Rare split finds Catholics at odds

By Vicki Hyatt | Apr 17, 2017
Photo by: Vicki Hyatt Parishioners at St. John's Catholic Church in Waynesville leave a Sunday service.

Internal church conflicts are as old as churches themselves. When no healing is in sight, many who find themselves in divided parishes simply find another church or take a group of like-minded believers and start another church.

In the Catholic church, it is not possible to simply form a separate congregation, and in rural areas, finding another church in which to worship isn’t always possible.

A large group of Catholics in Waynesville who used to be the backbone of St. John’s — a church many raised funds for and helped to build — have found themselves without a church home.

The changes that came with the appointment of Father Christopher Riehl in 2014, who presides over both St. John’s and Immaculate Conception Church in Canton, were simply too much to tolerate.

Those who feel isolated from their faith are not pleased with the intermittent absence of pastoral care available to parishioners, the Gregorian chants introduced into the services and the increased use of Latin in the Mass.

They have documented numerous times the priest has failed to show up for Mass, failed to return phone calls from families in crisis who are seeking last rites for a loved one or help in funeral preparation, and rebuffed long-time church volunteers who were instrumental in community outreach programs.

“It took a long time to become a beacon of light in this community,” said Ann Simmons, “and we did it well. Now that is gone.”

The changes have not only caused many to find other avenues for worship or quit attending Mass, but also to withhold financial support. Mary Finn, who regularly volunteered in the church office, estimates that 85 percent of the regular parishioners who were there before Riehl’s arrival are now gone.

“But there are a lot of new people,” she said, “and there are the summer people who attend because this is the Catholic Church in the community.”

On a recent Sunday, Lynn Jefferys attended the 11 a.m. Mass, which typically drew a winter crowd of 230 and counted only 78 people in attendance.

“I’m a cradle Catholic,” explained Jefferys. “I went through 16 years of Catholic schooling, the Bible and catechism. What’s going on now just isn’t the way it is supposed to be. The chief duty of the priest is to be there for the sacraments.”

One of the most sacred Catholic sacraments is called the anointing of the sick, which offers the comfort to those who are sick and/or dying.

Those upset with church operations have letters from families who were unable to reach Riehl when a loved one was in need of last rites, and one family said it took two weeks to arrange a funeral because the priest didn’t return phone calls or emails.

A term the disenchanted parishioners use for what is happening in their midst is “clericalism,” which is defined as the application of the formal, church-based, leadership or opinion of ordained clergy in matters of either the church or broader political and sociocultural matters.

A traditional priest would have at least not allowed people to die before receiving the last rites, said Mary Keenan, as has happened on several occasions in the last two years.

“Pre-Vatican II, priests were taught that they are above the lay people — it was their Mass, their decisions, and we are to follow,” said Carol Viau. “Yet Vatican II said the laity is the church and it is a combined effort.”

Vatican II was convening of Catholic leaders in 1962 that led to revisions on how the church interacted with the modern world. The effort resulted in broader relationships with other religions of the world and other Christian sects, switching many parts of the Sunday worship from Latin to English, having the priest face the church during the Eucharist, as opposed to having his back to them, and contemporary music was introduced.

“This parish is made up of a lot of people who have moved here and away from their family,” said Jefferys. “Now the church has become their family. When fences began being built, it was like splitting a family.”

St. John’s is not only building fences within the parish, but the community, as well, where Riehl doesn’t participate in the unified church activities in the community, Simmons said.

“We have so many churches around here praying for us because they know our situation,” Simmons said. “We are not a light of our community anymore. There is zero ecumenical outreach anymore.”

Simmons said there are many churches that would be overjoyed if the disillusioned group were to joined their efforts.

But it seems unfair to join elsewhere if would simply be a short-term solution, group members said, and that is exactly what it would be. They will always be Catholics.

Keenan said when their efforts began, they thought the problem was only with their priest.

“We found out it was much bigger when the bishop did nothing,” she said.

Because the church's supreme leader, the Pope, is in Rome, bishops in regional dioceses control internal happenings within the numerous churches under their jurisdiction.

Patti Schandevel has a notebook about 5 inches thick documenting the efforts, that so far have failed to move Bishop Peter Jugis, who oversees the Charlotte diocese that encompasses all of Western North Carolina.

“The goal is not about us, but about our efforts to bring a serious situation to light in Waynesville and get the bishop’s attention,” Viau said.

Meetings with Riehl result in silence and the same was true at the diocese level.

The displaced parishioners of St. John’s still attend Mass, whether at St. Margaret’s in Maggie Valley, the Basilica in Asheville or at services conducted by a retired priest in the community.

Their hope is to eventually return to their church, which would happen if Riehl should change his approach or be replaced.

“People are hoping to go back because our heart is there, though our presence is not,” said Finn.

Simmons said many the parishioners who originally vilified those raising the caution flag have come to recognize what is happening in their church.

“It is not within our realm to judge people,” Jefferys said. “We’re all to listen to the guidance of God, but we also know we don’t need to be with someone who is so divisive. We don’t wish anything bad for this man. We think he needs help. There is something the matter here apart from this call to clericalism.”

Riehl declined to comment on the issue and referred questions on the issue to Charlotte.

Diocese response

David Hains, the communications director for the Charlotte diocese, said the complaints have been reviewed with no actions taken, so there has been an answer, though it might not be one the petitioners like.

