All four of Oak Park’s Catholic parishes made headlines last year: St. Giles for a resolution of tension over the Family Mass, St. Catherine/St. Lucy for its diversity, Ascension for the controversy over its health care reform forum, and St. Edmund for placing anti-abortion signs on its lawn.

The notoriety has led some to speculate that each parish is engaged in a kind of branding exercise in which they are trying to distinguish themselves from the other three Roman Catholic churches in town. “Not so,” say the churches’ pastors. The following is their response.

Abortion

Rev. John McGivern, the pastor of St. Edmund, responded to the labeling of his parish as the anti-abortion parish. “We call our group which focuses on abortion the ‘Respect Life Committee,'” he said, “because the issues are wider than just the abortion issue. I assume that every Catholic parish has that kind of group.”

Ascension’s pastor, Rev. Larry McNally, expanded on McGivern’s statement by saying Catholics emphasize respect for life from the moment of conception to the end of life. “We’re not caught up on one issue like abortion,” he said. “When we had ‘Respect Life Month’ here in October

we covered a lot of issues – abortion but also capital punishment, euthanasia and sexuality. We made sure a lot of topics were covered.”

McGivern interpreted the meaning of the anti-abortion signs outside St. Edmund’s by saying that his parish has many groups and committees, each committed to a particular issue or activity like peace or poverty or Bible study. Just because some people are into Bible study, he said, doesn’t mean that they are opposed to those who are working for racial justice.

“I don’t know that I would call it picking and choosing,” he said in response to the charge that many Catholics are ‘cafeteria Catholics’ who pick and choose which teachings they believe and which they don’t. “People have a passion for certain things. I encourage them to follow that passion.”

Rev. Dan Whiteside, the pastor of St. Catherine/St. Lucy, acknowledged that, on the one hand, ultimately neither he nor the church can control what people do or believe. In fact, he emphasized the Catholic teaching that conscience must be obeyed even when in conflict with church teaching. On the other hand, what he has control over is what he and his staff teach their parishioners. In that regard, all four Catholic parishes in Oak Park are the same.

Liberal or conservative?

The four priests resisted the temptation to pigeonhole their congregations as conservative or liberal. The Catholic Church is on record as being against abortion. The hierarchy of the church also imposes a way of worship and canon of doctrine on the men and women in the pew and their priests. In that sense, the Roman Catholic Church is conservative.

At the same time, it was the Catholic bishops who made a “preemptive strike” against the war in Iraq by making a clear statement against the invasion before the war even began. Likewise, Ascension provides 200 volunteers to the PADS shelter for the homeless while St. Edmund has a total of 150 people staffing the shelter on Tuesday evenings.

McNally might be labeled as a liberal for the way he responded recently following the Pope’s declaration that the church should not serve communion to non-Catholics. He got up in front of the people assembled for Mass and said, “I will never refuse communion to anyone.”

McNally, however, doesn’t see his statement as being liberal or conservative. “The church is the people,” he said. “I feel my pastoral presence is important to take care of them. I will do what needs to be done to help them feel God’s love for them. I don’t skirt the rules, but sometimes it’s more important to deal with the person.”

That’s why he was frustrated about what he called “the excitement that took on a life of its own” over the health care reform forum at Ascension last September. “We presented it as a source of information. We didn’t promote any moral point of view, but it just blew up and went places it shouldn’t have gone. All I’m trying to do is take care of the people of God.”That event initially included the Democratic Party of Oak Park as a co-sponsor. The political connection upset some and the Archdiocese of Chicago became involved in the debate. The Chicago Catholic News, a news service, reported that a St. Edmund parishioner had been the person to alert the archdiocese.

Whiteside put it this way: “One of the things we try to emphasize is people’s personal relationship with God. We try to touch people’s hearts. Sometimes issues can become the center and that becomes a stumbling block. People in my parish know that gays are welcome here. People know that everyone is welcome here. I really try not to politicize it. For example, when the church was going through the thickness of the abuse scandal, we addressed it openly, but I said that’s not what is going to be the content of our worship. We have to continue to find Christ in our lives.”

