While some see the situation at the parish of St. Stephen’s in South Minneapolis as a crisis, others see it as an opportunity to embody the reform and renewal so desperately needed in the Church. It’s an opportunity that many members of the parish have seized upon in their decision to leave and establish the Spirit of St. Stephen’s Catholic Community.
The faith community that I worship with every Sunday, the Spirit of St. Stephen’s Catholic Community, was mentioned today in a rather choppily written piece by Jon Tevlin in the Star Tribune.
Tevlin writes about growing up opposite the parish of St. Stephen’s in South Minneapolis, and the current crisis and opportunity that the parish is facing given last year’s mass exodus of parishioners in response to the chancery’s order that the parish conform its various liturgies to the rubrics of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM).
As I note in a previous Wild Reed post, I’m sure that for many Catholic parishes, the rubrics of GIRM serve well to express and reflect their faith and community life. Yet over the course of 40 years, St. Stephen’s had developed its liturgy in ways that reflected the presence of the Spirit as discerned in the unique gifts and needs of its members and in their shared life together.
This development was a very intentional and faith-filled embodiment of the Second Vatican Council’s call for “full and active participation” of the laity in “liturgical celebrations” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 1963). Yet many now feel that, in one fell swoop, this embodiment – along with the Spirit that nurtured and inspired it – was discounted by the chancery’s demand that it be abandoned for the rubrics of GIRM.
Those who left St. Stephen’s, myself included, have formed the Spirit of St. Stephen’s Catholic Community. We gather every Sunday morning at Park House (which, ironically, is owned by the archdiocese) to “share and break open the Word” and to celebrate the Eucharist. Attendance on any given Sunday is always around 200. Partly for this reason, we’re currently in negotiations to move to a larger space.
It was during the time of the chancery’s directive to the parish and the subsequent exodus of parishioners, that a new pastor, Rev. Joseph Williams, was appointed to St. Stephen’s. Tevlin’s commentary, in large part, focuses on how the 34-year-old Williams is dealing with the situation at St. Stephen’s. In doing so, Tevlin misses a great opportunity to explore and discuss the bigger, underlying issues at play here:
How is church understood by the various players?
Can conflicting models of church be discerned in all of this?
How do these differing models understand the mission of the church?
In determining this mission, what should be our inspiration and guide?
From my perspective, this “inspiration and guide” should be the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. It was a life and ministry that was all about two interrelated and quite revolutionary things: 1) God’s loving presence in our lives, here and now; and 2) liberation from oppressive forces and limiting mindsets that prevent us from recognizing and embodying this presence, and living lives of consciousness and compassion, i.e., that “abundant life” that Jesus invites all to participate in. (And, of course, intrinsic to all of this is the radical hospitality of Jesus that is reflective of God’s extravagant welcome to all.)
The question now becomes: which model of church – the chancery’s or the Spirit of St. Stephen’s – best embodies Jesus’ life and ministry?
Is it possible that aspects of both models can have a role to play in this embodiment?
How best can we come together to dialogue and discern these aspects and roles?
Exploring these types of questions would make for a compelling article, don’t you think?
Anyway, below is Tevlin’s column in its entirety (accompanied by a few of my own observations and thoughts), followed by some further reflections of mine on this situation.
“We’re Taking on Water,”
and New Priest Knows He Can’t Walk on It
By Jon Tevlin
February 15, 2009
Father Joseph Williams came “from the farm to the hood” less than a year ago, to a congregation in a spiritual crisis and a neighborhood riddled with poverty and crime. He is only 34, but as he sits in a low-ceilinged office in the basement of St. Stephen’s Catholic Church, it seems like the weight of the 110-year-old structure, and the centuries-old institution itself, sit squarely on his shoulders.
When Williams arrived in April, there were 350 families at the church, maybe more. On a recent Sunday, during the only remaining mass in English, coughs echoed off the empty pews as a couple of dozen people mumbled through the service.
That’s it, he said.
The rest have fled, or just given up.
Williams, under the direction of a new pope and new archbishop, has steered one of the country’s most liberal churches in a more orthodox direction. No more services in the “egalitarian” school gym. No more laity saying mass or celebrating the eucharist. No more prayers to “our father and mother in heaven.”
The collection plate is down 90 percent. This spring, the priest who not long ago led a congregation in an idyllic small town, will tell the charter school known for a peace-and-justice curriculum that it must go because the church needs more rent.
