Saturday, January 10, 2009

Whose Church?

Those of you not from the New Orleans area may not have heard, but there has been some serious drama in the Archdiocese of New Orleans lately.

In April of 08, Archbishop Hughes unveiled a plan to close some parishes and consolidate others in order to help the Archdiocese cope with millions of dollars in losses from Hurricance Katrina, fewer parishioners post-Katrina, and an aging and shinking clergy.

From the start people were not shy about expressing their unhappiness with the changes.

After churches which had been scheduled for closure (and consolidation with other parishes) were closed in October, parishioners immediately moved to occupy the churches in what they called vigils, although media coverage and parishioners interviewed made it seem more like a prolonged protest.

More than two months later the churches were still being illegally occupied by former parishioners, who had barred the doors closed and refused to allow representatives of the Archdiocese into the church.

As a result, police were eventually sent to the churches to clear out the trespassers. The Archdiocese had this to say about the incident (quote lengthy, but I felt obligated to post the whole thing, since no one in the media was) :

Around 10 am this morning, representatives of the Archdiocese of New Orleans entered the occupied buildings at both the former Our Lady of Good Counsel on Louisiana Ave. and the former St. Henry on General Pershing in Uptown New Orleans. They were accompanied by members of the New Orleans Police Department at the request of the Archbishop. The occupants were first asked to leave the buildings voluntarily. Then they were told that if they did not leave on their own, they would receive a summons and if they would not leave at that point would then be arrested.

It was necessary for the police to break-in to Our Lady of Good Counsel because those inside refused entrance to either archdiocesan representatives or the police. Two occupants at Our Lady of Good Counsel received a summons and two were formally arrested. At St. Henry Church, the occupants allowed representatives and police to enter. Only one parishioner received a summons. There were no arrests. In both instances, the buildings were then secured.

It has always been the intention of the archdiocese to bring these vigils to a peaceful conclusion. This forced closure involving the NOPD is the result of the actions of protestors at the former parishes. This decision was made reluctantly after exploring every possible alternative, including multiple attempts to persuade the people to leave the building on their own. These initiatives are unfortunate but made necessary now to ensure the safety of the people and security of the buildings.

As already reported, attempts were made at both the former Our Lady of Good Counsel and the former St. Henry buildings early morning on Saturday, January 3, 2009 to peacefully bring these occupations peacefully to a close. At St. Henry, those keeping vigil refused to leave despite multiple requests. At Our Lady of Good Counsel, the occupant left allowing officials first to search the building and then to move to secure the building. It was discovered later that day that protestors had regained access to the former church building and bolts placed in doors had been removed.

On Monday, January 5, 2009, archdiocesan representatives attempted to make a routine inspection at Our Lady of Good Counsel and were denied access to the buildings. Protestors refused archdiocesan personnel entry and barricaded the doors preventing entry. At the former church building at St. Henry, archdiocesan representatives entered for their inspections, but later that afternoon, it was discovered that occupants there had locked the doors to the church building to prevent entry to anyone beyond those allowed in from the inside. These actions forced the difficult decision to bring these occupations to a close to be made

It is our hope that the Catholic community may now heal and move forward together. Our prayers are withl those experiencing anger and sadness at losing their home parishes. We pray that they may find peace and a spiritual home in their new parish. As we begin the new year, we must all work to center our faith on the Eucharist and to move forward as one community in Christ.
My thoughts on the fiasco...

I am in no position to judge the prudence or correctness of Archbishop Hughes' decisions on which churches to close, which to merge, etc. Many of the parishioners of St. Henry's and Our Lady of Good Counsel did not give the Archbishop the benefit of the doubt. For months we have heard TV interviews, people on radio call-in shows, etc. condemning the decisions and actions of the Archbishop for unjustly or unfairly closing down "my church."

This is another example of Catholics being more American than Catholic. These people have been infected by individualism. Hello! We are "Catholic." The word means "universal." This is not your church. This is the Church of Jesus Christ. Archbishop Hughes is a successor of the apostles and the rightful authority over the property you claim to be "your church." You don't have to agree with his decision, but with a little humility and obedience, you should be able to respectfully submit to it.

Sigh. Sorry for the rant.

Edit: I should add that I am saddened that arrests were made, although no charges were pressed, but I am frustrated at the attitudes I've seen over the past few months.


V said...

Wow. I didn't even know. Its hard in a place like New Orleans to see things change or close. All of the church is ours, I hope those who were working for the vigil see that the Church is bigger than the building, and the family of the Church is all over the world. They are always welcome to be a part of it.

JB said...

Amen. That's what I was trying to say :-)

Henry Karlson said...


Sadly, there is a lot of church closing going on, and whenever it happens, you find all kinds of disrespect to the bishop, with all kinds of charges being raised without any understanding of the necessity of the action. It's really more than an American phenomena (if one looks to Europe one can see similar debates). So many people do think the church is their own; however, in some (rarer) circumstances, this is actually true (not all churches are owned by dioceses). But the thing is, the building might not be owned by the diocese, the right to use the place as a church is still determined by the bishop (in the Eastern tradition, this is symbolized by the altar cloth - as long as you have the antimension, you can continue to celebrate the eucharist -- the reason being, it was often the case that buildings were owned by some private person and not the church). Nonetheless, if you want to see how bad it got, just read over the controversies over closings of churches by Bishop Pataki (the claim was he was setting up churches to be closed, and purposefully destroying the communities, which is, of course, absurd). So many people are attached to a building they forget what communion is all about.

While it is sad that arrests have to be made in situations like this, thankfully, we have come to a stage in history that is all that is done!

Craig Baker said...

We are a universal Church, but this universal Church only makes sense in the everyday reality of a Christian in the local form. The local community we celebrate with is what makes the universal Church real, this coming from the pastoral perspective. Even the local Church of one's arch/diocese for the average Catholic is made real, puts on flesh, by their local community. My prayers go out to these parishioners.

Chris Schelin said...

I'm sorry, but the universality of the Church, and the promiscuous diversity of the Spirit's gifts, calls for mutual submission to one another. What about the protesters' side of the story? Did Hughes impose a decision apart from an extended, prayerful conversation with the people? Or did he try his hardest to find understanding and affirmation and a genuine seeking of discernment together? It seems that if individualism were at play here, then these Catholics would do just fine moving in with another parish. They're grieving the loss of their communities!

JB said...


Peace! Thanks for reading and commenting. I first must apologetically admit that this may've been my most hastily written post since I've been blogging. I wrote it almost as an afterthought and immediately after seeing more one-sided coverage of the issue.

Unfortunately, I in turn wrote an inversely one-sided response. I ignored the protesters' side of the story because that is all I had seen reported. Thus, my intent was to give the other side. In doing so, my assessment was similarly unfair.

I agree that both are called to mutual submission. I agree that the Archbishop is probably not without fault.

However, I am generally inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. Its not like this was dropped out of nowhere. Issues mostly outside of Hughes' control forced him to close several parishes. He gave plenty of heads up, and none of the numerous other parishes blew it out of proportion as did these two.

I'm sure this is a painful loss for the parishioners, and that saddens me as I assume it saddens Hughes. However, I cannot justify their response. Perhaps it is not individualism, but there seems to be a certain pride which places the importance of my/our hurt feelings over the needs of the Church at large.

As Henry said, this is happening all over the place due to a variety of factors. Difficult decisions have to be made, and unfortunately some people will inevitably end up feeling hurt. Could the Archbishop have handled it with more pastoral sensitivity? Probably. I honestly don't know. He may well have failed to fully live out his call to servant leadership, but I can't imagine being a Shepherd in charge of herding the stray cats that are the western laity.