A packed congregation at the troubled Good Shepherd Roman Catholic parish near Mount Vernon gave an unprecedented standing ovation yesterday to their new pastor's dramatic appeal for reconciliation.
The Rev. Gerard Creedon told worshipers at all masses yesterday that he had been assigned there to resolve the difficulties that have divided the parish for nearly five years.
"Bishop (Thomas J.) Welsh sent me here with a mandate of reconciliation," said Creedon. After services, leaders of the differing factions within the parish were optimistic, for the first time, that they might be reunited.
Creedon made no attempt to gloss over any of the tensions, either within the parish itself or between the parish and the bishop.
"I was born and baptized in a village of North Cork . . . in a family of 14 children, so if you think you've earned how to fight, maybe I've something to teach you," he joked at the outset.
More seriously, he admonished the congregation that "it's time to give up creating barriers and walls and instead to build bridges." And he warned both the liberals and conservatives against the attitude that "God is speaking exclusively to you . . . There will never be peace as long as there is any dogmatics of the left or of the right."
The priest also called for commitment now to reconciliation. He urged members not "to sit on the wall and if things don't go right, it's off to (other parishes). I had that option too. The bishop did consult me (about coming to Good Shepherd). I could have said, 'I need Good Shepherd like a hole in the head.'"
Christians, he said, "can't afford to be haggling over our differences in a world that needs us."
There was a moment of silence at the conclusion of the homily and the congregation then broke into prolonged standing applause.
After the noon mass, parishioners stood in line for two hours to greet Creedon. As they waited, there were joyous and emotional embraces between parishioners who had been long separated by the dispute.
"I think he said what the people needed to hear," said Jack Flavin, a parishioner who has stayed with the church.
"It was very positive," said Paul Wyche, former chairman of a dissident group, as he greeted fellow parishioners he had not seen for a while. "I'm going to begin to work for reconciliation," he said.
Meg Danaher, a member who stayed with the parish and who yesterday helped distribute communion, said, "There's a different atmosphere here now, more joyful."
The crux of the dispute at Good Shepherd, which has reached the Vatican, is over the role lay members should play in church affairs. When Welsh became hishop of Arlington five years ago, he assigned a pastor to the parish who attempted to restrict decision-making roles that a previous pastor had encouraged.
Some church members citing the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, rebelled. The bishop backed the pastor and the battle was joined.
Ultimately several hundred families stopped attending Good Shepherd Church and formed Good Shepherd Community for Shared Responsibility to continue their fight. They organized what amounted to an alternative church within the parish, with programs of religious education, social action and their own masses.
Creedon, 35, is the fifth pastor assigned to Good Shepherd in as many years. His efforts nearly five years ago, while still an assistant pastor at another parish of the diocese, to bring about a reconciliation at Good Shepherd won him the good will of many parishioners there.
In his initial homily yesterday, Creedon sought to build on that good will with a mixture of challenge, pleading and admonition, laced together with self-depreciating humor and pungent Irish wit.
Danaher praised Creedon's call for reconciliation of different viewpoints within the parish. "That's the way a parish should be - big enough to embrace everyone," she said.
Jerry McMurry seemed to sum up the sentiment of many of those who left the Northern Virginia parish. "I came here this morning with a hard heart, but there is a whole new spirit here now," he said. "We've been in the wilderness for four years . . . I'm going to stop by the office in the morning to put my name on the membership rolls." CAPTION: Picture, The Rev. Gerard Creedon, left, pastor of Good Shepherd Church, talks with Mr. and Mrs. Paul Wyche after sermon appealing for an end to church dissension. By Joel Richardson - The Washington Post