

As a response to the change, it was subsequently reported that morale among priests was low, and that parish collections and contributions to the annual diocesan appeal had declined significantly. Many parishioners became very vocal and labeled the bishop as unresponsive. Parishioners followed pastors to new assignments and left their prior churches.  It was said that as many as a quarter of one church’s membership defected.  Others stopped attending entirely.  The Holy See sent Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta and Archbishop Bernard Hebda of St. Paul-Minneapolis to visit and respond to the complaints. They met with as many as 50 priests and disgruntled laity of the Memphis Diocese during their visit.

The verdict came out on October 24, 2018 with Pope Francis removing Bishop Martin Holley from the pastoral governance of the diocese of Memphis, Tennessee. The Pope has named as apostolic administrator, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky. Archbishop Kurtz stated: “I humbly accept the appointment of our Holy Father, Pope Francis, to serve as the apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Memphis, while remaining archbishop of Louisville. I am eager to work with the priests, curia and faithful of the Diocese of Memphis to promote stability, peace and healing until Pope Francis appoints a new bishop.”

What message does this removal send? Can parishioners make so much noise about the transfer of priests that bishops can get sanctioned and removed? This is ridiculous. There must be more to this. Bishops have the authority to assign their priests and to close and consolidate parishes and schools, especially if they are failing. It seems he did all this. Where is his crime demanding dismissal? One parishioner noted: “Bishop Holley doesn’t kowtow to the powers that be here. There’s a lot of people who really love Bishop Holley. He’s a really holy man. He doesn’t pander to egos. The majority is really thankful he moved the pastors around. It was past due.”

The impression is given that the USCCB and the Holy Father capitulated to financial blackmail from laity manipulated by a few disobedient clergy angry about their transfers. I suspect that Bishop Holley saw the seeds for such a dangerous situation (threatening trusteeism) and decided to break it up, supposing that the Holy See would support him. [Very few of the pastors gave television news interviews and I suspect that most of the presbyterate were good men hurt by the transfers but unable themselves to reign in the forces of upset and retaliation around them.]

As for the school closures, we are told that they had exhausted available funds and that few if any of the children were Catholic. While we seek to help the poor of any denomination, we must not do so at the expense of the needs and faith formation of our own children.

It seems to me that Bishop Holley essentially followed patterns he witnessed in the Archdiocese of Washington where pastors are given six year assignments (renewable) and where the Inner City Consortium was necessarily reduced in size and scope. As far as I can recall canonical regulations about “immovable pastors” do not exist in the current Code of Canon Law. This may be cause for many other bishops to be fearful, as such a move by the Pope over administrative matters is virtually unprecedented.

The visitation from two archbishops and the papal sanction signals the end of episcopal sovereignty from the intrusive authority of bishops’ conferences. Indeed, the Pope as the bishop of Rome has traditionally respected the governance of other bishops within their (arch)dioceses as long as the faith and morals of the Church were promoted. This is no longer insured.

Bishop Holley is known to be a shepherd faithful to Church teaching and devotion. While centered on the Eucharist, he has personally witnessed to a deep devotion to the Blessed Mother and daily says his rosary. He is a dear friend and I was told that his intervention here in Washington made possible my current assignment. He remains a bishop and as one of our Lord’s priests, I pray that he will be permitted to continue in ministering the sacraments and Christ’s healing mercy to others. Knowing him as a personable and caring person, I cannot help but feel that those who derided him were the ones who closed the doors to friendship and failed to give him a real chance to make a positive difference in Memphis.

I am deeply distressed by his removal by the Pope. He is a man deeply concerned about the faith, needs and rights of all of God’s children. I cannot help but think that there has been a terrible misjudgment and injustice committed in his regard. Whatever has happened, he remains in my prayers and in my heart.



No matter where one might stand in the Church, the bishop is right that there must be due process and a legitimate transparency. We damage our own moral authority if we do not proceed in a manner that ensures fairness and justice (for all parties).

9 Responses

  1. Let me clarify what I said about priest transfers as a mechanism for covering up for abusers. I was referring to my suspicions about the motivation behind beginning and spreading this practice, which seems to me to be of recent vintage. I was not referring to good bishops who engage in it because it now seems to be the norm all over. I maintain that it conduces to the purpose of covering up abusers, even if particular bishops are not trying to cover up abusers.

    FATHER JOE: I think all we can say is that certain bishops reassigned men who should have been reported to authorities and suspended from ministry.

