A new controversy between progressive parishioners and their conservative pastor and bishop has erupted in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Arlington, this time at the Holy Spirit Church in Annandale.
An ad hoc group of parishioners has charged that their priest of one year, Msgr. Richard J. Burke, has fired both the elected parish council and the liturgy committee, destroyed "meaningful lay participation" and trampled reforms incorporated into parish life since its founding.
Burke, who has the backing of Arlington Bishop Thomas J. Welsh, has insisted that he has acted within his rights as pastor and therefore head of the parish; that the "dissension" and "disruption" involve only a small minority of parishioners.
Since the dispute erupted last month, a number of members have rallied to Burke's support. No one can say precisely how sentiment lies in the 2,000-family parish since no vote has been taken. But the dissenters gathered 540 signatures to a Statement of Concern. Msgr. Burke did not return phone calls soliciting his view of the controversy.
In retrospect, the conflict seems to have been inevitable.
Holy Spirit, founded in 1964 and staffed until last year by the Missionhurst Fathers, was considered one of the most progressive parishes in Northern Virginia in its implementation of many of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council of nearly 20 years ago, including the mandate for "shared responsibility" between lay Catholics and their priests in the running of their church.
The Diocese of Arlington, on the other hand, in the eight years since it was spun off from what had been the state-wide Richmond diocese, has gained a reputation as one of the most conservative jurisdictions in the American church.
For most of those eight years, Burke was diocesan chancellor and an aide to Welsh. His period of service encompassed a long and bitter dispute at Good Shepherd parish, which like Holy Spirit, had a tradition of deep involvement of lay members in every aspect of parish life.
The Good Shepherd situation exploded barely a month after Welsh became bishop in 1974, when the new pastor he assigned to the progressive parish near Mount Vernon began curbing lay participation and disbanded the parish council. Determined parishioners waged a five-year battle that reached all the way to Rome. Ultimately a new pastor, more hospitable to the Vatican Council reforms, was assigned.
Burke was assigned to Holy Spirit a year ago, when the Missionhurst order withdrew to devote its resources to mission work in rural areas of the state.
Some parishioners, who appreciated what they widely refer to as the "Vatican II style" of Holy Spirit under the Missionhurst priests, were apprehensive, recalled John Fitzpatrick, a lawyer who has been a member since 1965. "But I said, 'Hey, whoa. Give the guy a chance. Help him. Work with him.' "
The parish council at Holy Spirit was one of the first to be formed in the area. Its guidelines were approved by the bishop of Richmond before the Arlington diocese was formed. Lay members were elected to the council by their neighbors, with the pastor at the head; meetings were open to anyone from the parish who wanted to attend.
Under the two Missionhurst priests who headed the parish before Burke, "There never was a time when the pastor had to say to the parish council , 'Hey, I'm pastor here; we're going to do it this way,' " said Fitzpatrick.
Celeste Kearney, a member of the liturgy committee, charged that "from the moment Burke walked in, he stated that it was his parish, not ours."
As any new priest would, Burke began making changes. Some were purely stylistic, others more substantial.
* He cut from the church's budget a contribution of nearly $7,000 that the comfortable suburban church had traditionally given to inner-city charities.
* He dismissed the church's professional director of liturgy and music and announced to the liturgy committee that the position no longer existed.
* In the section of the mass when prayers are offered for the souls of relatives of parishioners who had died, Burke ordered parish lectors to read only the name of the deceased and not indicate the parish member to whom he or she was related.
* He removed an extraordinary minister--a lay person who assists in distributing holy communion--who was separated, but not divorced, asserting that only exemplary Catholics could be extraordinary ministers.
What upset some members was that in contrast to the previous priest, Burke made unilateral decisions on matters previously within the purview of parish committees.
"His style was: 'I've decided this is what we're going to do,' " said Kearney of the new pastor's dealings with the liturgy committee. "I've always been so proud, felt so blessed that we were treated as adults in this parish, and suddenly we were treated like children," she said.
Both Kearney and Rick Rouck, head of the now-defunct parish council, interviewed independently, said the pastor had told committee members seeking to discuss matters with him: "If you don't like the way I'm running this parish I suggest you find some other way to serve your church."
He told the parish council, which had sought to intervene with the bishop on behalf of the liturgy committee, that the guidelines under which the council had operated for 16 years were "contrary to diocesan policy," and therefore "inoperative." "He treated us with such disdain," said Rouck.
In place of the parish council, Burke established a parish advisory board, made up of the heads of the major organizations of the parish.
The new board meets behind closed doors; parishioners must get permission from Burke to attend the meetings.
This past spring, several months after the elected parish council was dismissed, an unofficial group of parishioners calling themselves the Committee of Concern developed a one-page Statement of Concern.
The statement, detailing the decline of meaningful lay participation, maintains that Burke "has made it increasingly clear that he considers the parish to be his alone, and that the laity's role is to accept his unilateral decisions. Increasingly we speak, but are not heard; we hurt, but are not comforted."
Working without membership lists, the group collected 540 signatures, then wrote Burke asking for an appointment to discuss its concern over parish life. Burke replied with a letter to cochairman Edward Conway Jr., declining to meet with the group, explaining that "for the greater part of eight to nine months I have attended innumerable meetings of all shapes and sizes" listening "to lay participants on all occasions."
At the same time, Burke printed in the parish newspaper an "Open Letter To Parishioners" criticizing the Statement of Concern--which was not carried in the paper--and charging both the liturgy committee and the parish council with attempting to exceed their authority as lay groups.
The group then sought an audience with Bishop Welsh and was again rebuffed. Welsh's response, which indicated that he had "also heard from quite a few parishioners who are delighted with Msgr. Burke," was also printed in the parish newspaper. Welsh's letter, addressed solely to Conway and making no mention of the more than 500 who had signed the Statement of Concern, advised him to stop complaining and "rejoin the team," adding, "I am sure your good example would be edifying, especially to the young people . . . ."
Ellen McCloskey, Welsh's communications director, said "the bishop has been receiving letters of support" but that he would not release the names of any of the correspondents to "protect their privacy." But she added, "I was down there at Holy Spirit a couple weeks ago for the parish picnic and everything was fine."
McCloskey also said that the bishop "is not opposed to a meeting" with the Committee of Concern at this point; that one of the reasons he turned down the earlier meeting was that he was busy.
Col. Roy Belli, a member of Holy Spirit since 1974, believes the majority of parishioners are behind Burke. The issue, he said, is not a question of churchmanship but of power. The members of the Committe of Concern, he said, "were the 'ins' formerly and they are now the 'outs.' They want to get back their power."
Committee members vehemently deny that. So does Roy Miliograno Jr., head of the parish young adults group and a member of the new parish advisory board. He called the new board "kind of sad . . . it's a coffee hour, really" with no real issues to deal with.
The pastor wants lay participation "only to the extent that it serves his ideas," said Miliograno, who called the experience "very degrading . . . You take two or three hours out of your time because you're interested, then you sit through a lot of nonsense ."
Belli said that when the controversy broke open earlier this month, he went to Burke with an offer to circulate petitions of support, but the pastor turned him down. "His approach," said Belli, "is to just answer the mail from the dissidents and let the thing die out."