In Praise of the Gopher Tortoise
I enjoy watching the gopher tortoises on Sanibel. When viewed from a distance, they move across the grass at a surprisingly swift pace. They stop to eat worms, beetles, weeds, berries, anything they encounter. They are not picky, content to destroy anything that they run into with great disdain. Gopher tortoises are omnivores. They move along boldly with self-assurance as kings of their domains, carefree and oblivious to other species or events taking place in their environment.
Once in a while, however, I encounter a gopher tortoise walking across the road. Its speed seems slow, and its step tentative. Perhaps it is out of its domain and feels vulnerable. A couple of times, I have gotten out of my car to pick up a tortoise crossing the road and move it to the side. As it is being approached, the tortoise will quickly draw in its head and feet, becoming a fully armored creature. The contrast between the bold confidence with which it crosses the grass, and its swift retreat into the confines of its hard, nearly impenetrable shell is striking. When unable to be the master of lawns, caterpillars, grubs, and snails, the gopher tortoise hides under its dome, isolated from aspects of the world that it views as threatening.
I am struck by the similarity between the gopher tortoise and Bishop Frank Dewane of the Diocese of Venice in Florida, which includes the island of Sanibel. Bishop Dewane gives the appearance of being a bold leader. He sends off missives to government officials advising them to be charitable and to act with justice. He has a section on his diocesan website showing him to be “out and about.” He thrives on supportive news stories and photo ops that he is able to generate. He is in charge: reading to children, presiding at graduation Masses, flashing a brief smile, meeting Pope Francis. On occasions, he sends off cards to people in the diocese expressing that he cares for them, hoping to win esteem and confidence. Experience indicates that in the same way the gopher tortoise sees nourishment when presiding over its domain, Bishop Dewane sees financial opportunities when presiding over the people of his diocese. Bishop Dewane, too, is an omnivore. He exploits the rich, the poor, priests, laity, anyone whom he encounters when parading across his domain whom he deems to be a target to be taken advantage of to provide him with money, power, or prestige. That deceptive smile hides a voracious appetite.
At times, also, Bishop Dewane finds himself in territory where he cannot preside, cannot manipulate an individual. As a gopher tortoise hides under his shell, Bishop Dewane hides under his skull cap and miter. Letters from the faithful that ask sincere questions about faith and justice are ignored as he adjusts his skull cap to provide coverage meant to convey authority. Questions about his leadership built on bullying, temper, and deceit simply evoke an adjustment of the pectoral cross, a reach for his crozier, and a careful placement of the miter on his head to ensure that its coverage will radiate height, strength, and impenetrability. One so adorned should indeed be exempt from dealing with mere laity. He is safe.
A gopher tortoise hides for preservation, it seems that Bishop Dewane hides as well. Although the tortoise is nobly trying to protect its life, Bishop Dewane is only interested in his image and prestige. Which one is doing a better job of following God’s plan?