Melinda Henneberger writes about politics and culture for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter: @MelindaDC.
Some members of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Mount Carmel, Ill., dare to hope that Pope Francis can save their parish after an awfully rough couple of years.
Their beloved longtime pastor was forced out by the bishop in the summer of 2012 for improvising prayers during Mass. Just when things were settling down, his successor announced that he had met someone and was leaving the priesthood to “explore a relationship” with her. For now, the bishop has appointed a newly ordained deacon to run the parish — except the deacon has been married four times, and not everyone at St. Mary’s, the parish where I grew up, is comfortable with that.
“We feel if we can get through to the pope, we’ll get it cleared up,” said Jim Pohl, an usher at St. Mary’s who also tends to the flowers and funeral dinners there. “He’s got a lot of problems everywhere in the world. But “we know he would help us if he knew.”
For structural as much as practical reasons, the bishop of Rome is probably not going to involve himself in the workings of a parish in a town of 7,000 on a bluff overlooking the Wabash River. But the challenges facing St. Mary’s are the same issues Francis and his global flock of 1.2 billion are up against: the fights over liturgy, the isolation that can accompany priestly celibacy, the shortage of vocations to the priesthood in rich nations and, most of all, questions about divorce and remarriage.
That Catholics have such faith in Francis is a tribute to his ability to make people across the planet feel the warmth of the embrace he gave a disfigured man in St. Peter’s Square last November. But most of the challenges in Rome, Mount Carmel and everywhere in between play out locally, where the bishops are firmly in charge. They are the men with the greatest power to shape the day-to-day experience of Catholicism. And because more than half of the roughly 5,000 bishops in the world were chosen during John Paul II’s 26-year pontificate — including 143 of the 253 active bishops in the United States — it’s still very much John Paul’s church, led by men in his mold, and will be for years to come.
That’s certainly the case at St. Mary’s, a 150-year-old community of German farmers and townsfolk that’s come apart in the past 18 months. After Father Bill Rowe was ousted for straying from the approved Missal and his successor, Father Trevor Murry, got up at a Saturday evening Mass — and every Mass the next day — to announce he was leaving the priesthood after a dozen years, the bishop of Belleville, Edward Braxton, had to find someone to run the parish. His choice of Deacon Steve Lowe, who had openly derided Rowe as insufficiently orthodox despite his own multiple marriages, has struck some members as hypocritical.
“How can I look up to [Lowe] when he’s been married three or four times?” asks the 78-year-old Pohl. “How can I go to church with him up there?” His voice cracks when he considers the alternative. “I’ve been a Catholic all my life.”
What seems to bother parishioners most is the apparent capriciousness of kicking one guy out for praising Jesus at the wrong moment, then installing as his replacement someone whose chief credential seems to be his loyalty to the bishop. In a parish of 450 families, attendance at weekend Masses has slipped from a couple hundred to mere dozens. Rod Paille, a lifelong parishioner who owns a vitamin shop just a couple of blocks from St. Mary’s, has stopped going to Mass but still attends a weekly Bible study that Father Bill has led for many years — but that he must now hold in the basement of the local Lutheran church. “So many people are leaving,” Paille says. “It’s a sad situation.”
And one Francis is unlikely to take on, either by firing the bishop or the deacon. Power in the Catholic Church is far more diffuse than generally understood; despite all the focus on Rome, most local decisions are made by local bishops, who are only rarely removed, whether for heresy, financial misconduct or on moral grounds. Even if Braxton, who oversees 116 parishes in Southern Illinois, is so unpopular that a majority of his priests signed a petition urging him to resign in 2008, the church is not a democracy.
It simply isn’t organized to deal with modern personnel problems, either, says Tom Reese, a Jesuit priest and senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter. “Our structure was created to deal with princes and nobles,” he said, “and the only way you can get rid of princes and nobles is by poisoning them.” (And no, he doesn’t recommend it.)
“But,” he asks, “do we really want [Francis] acting like a CEO with the bishops as branch managers?” He wouldn’t have wanted such concentration of power under more-conservative popes, Reese said.
Francis is trying to address the problems felt so keenly in parish communities, where both the Gospel and the grievances are lived out, but change in the church comes slowly, largely through the pope’s example and through the apppointments he’ll make over time. This October, church leaders will meet in Rome to discuss a range of family matters, including divorce. Recently, Francis preached with great compassion about failed marriages, even calling divorce a “misfortune” that should evoke caring rather than denunciation.
When a marriage fails, we must “accompany those people who have had this failure in their love,’’ the pope said. “Do not condemn; walk with them.”
Deacon Lowe clearly does feel condemned for his multiple marriages, and he returns the sentiment: “They want to do nothing but piss and moan,’’ Lowe said of his new flock, adding that only about one in five parishioners, by his reckoning, are “stepping up instead of stepping away” at this time of crisis. Bringing up his marital history, he says, just shows how out of sync with Francis his critics are.
“Yes, I’ve been married four times, but only once in the church,’’ meaning that the first three marriages were not considered sacramental unions. Lowe, who worked in a tool factory that closed down more than a decade ago and now has a car-detailing business, has been married to one woman for the past 20 years; she was married to another St. Mary’s parishioner when they met but later obtained an annulment. (Right or wrong, there’s a widespread impression among Catholics that annulments, which are granted on the diocesan level, depend more on favoritism than facts.)
“I am trying my damndest” to hold St. Mary’s together, Lowe said, despite his suspicion that “there’s a certain percentage of people looking for an excuse not to go to Mass.”
On the contrary, what’s so poignant to me is how much his unhappy flock does yearn to be in those pews. “My great-grandfather and grandmother and aunt have their names on the windows’’ of St. Mary’s, built in 1900, says another lifelong parishioner, Clare Kidd. “It’s our church.”
That is true, of course, whether or not our family names are etched in stained glass. It is our church. And in the end it will be up to us, and not just Pope Francis, to fix it.
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