Williams – smart, witty and likable – talks about providence, his faith that God is directing this drama. But when asked if the congregation could continue if it did not grow, he frowns.
“No,” he said. “We’re taking on water.”
Former St. Stephen’s priest Ed Flahavan says that two tsunamis have hit the church, which towers over the Whittier and Phillips neighborhood a half-mile from downtown Minneapolis. The first was in 1968, bringing with it the flotsam of the era.
I lived across the street, was an altar boy and graduated from the Catholic grade school. My first job was cleaning up the basement, where homeless people crashed on floor mats. I saw the first guitar mass, the start of the American Indian Movement and gay rights. We sang Bob Dylan songs instead of hymns. Except the answer, my friend, was living in all men.
In protest, the traditionalists handed out fliers, Defenders’ Trumpet, saying things had gone crazy. I sometimes had to squeeze through picket lines to serve mass, as barriers to worship came down, or went up, depending on your view.
Eventually, the church stopped being the center of the neighborhood, which crumbled. A man was killed in my back yard. The fourplex where I grew up became a crack house after my parents fled to Staples, seeking a different kind of sanctuary.
The second tsunami hit last winter, exactly 40 years later. Henry Bromelkamp was in the forefront of the new exodus, starting an offshoot called “The Spirit of St. Stephens” when the parish turned back to tradition.
Bromelkamp personally likes Williams, “but I think he thought what St. Stephen’s did for the poor was charity,” he said. “It’s a demand for justice, not just for the poor, but for all of us. Hierarchy acts like the route to God is only through its hierarchy. That doesn’t make us believe it.”
The new priest thought there was “no opposition between a shared liturgy and a radical passion for social services. Maybe I was naively optimistic to that end,” Williams said. “I began to realize the anger with the institution was deeper than I thought. They didn’t see that people were hurt by the liberties taken with the liturgy.” What people? The cranks who came and secretly took photos during liturgies so as to run to the chancery and report “abuses”?
“Some people said I was hand-picked by the bishops to dismantle the church,” he continued. “If I was, they didn’t tell me about it.” Whose ever decision it was to send the young Williams to St. Stephen’s, it was an irresponsible and misguided one. Look, I’ve met Williams and he is, as Tevlin notes, a “smart, witty, and likable” guy, but the situation at St. Stephen’s needed a more experienced individual. Then again, given the determination of Archbishop Nienstedt to “reign in” the parish, it would have taken quite a wise and courageous individual to attempt to argue the case that the liturgy that had developed at St. Stephen’s was the work of the Spirit, and that Catholicism should be broad enough and strong enough to handle diversity of this kind.
Dennis McGrath, spokesman for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, is firm on that question: “Absolutely not.”
While McGrath has seen lots of rifts inside churches, “I can’t think of another situation like this. It’s not a conservative or liberal issue, though that’s part of it, it’s a question of the veracity of the church.” Actually, I think it’s all about differing understandings of church and what it means to be Catholic. Does being a Catholic mean unquestioning obedience to rubrics and to every utterance of the hierarchy? Or is it about viewing and engaging the world in a profoundly loving and sacramental way – a way that seeks and discerns God in ever new and unexpected places? Is the church a static entity, with revelation over and done with? Or is it possible to hold onto certain foundational traditions while still being open to God’s ongoing revelation in the lives and relationships of all? These are the crucial questions at the heart of what's going on at St. Stephen’s and in parishes across the globe.
“We knew we were drifting across the line,” Flahavan said. “Some who left kept going. They left Rome.”
I left the church, in both senses of the word, years ago. [Okay, just so you know,this is the author talking now, not Flahavan. The first time I read it, I thought this paragraph was a continuation of Flahaven’s remarks in the preceding paragraph.] I followed the prophets that seemed to speak to me at the time, whether it was Sartre, Rand or Hunter S. Thompson. My own Church of One. Unlike those who recently left, however, I never expected the church to come with me.
“This is more than I bargained for,” admits Williams, who again mentions providence.
He sees promise in the new influx of immigrants (Williams is fluent in Spanish) who can rejuvenate St. Stephen’s as the Irish did decades ago: “Lovely people.”
