Bishop Robert Morlino Invites Conservative
Spanish Order to His Diocese;
Angry Parishioners Express Concern
DOUG ERICKSON, Wisconsin State Journal– The effort by Madison Bishop Robert Morlino to staff several Catholic churches in the diocese with priests from a conservative Spanish society has met resistance in another community.
About 200 members of St. Mary’s Parish in Platteville met with Morlino at the church Monday night to question his decision to bring in three priests from the Society of Jesus Christ the Priest to lead the church.
A diocesan official and parishioners who attended the 90-minute meeting described it as largely civil but occasionally heated, with Morlino apologizing toward the end for having raised his voice earlier in the meeting.
“It was a tough evening for everyone,” said diocesan spokesman Brent King.
The society, based in Murcia, Spain, is known for a staunch, traditional approach to Catholic practice. There are now eight society priests at seven parishes in the diocese.
At other churches where they serve, the priests have prohibited girls from being altar servers, dispensed with the common Catholic practice of using trained lay people to assist with Communion and added Masses celebrated only in Latin.
Morlino invited members of the society to begin serving in the diocese in 2006, primarily in the Sauk City area. Some parishioners praise the priests for deepening their faith and bringing discipline to wayward Catholics; others have left the church, saying the priests’ approach is regressive and too rigid.
“To me, it seems like a step backward,” said Fay Stone, a St. Mary’s member. The priests’ approach is “quite different than we have become accustomed to,” she said.
The parish has about 700 families.
Monsignor James Bartylla, the diocese’s second in command, said in an interview Monday the priests are a good fit for Platteville because their gifts align with aspects of the parish.
Priests from the society are known as good school administrators, Bartylla said, and St. Mary’s has a K-8 parochial school. The society has a special mission to encourage young men to enter the seminary, and the priests will lead St. Augustine University Parish, the campus ministry at UW-Platteville, in addition to St. Mary’s.
“It’s a great blessing in this time of a priest shortage to have these priests here,” Bartylla said.
The priests are replacing Monsignor Charles Schluter, who has served St. Mary’s and St. Augustine for 11 years. In July, Schluter will become the priest at St. Peter’s Catholic Church on Madison’s North Side.
Schluter is “greatly beloved (in Platteville) and has been very effective there, so I know it’s very hard for people to see him move on, and I know that’s part of it,” Bartylla said.
Some parishioners say the timing is bad. The congregation is in the midst of a capital campaign to buy the building it currently rents for its parochial school. The school also is in the process of hiring a new principal.
“With the more conservative priests arriving and a change in the principal, there’s just some unease with the amount of change at one time,” member Lee Eggers said.
Some parishioners also are miffed that the new principal may end up being the father of a society priest. A parish search committee wasn’t aware of that possibility and had verbally offered the position to someone else.
“The entire situation has been handled very poorly,” said member Julie Klein.
King, the diocesan spokesman, said that due to a mix-up, the position had been verbally offered to two people, one of them the father of a society priest. The situation has not been resolved but will be decided by the Rev. Lope Pascual, one of the three society priests who will serve as the primary pastor for the two Platteville parishes.
Diocesan officials apologized Monday for the mix-up.
Member Barb LeGrand said she went into the meeting very worried that trained lay people such as herself would no longer be allowed to offer Communion to the homebound, a ministry the church has offered for 20 years.
After the meeting, LeGrand said she was feeling slightly upbeat because Pascual had agreed to meet with her and others about the ministry’s future. “He seems like a very nice man,” she said of Pascual, whom she met for the first time Monday.
King said he does not anticipate the bishop will change his mind on the new priest appointments. The message from the bishop to parishioners was to get to know the priests and give them a chance to explain why they make the decisions they do, King said.
“It’s our hope that, given the opportunity, the parishioners will grow to love the priests and the priests will love the congregation,” King said.