Rev. Larry McNally, pastor of Ascension Church in Oak Park, drew a standing ovation at the 11 a.m. Mass last Sunday for his defense of women in the church. But first he had to endure a heckler.

On the day when the “Good Shepherd” was the scriptural theme, citing examples of his own “pastoral mistakes,” McNally mentioned two instances where he or his parishioners felt he came up short, then compared his own mistakes to the Vatican’s recent crackdown on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) an umbrella organization representing roughly 80 percent of the 57,000 American nuns. When he mentioned that some of his critics would applaud someday when he leaves Ascension, one attendee began to clap loudly. Later in the homily, the man stood up and argued with McNally, who calmly said, “You know where I live. We can discuss this later.”

McNally said this wasn’t the first time this parishioner has confronted him during Mass. He has invited him numerous times to come to his office to talk and offered him contact information for his bishop supervisor, but the man hasn’t taken him up on it.

In his sermon, citing his own experience of work with the poor by the Sisters of St. Casimir in Chicago, McNally said the sisters embodied the Good Shepherd and prayed that the U.S. bishops would “soften their hearts” toward the nuns.

McNally has spoken out more than once before from the pulpit, criticizing the Catholic hierarchy’s treatment of women. And in a letter to the editor in Wednesday Journal [God does intend equality for women, Viewpoints, March 28], he wrote, “May God the Holy Spirit open the minds and the hearts, the eyes and the ears of the male hierarchy of our Church so that our faithful women disciples can indeed ‘bring to the table a wealth of spiritual power and wisdom,’ for that has been ignored too long. It will make our Church much stronger and better.”

He noted that a service is planned at Old St. Pat’s Church in the Loop, 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 10, to celebrate and show support for the Catholic women religious.

“I’ll be there,” McNally said, “wearing my collar.”

McNally wasn’t the only priest to address the Vatican crackdown from the pulpit. Robert McClory, a professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, and a contributor to NCR (National Catholic Reporter), noted that at St. Nicholas Church in Evanston on Sunday, his pastor, Rev. Bob Oldershaw, “praised in his homily women religious for creating in the U.S. ‘the most successful realization of Catholicism in history.’

No sooner had he uttered the words than the entire congregation rose spontaneously as one and began applauding and applauding and applauding. It continued for almost two minutes. Fr. Oldershaw looked upward and said, ‘I hope they heard it upstairs.’ It wasn’t clear whether he meant the Vatican, heaven or both.”

There’s nothing quite so inspiring on a Sunday morning as moral courage in the pulpit.

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