“While there is a sense of loss, there is also great hope for renewal,” Williams said. “Our doors are open.” From my perspective, the “great hope for renewal” that Williams refers to is being realized at the Spirit of St. Stephen’s Catholic Community.
– Jon Tevlin
Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
February 15, 2009
Friends, here are a few more of my thoughts on this situation: As I said in my October 5, 2008 homily at the Spirit of St. Stephen’s Catholic Community, I’m convinced that if there’s any hope for the Catholic Church to be a sacrament of God’s unconditional love for all, it’s to be found within the myriad of “intentional faith” communities springing up throughout Catholicism – Spirit of St. Stephen’s in Minneapolis, St. Mary’s in Brisbane, Australia, Spiritus Christi Church in Rochester, New York, etc. – and within the various Catholic organizations and coalitions calling for renewal and reform.
What do these communities and organizations all have in common? They have moved, in a sense, to the periphery of the tradition and thus to a place where their members can be open to the Spirit beyond the life-denying clericalism and doctrinal fundamentalism that dominate and control the center.
I take great courage and hope in what theologian Leonardo Boff has to say about the periphery. He writes that: “It is on the periphery where life flourishes in all its exuberance and as a challenge, [it’s on the periphery] where those who hope and live at the margin of all organization, find the necessary soil for the creativity and emergence of what is new and not yet taught.” (1)
Using St. Francis of Assisi as an example, Boff observes that “the periphery is where the great prophets arise, where the reforming movements are born, and where the Spirit flourishes. The periphery possesses a theological privilege, because it is there that the Son of God was born.” (2)
I believe Christ continues to be born in the lives, relationships, and faith communities that find themselves, either by choice or by force, on the periphery. In this current time of crisis and opportunity within the Church, it’s no longer only women and gay people living and prophesizing from this holy place, but anyone and everyone who recognizes that the hallmark of our Catholic faith is not rigid adherence to church doctrine but the seeking and embodying of compassion and justice within the context of a pilgrim church still very much growing into truth.
1-2. Boff, Leonardo. Francis of Assisi: A Model for Human Liberation (Orbis Books, 2006), p. 101.
Following are a sample of the comments that have been left on the Star Tribune website in response to Joe Tevlin’s column.
Sagewoman writes: For many people since the 1960’s, St. Stephen’s was the “Church of Last Resort,” a Catholic Church that kept all the vitality of Vatican II and inspired its members to act for justice, within the Church and outside it. Unquestionably its liturgies “crossed the line” of liturgical rules; unquestionably, those liturgies grew out of forty years of community prayer and seeking God’s will. Unquestionably, Archbishops Roach and Flynn knew exactly how liturgies were performed at St. Stephen’s, and apparently weren’t sufficiently worried about our souls or our creating scandal to do anything about it. I believe that Father Joseph is a good and sincere man, doing what he thinks is right. I think he and others in the hierarchy “have gotten it wrong,” but I can still have compassion for him and respect him and pray for him. I feel the same energy from Father Joseph. He cares about us and respects our doing what we feel is right, while being very clear that he thinks we “have gotten it wrong” and I am sure he prays for us. I only wish that those Catholic “conservatives” who are so sure they have the Truth that they can condemn others in letters to the editor and blogs could have some respect and compassion for those who believe they are following their God’s will and consider that we may be acting on our consciences.
Bill writes: The Catholic Church holds that the Pope is STILL infallible when he speaks on matters of core doctrine. But he is not infallible in day-to-day life; that is, he is not impeccable. As for the Church changing, I find that the Church is returning to its roots after its disastrous 40-year romance with modernity, and I say, not a moment too soon. Most of the younger priests I’ve seen in the past ten years are far more conservative than the flower-child, anything-goes hippie priests who were ordained in the 1960s and 1970s (no, not every priest ordained in the 1960s or 70s was like that). They will soon be gone and the Church will be better for it. As far as social justice is concerned, the Church is in favor if it; they just mean something different by it than radicals such as [those] mentioned in [this] story. As for inclusion/exclusion, the church includes everyone but those who are defiant of its teachings in a public way, and these people are always welcome back if they repent. It does this so that its followers develop an understanding that a person cannot behave however he wishes and still get to Heaven. (For those who don’t believe Jesus ever spoke about sinners ending up in Hell, please read one of the Gospels. It takes less time than you think.)