  2. First, I’d like to put in my $.02 about transferring pastors. I do not agree that temporary assignments for pastors is a good thing. Number one, I think it is part of the world’s denigration of fathers and fatherhood. Family, not bureaucracy, is supposed to be the model of the Church and a parish; but the constant transfer of pastors turns it into a family with an endless parade of stepfathers — just like the sort of situation many children are forced to grow up in today. It is not a recipe for stability. Number two, it empowers a lay cabal in the parish office, that needs only to wait out any priest it doesn’t like. Number three, it makes it easier to cover up for clerical abusers: if they’re all moving around, it’s harder to see who the bad apples are. It is my personal belief that covering up for abusers is the primary purpose of shifting pastors around. I doubt that permanent assignments are the root cause of cults of personality. If we in the Church were really worried about cults of personality, we wouldn’t have adopted an Order of Mass that allows priests the freedom to celebrate it however they want, and imprint their own peculiar stamp on it (and I do mean peculiar), and by extension, feel free to do the same with the Sacraments. All of this, rather than permanent assignments, fosters the perception among the laity that it is the priest, not Christ, who is the center of parish life.

    Second, I am very sorry to see a devout bishop being yanked from his diocese without due process, especially when nothing is done about bishops who are less than conscientious about seeking first the Kingdom of God. Autocracy seems to be a hallmark of this pontificate. It is one of the many things that sours me on the men in the hierarchy, in whom my trust and confidence are as low now as they’ve ever been. It’s a good thing they are not the be-all-and-end-all, even if they think they are.


    Bishop Holley had seven priests retiring. Move seven men and then they also must be replaced. The issue is one where the movement cascades. Depending on the parishes, you need capable and experienced priests as pastors. That is why typically a pastor’s assignments become more important or the parishes to which he is sent are larger and/or have schools. The bishop must oversee the needs of an entire diocese and that trumps the wants of any one parish.

    I can sympathize with what you say about fatherhood. A good pastor feels very deeply for those in his immediate charge. However, his fatherhood is not absolutely localized. He is to care for souls where ever he is assigned or needed. There is no constant parade of stepfathers as we are all adopted sons and daughters of the almighty Father. The ministry of the priest (any priest) makes this paternal guidance and nurturing present. The priest will make many friends in a parish; however, as a sharer in the one priesthood of Christ, his primary duty is to care for the flock. He offers the Mass and absolves sins. He insures the effectiveness of the sacraments and gives compassion and hope to the sick and dying. Priests are told early on not to imagine that they are irreplaceable. The faces change but the work is the same. The stability is in the faith and the patterns of service. Parishes endure but priests come and go. It is patterned after Christ who said, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head” (Luke 9:58).

    You grievously wrong good bishops and priests in associating the transfers and assignments of priests as primarily an effort to hide abusers. As for cults of personality, they are quite real… often among celebrity clergy and among dissenters. There is an infamous parish in Baltimore that had a pastor who defied the archbishop in his open acceptance and celebration of homosexuality. Left too long, he had molded the parish in his own image.

    Traditional or faithful priests may dialogue for reconsideration of a move; however, they remember their pledge of obedience to the bishop and his successors. Again, the posture of a good priest is the same as Christ’s, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).

    As for the Mass, I believe that is a separate matter altogether. The traditional posture did, as you say, emphasize any one priest as every priest and all priests share in the one priesthood of Christ. But that is a topic beyond the pale of this discussion. The point here is that Bishop Holley cites pastoral necessity as the reason why he needed to reassign priests and to close failing schools with a non-Catholic population. He had limited financial resources and few priests. He sought to make the best use of what was available. It was his judgment call to make. That is why his removal remains a very perplexing mystery.

  3. Hi Fr. Joe-for some reason the video was taken down from EWTN website but I found it here. (make a copy-it may get taken down too!)


  4. Monsignor has not performed an exorcism in over 13 years. People don’t even understand the rite of exorcism. He lived on God’s providence and few benefactors. Monsignor had holes in his shoes and clothing that was mended. When he did retreats and pilgrimages he would pass on the cost and trust in God’s providence to care for him… just to save one soul. I have seen people give him change. My point here is the good people of God are being used by the evil one to propagate a lie. For the life of me I can’t understand why anyone would say or do this to a brother priest. Forgive me for my loud tone here. I can’t take the lies any longer against holy men trying to defend the faith and to save souls. I have 6 children, one currently in seminary, and I can’t imagine that one day my son will be treated this way by brother priests and the so-called faithful. Mary Queen of Heaven pray for us!

  5. Who is Msgr. Clement Machado?

    It was reported online that concerns about the priest Clement Machado (previously of SOLT) triggered the official investigation into the upset of certain clergy and parishes in the Memphis diocese. Msgr. Clement J. Machado came from outside the diocese and was appointed Vicar General, Moderator of the Curia and Chancellor by the bishop. He was released of his duties shortly after the investigation to continue his studies. Did he have some role in what happened to Bishop Holley? I am still perplexed because regardless as to advisers, a bishop has authority to transfer his priests and to close parishes and schools that are no longer financially tenable.