Diversity

A Wednesday Journal feature recently heralded St. Catherine/St. Lucy as one of the most diverse congregations in the village. Visitors will not only notice an easy, comfortable mixing of different racial groups but will also see the involvement of mentally handicapped people as servers in the Mass.

Whiteside appreciates the diversity as a blessing but denies that it is a result of any intentional strategy. Both St. Lucy’s, which was located in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago, where Mars Hill presently worships, and St. Catherine’s were racially integrated long before it was politically correct. He said that the now longed merged parish does have a gospel choir and holds an African American Heritage Celebration but that those innovations are more a result of the diversity in the church than a strategy to achieve it.

Likewise, the presence of many people with mental disabilities in the congregation is the result of the presence of a L’Arche community a few blocks away in Austin and the presence of a ministry called Faith and Fellowship which uses space in the church for its activities.

“What we essentially do,” he said, “is hold Christ in community as our center. We do make sure that we include all kinds of people, but in terms of chasing down a race of people . . . no.”

Although, folks who attend Mass at St. Edmund for the first time might not notice it, that parish in the middle of Oak Park has a lot of diversity as well. There is racial diversity at St. Edmund with families from Kenya, Korea, Haiti, Mexico, India, Indonesia and Japan. But much of the diversity is not racial but ethnic and cultural. Receiving communion will be people born in the Czech Republic, Canada, England, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Poland, the Slovak Republic and Ukraine.

Although he appreciates and marvels at the diversity, McGivern, like Whiteside, says that it is not the result of any evangelistic strategy. He believes that the realization of a multicultural faith community has been “wonderfully easy,” partly because of the liturgical consistency in the Catholic Church all over the world. That is, the Mass is structurally the same whether it is said in Thailand, Uganda or Mexico. “One of the wonderful gifts for us Catholics,” he said, “is to know that we can go anywhere in the world and know what’s going on in the liturgy. The liturgical consistency helps people feel welcome and at home quickly.”

At the same time the priests talked about how their parishes are unique when it comes to worship. During the Mass at St. Catherine/St. Lucy a few weeks ago, a grandfather was walking from his pew to the lectern to read one of the lessons when he noticed his grandson trotting after him. While the congregation chuckled, the man picked up his grandson, kissed him on the forehead and proceeded to read the lesson, holding the child in his arms.

Whiteside said the comfort of both the grandfather and the congregation with the unscripted interruption of a toddler is partly due to the small size of his parish. St. Catherine/St. Lucy has about 500 households on the rolls compared with 1,978 at Ascension. “When a grandkid runs up in a big church that’s just a grandkid,” he said. “What happens in a small community is that’s not just some kid. That’s Joe and Susan’s kid, and isn’t he cute running up there.”

In the same way, Ascension hosts the hugely popular Taize service once a month, in large part because of music director David Anderson’s love of and familiarity with the community in France of the same name.

At St. Giles, the Family Mass is a fixture because a group of eight families asked permission in 1971 to hold an alternate Mass in the school gym and a pastor who allowed the experiment to happen. The Family Mass feels very similar to worship at St. Catherine/St. Lucy, because in effect it is a small community within a community.

While tensions have at times surfaced between the Family Mass Community and the larger St. Giles congregation to which it belongs, Rev. Carl Morello sees the relationship as complementary. Morello, who has been the pastor of St. Giles for only six months, said, “It is another option for people who may feel that is the place they feel most comfortable and yet still be identified with the larger Church and community here. Both communities challenge each other in a way that puts into practice what we say we believe and celebrate . . . to love the Lord and to love each other.”

McNally seemed to speak for his colleagues when he said that what makes each parish unique is the attempt by each pastor to adapt what might be called the “general rule” imposed by the Vatican to the concrete needs of each parish, which even in the village of Oak Park differ from neighborhood to neighborhood. “No,” he said, “I didn’t get in trouble for saying that non-Catholics are welcome at communion. The bishops know we change things. They know our hearts are in it.”

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Tom Holmes

Tom's been writing about religion – broadly defined – for years in the Journal. Tom's experience as a retired minister and his curiosity about matters of faith will make for an always insightful exploration...

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