“They have been listened to, but it might be what they are hearing is not what they want to hear. We’re well aware of concerns,” Hains said.

In the Catholic church, only the bishop has the authority to remove a parish priest.

He said that in parishes where there is a change in priests, there is often a departure from past practice and the discontent from some at St. John’s is not unique.

“There are a lot of different approaches,” he said. “People sometimes have a hard time adjusting. I understand and respect where they are coming from, but this is more of a personality clash. I’ve had it in churches I’ve been at.”

Hains said the main practice that separates Catholics from their Protestant brethren is the Eucharist, where Catholics believe the bread and wine offered during communion is transformed into the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ.

“Catholics can’t get that anywhere else. Methodists have communion, but it is not the Eucharist,” Hains said. “For Catholics, that is more important than the music or even the sermon. That’s why Catholics are typically much less willing to get into church squabbles and are more willing to put up with stuff. They know they will receive the Eucharist, and that makes it all worth it.”

While some of the disenchanted Waynesville Catholics feel that Fr. Riehl, and even Bishop Jugis, are out of step with Pope Francis, Hains disagreed.

When Pope Francis traveled to Washington, D.C., Bishop Jugis was present and celebrated Mass with him.

“Whatever Pope Francis says goes in this diocese and everyone in the world. If people think we don’t follow Pope Francis, they don’t have an understanding of what Pope Francis is saying,” he said.

The so-called restorationist term used in some of the more liberal Catholic publications largely refers to the practice of using more Latin in the Mass. However, every Catholic church has some portions of the worship service that use Latin, Greek, sometimes Spanish and in the U.S. English, he explained.

“We have a really broad tent,” he said. “Catholics in Africa celebrate with drums and that is acceptable. I’m not crazy about dividing up into restoration versus modernists.”

He said the degree of discontent at St. John’s is a rarity.

“It is very unusual,” he said. “You have people in a church not happy all the time, but for it to escalate to this level ... we don’t see that very often in Catholic churches. It all goes back to Eucharist.”

Hains provided information showing the number of households registered at St. John's has increased from 199 in  2014 when Fr. Riehl arrived to 261 in 2016, though those who aren't attending say they haven't withdrawn their registration, so aren't surprised the numbers don't reflect their departures. The annual Mass count taken each October went from 469 in 2014 to 439 in 2015. Statistics for 2016 weren't included.

Those who stayed

Phillip Webb is a Catholic who still worships regularly at St. John's.

He said he started hearing complaints early on from church members who were critical of Fr. Riehl because of how different he was from the former parish priest.

In addition to things like wearing a cassock, Fr. Riehl changed the type of music used, along with language in the liturgy — all areas where he had authority to make the changes, Webb noted.

“I saw very little willingness on the part of many upset parishioners to work with Fr. Riehl to understand why he was making changes in the parish. Rather I saw anger, lack of acceptance, and a drive to have him removed,” said Webb. “You should recognize that there was a relatively small group of parishioners who actively recruited others into their cause by sharing stories of Fr. Riehl’s alleged behavior. Many became involved because of what they were told, as opposed to their personal experiences. They attempted to influence the Bishop by withholding their contributions from the parish and pressuring others to do the same. That effort was, of course, unsuccessful — the church is simply not about money.”

Webb said if he was unhappy with a parish priest, he would simply attend Mass at another parish, and would not be involved in an effort to remove a priest unless there was illegality or immorality involved.

“I chose to stay in the parish because I don’t believe in running when things are tough, and this division in our parish has been certainly been difficult. I think that you stay, work constructively and try to make a positive impact,” Webb said.

Webb acknowledged that Fr. Riehl had failed to show up for Mass on occasion, and explained the lack of or tardiness in responding to phone calls and emails to parishioners not choosing the right phone option between Thursday and Sunday when the office isn't staffed.

He disagrees that long-time parish workers were pushed out of positions, saying their departures were due to personal decisions to leave. For instance, the choir director did not approve of the changes to the liturgical music, so she made a resignation speech and walked out, he said, noting she moved to another parish and took most of her choir with her.

Those who served on the finance and parish councils had been there for many years, when the norm was two to three, and they left as well.

“Fr. Riehl made it clear upon his arrival that these bodies needed to conform to the Catholic Church standard that they be advisory only, which is not what they were accustomed to,” Webb said. “When the finance council tried unsuccessfully to force a decision on Fr. Riehl related to property renovation, they resigned as a group.”

Webb acknowledged the use of Latin during Mass has increased, and traditional songs have been replaced, but said the decision is at the rightful discretion of the priest and “has led to a more reverent Mass.”

As a church member for years, Webb said he is not familiar with any community efforts that have been abandoned under Fr. Riehl and said it is an exaggeration to say Mass attendance has fallen off by half or two-thirds, as some have claimed.

“Attendance certainly dropped significantly after these parishioners chose to leave,” he said. “It has rebounded over the subsequent years. We do not take attendance, so I cannot quote specific numbers to you, however, I would guess that it is nearing prior levels.”

Webb said the parishioners who no longer attend Mass at St. John's feel that they know better than the priest and the bishop what is appropriate and have lost sight of what the church is about — worshiping God and achieving salvation.

“At some point, it will dawn on these people that they have failed,” Webb said. “I say, the sooner, the better. No healing and reconciliation can occur while wounds are kept open.”