    This immediate topic aside, it must be admitted that Msgr. Machado seems a bit unusual or unconventional. He attests that the Blessed Mother first visited him when he was eleven years old and showed him visions of heaven and hell. This shocked his faith into high gear and he experienced a calling to be a priest. When he was ordained in Montreal, he reports that St. Patrick came to him with the command, “Go and free my people.” Trained in Rome as an Exorcist, he has preached on Catholic radio and EWTN television. He traveled the country giving retreats and missions.

    Speaking of his priesthood and the work he does, he states:

    “The Lord wants to heal people and heal relationships and help people overcome the pressures of society. God is really there close to them, and you can discover God working through the sacraments, the liturgy, and communal prayer as well as individual prayer. Sometimes people have forgotten, and it helps to hear it again from a fresh perspective.”

    A few years ago the USCCB issued a MONITUM about the priest while he was still ministering as a SOLT missionary, the same order as that of Father Corapi. There was some concern about a possible lack of authorization about exorcisms. However, his messages on EWTN seem quite orthodox.

    Many of us are struggling to make sense of the situation in Memphis. It may be that too many are quick to find scapegoats. Given the tense situation, after his studies it will be difficult for Msgr. Machado to return to the diocese. I would hope that the Church will find a place for this man of God to serve and that other priests will welcome him as their brother. None of us are perfect, but the grace of Christ can bring healing and unity. We should keep him in prayer just as many of us continue to pray for Bishop Holley and the faithful of Memphis.

  6. Thank you so much for writing this! I have lived in Memphis my whole life, and I was more than grateful when Bishop Holley was assigned to be our new bishop. We had prayed so long for a good bishop and God sent him to us. I was impressed with him from the first time I met him and then when he said Mass, his reverence for Jesus in the Eucharist touched my soul deeply. I knew this man knew what he was about.

    I am devastated about him being basically thrown out as our bishop, and you are right there was a group of disgruntled people, including some priests, who were determined to make this happen and they did it. I have never heard of a bishop being forced to retire from a diocese in my whole life. If people with money or even people who are unhappy can arrange for a bishop to be removed, what on earth is happening to our Church? Are we Protestant now? It is a terrible precedent for the future. i am still in shock that this has happened and we are losing him.

    I have loved Bishop Holley from the beginning. He is a good,holy, kind and compassionate man. My heart hurts so much for him and the pain the people in the Memphis diocese have caused him. He did not deserve to be treated the way that he was. I hope he can forgive them and know that not everyone here hated him. Many of us loved him and we are extremely sad to see him have to leave. I know that God and His Blessed Mother will be with Bishop Holley, take care of him and give him the peace that he needs. We have lost a lot by losing him.

  7. I live the in the Diocese of Memphis and I really appreciate your post, Father. I, too am shocked and heartbroken (not to mention – confused) with what is going on. I know little to nothing about what all has transpired since Bishop Holley’s arrival in Memphis, but my observation is that there was resistance from many since Day 1. While I don’t know Bishop Holley, I do appreciate the changes (small changes, as well as big changes) that he has implemented and I will keep him in my prayers.

    Thank you, again.

  8. Thank you for this, Father. I am a Memphis parishioner and am saddened by this whole affair. May Our Lady come to the aid of her devoted son.

  9. With all respect to the Pope and his Bishops, if the Bishop is consolidating parishes or closing schools for lack or money or Catholics in a certain area, I understand, but what would be the reason for moving a priest from one parish to another, or switching priests between two parishes especially if both the priest and his parishioners are satisfied with the current assignment? Why a term of only 6 years, why not a lifetime assignment?

    On your blog I see that you have been at your current parish 11(?) years. Are you expecting to be moved soon? Is this what you want, or does the priests’ opinion on a parish/school assignment not need to be considered by the Bishop? Isn’t a priest more effective if he is happy/fulfilled by his assignment? (Conversely, is a priest allowed to request a change of assignment if he is not happy with his parish/school/etc?)

    No criticism of anyone at all intended. Just curious.

    P.S. I hope things work out for your friend, Bishop Holley.

    FATHER JOE: A priest might not like a transfer but the ultimate decision remains with the bishop. It is an element of our priestly obedience. Bishops can make exceptions but the rule makes it easier to move the men. Indeed, I was only seven months at St. Peter’s in Waldorf and fourteen months at St. Thomas More. I would like to stay longer at my current assignment but the final decision is not mine (and neither does it belong to parishioners). There have been some parishes where a cult of personality made clergy very popular and dangerously autonomous. Clergy should urge unity and faithfulness to their bishops. Campaigns by parishioners should be deterred by the pastors, themselves. Priests function with the faculties given them by their Ordinaries. They are extensions of his ministry in an (arch)diocese.

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