A Montana priest’s disruption of a parishioner’s funeral recently has its roots in his denial of communion to a same-gender couple in the parish in 2014.
Almost two years ago, Fr. Spiering, 29, denied Communion to Paul Huff and Tom Wojtowick because the two men had recently married. The pastor expelled them from parish ministries in which they had been active. Fellow parishioners at St. Leo’s Catholic Church in Lewistown protested the priest’s act at the time, including resignations by the church choir’s director and several members.
Earlier this month, at least three of those former choir members and director Janie Shupe were invited by the Valach family to sing at the funeral of Pearl Valach, a parishioner at the church for all of her 92 years. Ms. Valach had disagreed at the time with the priest’s decision to deny Communion to Huff and Wojtowick but remained in the church. Her daughter-in-law, Susan Valach, explained to the Great Falls Tribune:
“She was upset when the decision was made. . .She continued to be faithful to the church, but with pain in her heart.”
Greg Clark, partner of Pearl’s son Frank Valach Jr. for twenty-plus years, said Pearl was so pained by the priest’s actions that she never spoke about it. But Greg, Frank, and other members of the Valach family left the parish after the communion denial. They said the decision to hold the funeral at St. Leo’s was painful, but did so to respect Pearl’s wishes.
When Valach’s loved ones and parishioners–more than 300 people–gathered for the funeral on the morning of March 8, he told Shupe she could not join the singers, but she could only participate at the funeral from her pew. Shupe explained:
” ‘It was mortifying. It was the most embarrassing thing. I could have stepped down, but at the same time I thought, “That’s ridiculous “. . .I can’t believe anyone in the right mind, let alone anyone who professes to love God, could do this.’ “
Fr. Dan O’Rourke, the parish’s former pastor who was invited to celebrate the funeral, defended Shupe’s right to lead singing. After he argued with Spiering about the decision, Spiering threatened to prevent O’Rourke from presiding at the funeral, and threatened to ban him from the parish. The family, however, refused to let their mother’s funeral be tarnished by Spiering’s continued exclusion. When Spiering informed Valach’s widower, Frank Valach, that the he would now celebrate the funeral Mass, the family rejected that offering and demanded Fr. O’Rourke. Susan Valach explained:
” ‘We immediately said, “Absolutely, no”. . .I went up to the choir and said we would cancel. Our family was so upset and finally (Spiering) agreed to leave. . .
” ‘As a family, we would like to let this go, but it isn’t right. . .It hurts all Christians because it’s not compassionate.’ “
Fr. Jay Peterson, vicar general for the Great Falls-Billings Diocese who was in attendance, presided at the funeral Mass. Peterson invited the women, including Janie Shupe, to lead the singing. Greg Clark said all involved were able to put aside the pre-funeral antics of Spiering for a “reverent, celebratory, and beautiful” liturgy. Clark wrote on his blog [editor’s note: he uses strong language in the blog post]:
“For the balance of the day our family basked in her glow. And there was no doubt that God was with us. Hence against all odds, our love for her conquered all. It wasn’t until later that evening that our angst and frustration over the morning’s events arose again. All must be told about the sins of that Father.”
But the incident — and the harm done — has not ended. This controversy continued to play out in the following weeks. Spiering commented on the incident before his homily at Mass on March 22, stating the he does not regret the decision he made but only the manner in which he made it. He attacked Fr. O’Rourke in his statement and promised St. Leo’s parishioners a new funeral policy to “prevent such problems” in the future. Spiering apologized to the Valach family in a one-liner at the end, but the family said neither the priest nor Bishop Michael Warfel had reached out to them since the funeral.
Fr. O’Rourke released his own statement, explaining that Spiering would not let the matter drop even though the funeral was set to begin in fifteen minutes and had threatened to ban him from the parish. The former pastor’s statement ended positively: “The singer/musician sang her heart out.”
Fr. Peterson, in his position as diocesan vicar general, defended Spiering’s actions as an exercise of his “canonical rights” despite it not being “the right pastoral decision.” Peterson said Bishop Michael Warfel was “very concerned” about the incident, which was described as an “unfortunate conflict.” Peterson, a longtime friend of the Valach family, said despite it being Holy Week he hoped “things can be dealt with sooner than later to bring healing and unity and peace” and would be involved if he could help, reported the Independent Record.
In the words of a Billings Gazette reporter:
“It was supposed to be a simple funeral for a woman who was a lifelong Catholic and a lifetime member of St. Leo the Great Catholic Church in Lewistown. . .Instead, it devolved into a disagreement that nearly derailed the rite and left family and friends confused and angry.”
Few incidents in the church hurt more than sacramental exclusion and interference. These incidents cause tremendous pastoral damage to those targeted and those witnessing these The tragic nature of this funeral incident speaks for itself. Coupled with Spiering’s denial of Communion to a same-gender couple, this funeral fiasco should be enough for Bishop Warfel to question Fr. Spiering’s ministerial competencies and role in active ministry and in the priesthood altogether.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry