Catholic priest’s traditionalist changes face resistance from progressive Cincinnati parish

September 16, 2020

 

Parishioners at St. Anthony’s Church in the Madisonville neighborhood are used to being asked why they do the things they do.

Why do they play African drums and clap to gospel music at a Catholic Mass? Why do they stand for the entire service? Why do dancers in white dresses and colorful sashes lead the procession into church?

For years, they’ve given the same answer to all those questions.

“It’s the St. Anthony way,” said Gloria Parker-Martin, a parishioner there for 25 years.

But now the way is changing, and so is one of Cincinnati’s most diverse and progressive Catholic parishes. The arrival of a pastor with a more traditional approach has brought a new way of doing things that has riled some parishioners and divided St. Anthony’s congregation.

The changes at St. Anthony’s are part of a broader debate in the American church over the role regular Catholics, or lay Catholics, should play in the day-to-day operation of their parishes.

But they also have ignited an intensely personal fight over what it means to be a religious community and what it means to be Catholic.

At St. Anthony’s, the community has for years been guided by the belief that lay Catholics can and should be empowered to do important work in the parish, including, at times, work typically left to priests.

“The way we did it meant a lot to me,” said Kay Brogle, a parishioner for 30 years. “What it becomes, we don’t know. But it isn’t what it was.”

Disagreements between pastors and their flocks are neither rare nor unique to Catholics, but what’s happening at St. Anthony’s isn’t a typical disagreement.

Since arriving in 2016, St. Anthony’s pastor, the Rev. Jamie Weber, changed several long-time practices at the church, replaced the elected parish council with his own appointees and removed dissenters from the choir and the list of Sunday lectors.

Some parishioners, meanwhile, challenged Weber’s decisions, sometimes openly in church, and aired their grievances last month in a half-page ad in the Cincinnati Enquirer declaring they’d lost their parish to an “authoritarian model of church leadership.”

Everyone involved has said they’ve acted with the best intentions, but the divide runs deep. Meetings in the past year with a private mediator and with Archbishop Dennis Schnurr both failed to bridge the gap.

The way forward for St. Anthony’s isn’t clear. Those who worship in the red brick church at the corner of Desmond and Chapman streets say they know their parish is changing, whether they like it or not.

They just aren’t sure how far that change will go and what, exactly, “the St. Anthony way” will mean in the years to come.

“Clearly, the way things used to be, with a lot of lay involvement and consultative leadership, that’s going away,” said Malachi Lawrence, a St. Anthony’s parishioner for 50 years and the newly appointed chair of the parish council.

“My job is to do what I can to heal the parish.”

Looking for a shepherd, ‘not a dictator’

Not long ago, few at St. Anthony’s would have guessed such a job would be necessary.

For decades, the parish had operated with more autonomy than many Catholic parishes, in part because a priest shortage gave members little choice. Priests still presided over Sunday Mass, but they often had duties at other parishes, too.

St. Anthony’s roughly 200 families embraced the challenge of playing a larger role. They adopted gospel music and colorful altar cloths that reflected the heritage of the parish’s Black members, who make up between 10% and 20% of the congregation.

They instituted practices such as standing throughout Mass, hugging during the greeting and holding hands during the Our Father. They added African drums and liturgical dancers. They made social justice and racial equality a cornerstone of their mission.

And they encouraged the kind of clapping and singing during services that isn’t often seen in Catholic churches.

“When the spirit hits you, you move,” said Parker-Martin. “You don’t just sit there. You do something.”

Parker-Martin and others said they believed much of their work was sanctioned by the church through the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, which in the 1960s encouraged a larger role for lay Catholics.

But there are limits to those reforms, and conservative Catholics have pushed back over the years against changes they see as misinterpretations of Vatican II.

That larger battle came home to St. Anthony’s when Weber arrived four years ago. Already the pastor at St. Cecilia, a larger and more traditional parish in Oakley, Weber was put in charge of an eastern region that included St. Anthony’s. He soon began making changes he believed were more in line with church teaching.

Weber declined comment, but Archbishop Schnurr said in a statement the pastor has his support.

The pastor relieved Parker-Martin of her duties as church decorator and replaced the African-themed altar cloth with one similar to those used in other Catholic churches. He disbanded the elected parish council after concluding it was not acting as the “consultative body” required by the church. And he instructed parishioners to kneel, as most Catholics do, after the Profession of Faith and during the prayers before Holy Communion.