A Spirit of St. Stephen’s member writes: St. Stephen’s new driving force, the hierarchy, is driving a once vibrant parish, one of many I believe that truly took the gospel of justice in action seriously (which is why I gravitated to it 20 years ago), right into the ground. All this for the sake of not God’s truth but for an idea of that truth held to veraciously by a bunch of men in Rome who are no longer listening to God speaking through God’s people. It is the typical path of any institution that grows large – the rules that it needs to operate well become an end unto themselves and everyone forgets what it was all for in the first place. Eventually it either finds a way to evolve or it dies. And one can easily see this one is dying. Funny you didn’t even mention that the Spirit of St. Stephen’s community that marched out on that cold day last Winter is a 300+ member strong and vibrant community only a few blocks away. And we have come to learn that there are many communities just like us around the nation that have been forced to declare their independence. You say, fine, don’t let the door hit you on the way out because you’re not truly catholic, but your words are starting to bounce against the walls of an empty sanctuary. When will you decide that your rules might be the problem and you should start listening again to what God might be telling you in all this?
Joe writes: I believe that this had to happen. Things had gone way off course. I certainly believe the causes and feelings for the most part were Catholic. But you can’t just decide your going to make up your own rules and expect the Church to be able to bend to that extent. It is very sad, a failure that hurts all. But, it is never to late to rally back and be one with Jesus again.
Denis writes: My sense is that [Father Joseph Williams] wants to be a good pastor and that ideology is not his focus. Unfortunately the Church is judged by the very public actions of the hierarchy. Rewarding Bernard Law with a plush assignment in Rome when he disgraced himself and scandalized the world is bad enough. But for the Pope to take a week to recognize that welcoming a Holocaust denier back to the Church (and then only after a Lutheran, Chancellor Merkel, forced his hand) establishes beyond any reasonable debate that the institutional church has abandoned all moral sense in favor of an institutional ideology. The tens of thousands of good priests have their work undone by the hierarchy’s disposition to ignore the needs of the flock in favor of the needs of the shepherd’s association. “Jesus wept.”
Modesta26 writes: Fr. Willaims and Deacon Ruby, Thank you for your dedication to the Church. Thank you for providing the Sacraments to us. Thank you for your courage, may the Good Lord grant you perseverance and reward you greatly for your dedication to Him. Keep up the good work. God Bless you.
Tom writes: I don’t want to argue with Fr. Joseph when he says, “They didn’t see that people were hurt by the liberties taken with the liturgy.” But I will say that the actions taken by the archdiocese ignored the tremendous amount of healing that I saw at St. Stephen’s in the 26 years I attended mass there. People found healing in our liturgies and these people, working for social justice as demanded by the gospel, worked to bring healing to the neighborhood and our city. The Catholic Church managed just fine during the 40 years our liturgy evolved at St. Stephen’s. The new archbishop took a different path from his two predecessors, and reacted with power instead of healing. His actions have hurt both the parish and the greater Church.
And finally, in a letter-to-the-editor published on February 18, Richard Cousins writes: In his Feb. 15 column about St. Stephen’s Parish, Jon Tevlin wrote compassionately about the demise of the parish under the leadership of the Rev. Joseph Williams. As a former parishioner, I was glad that the greater community could learn a bit about what had happened at St. Stephen’s. Williams was quoted in the article: “They [former St. Stephen’s parishioners] didn’t see that people were hurt by the liberties taken with the liturgy.” What Williams fails to admit, however, is that he did not come to minister to the congregation of St. Stephens but to end these “liberties” and bring St. Stephen’s in line with the more regressive inclinations of the current hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. Williams was an agent of change in the dismantling of a vibrant faith community, regardless of his age or admitted naivety.
See also the previous Wild Reed post:
• Dispatches from the Periphery
• The Shrinking Catholic Tent
• The “Underground Church”
• A “Catholic Moment” in Brisbane
• What It Means to Be Catholic
• “The Real Battle”
• Choosing to Stay
• Thoughts on Authority and Fidelity
• The Holarchical Church: Not a Pyramid But a Web of Relationships
• Benedict’s Understanding of Church
• Clearing Away the Debris
Images: Michael Bayly (with the exception of the photograph of Joseph Williams at St. Stephen’s, which is by Star Tribune photographer Carlos Gonzalez).
“We Are the Church” Banner: Anne C. Brink.