Other changes were more subtle – the introduction of religious statues and imagery, for example – but the cumulative effect was to erode the culture some parishioners spent years building at St. Anthony’s.

Parker-Martin, who is Black, said she’s particularly concerned about the church’s long-term commitment to diversity and social justice. While American Catholics are a diverse group, with Hispanics making up one-third of the population, Blacks account for just 3% of the total.

The old way of doing things at St. Anthony’s ensured Black voices were heard, Parker-Martin said, but she fears those voices could be silenced with less lay involvement.

“Now it’s more structural, or hierarchical,” she said of the new decision-making process. “That causes conflict in a parish. People are looking for a shepherd, not a dictator.”

A private dispute goes public

The Catholic Church, however, is a structured, hierarchical institution. Its line of authority runs from the Pope to bishops to parish priests and its basic rules and teachings, including those governing the conduct of Mass, have been in place for some 2,000 years.

As Weber noted in a letter to the parish last week, Vatican II didn’t fundamentally change those rules or teachings, and only the church can interpret their meaning.

“There is no private interpretation of the second Vatican Council,” Weber wrote. “Some people do not understand the nature of the Church and some people do not accept the nature of the Church.”

In a statement, Archbishop Schnurr said he “fully supports” Weber. He did not say St. Anthony’s previous way of doing things violated church teachings, but he implied the changes Weber has made were necessary.

“The sacraments are a gift entrusted by Christ to the Church, not to any one individual or group,” Schnurr said. “They must always be celebrated in accord with the Church’s tradition and laws.”

It’s the job of priests, as spiritual leaders, to help Catholics understand those traditions and laws. Though he wouldn’t talk about it, Weber appears to have tried to do that with the dissenting parishioners. He met with them on several occasions and agreed to join them in mediation.

Brogle, who was among those dismissed from the parish council, said she believes both Weber and the parishioners made an honest effort. But in the end, she said, the pastor and the archdiocese rejected the “collegial model” that had worked in the past.

“When Father Jamie came, the model was very different,” Brogle said. “It was, ‘I’m the pastor and this is how it’s going to be.’ ”

Robert Ehrsam, a St. Anthony’s member for 30 years, said Weber’s patience with parishioners who objected to the changes grew increasingly thin over time. At one point, Ehrsam said, Weber accused him and other former parish council members of “doing the work of the devil.”

Brogle said the decision to publish the ad in The Enquirer in August was born of frustration. “We just kept running into brick walls,” she said.

The ad pulled no punches. Headlined a “Eulogy for Saint Anthony Catholic Church,” it was an open letter that claimed the parish’s commitment to diversity, inclusion and social justice was in danger.

“We have lost what we cherished for many years. We anticipate even further loss,” said the letter, which was signed by more than 50 current and former parishioners. “We now know it is time to say goodbye.”

Several who signed the letter, including Parker-Martin, said they aren’t leaving the church and were instead saying goodbye to the St. Anthony’s they used to know. But Weber, in his written response to parishioners a week later, seemed prepared to take them literally.

“Those who publicly disagreed with our mission and our evangelical direction have bid us good-bye,” the pastor wrote. “They should be in our prayers.”

According to several parishioners, Weber then removed anyone who signed the letter from the list of lectors and choir members, concluding it would be inappropriate for them to be in the church sanctuary. Neither Weber nor the archdiocese would comment on those moves, but parishioners say they were punitive.

“I tell people I’ve been fired from my volunteer job,” said Parker-Martin, a former lector.

Lawrence, the current parish council leader, said the ad created hard feelings among parishioners, including those who may have sympathized with the message but not the very public delivery of it. “We didn’t feel there was any healing from that,” he said of the ad.

Weber, in his response to the ad, described the fracture in the parish as a “sad and tragic scandal.”

The work of repairing that fracture has been complicated by the coronavirus pandemic, which has limited church attendance and activities. It won’t be clear if more change is coming and what it will look like until everyone can gather again at St. Anthony’s.

It’s also unclear who will be there when the church returns to a normal schedule. Brogle, who drives across town from College Hill to attend St. Anthony’s, said she’s considered looking for a new parish, as some others have done.

But after 30 years at St. Anthony’s, it’s difficult to let go.

“It’s a hard thing to start over,” she said.

 

Source: Catholic priest’s traditionalist changes face resistance from progressive Cincinnati parish - The Columbus Dispatch