Priest Who Denied Communion to Same-Gender Couple Now Disrupts Parishioner’s Funeral

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St. Leo’s Catholic Church

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.”

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Pearl Valach

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.”

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Tom Wojtowick and Paul Huff

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

Ontario Catholic School Controversy Could Easily Have Been Avoided

A recent story from Ontario highlights institutional Catholic intransigence over LGBT issues is trumping reasonable solutions to simple problems.

Xtra.ca, a Canadian LGBT news source reports on the case of an 18-year old secondary school student named Brooke who has experienced repeated harassment at a Catholic school in Windsor, Ontario:

Brooke with her girlfriend
Brooke with her girlfriend

“Administrators at a Catholic school in Windsor, Ontario, are allegedly threatening to launch a lawsuit in an attempt to silence a gay student who is speaking out against homophobic discrimination at the school.

“Brooke, 18, a Grade 12 student at St Thomas of Villanova Catholic Secondary School, who asked that her last name be withheld, has had a rough school year so far. It began with the death of her father on Oct 1. On top of that, Brooke says a teacher has been bullying her because she is gay and in a relationship with a fellow student.
“And ever since the teacher outed their relationship to her girlfriend’s parents, Brooke says, the school has become the only place the pair can see one another, so she has no choice but to stay.”
Brooke claims that harassment from her religion teacher, Jolene Coste, has been occurring all year, with the teacher making remarks in class about the girl’s relationship with her girlfriend and with negative remarks about homosexuality.  Things came to a head when Brooke alluded to an obscenity when answering  a question about “real” marriage on an exam.  Her response resulted in a ten-day suspension from school.
The arguing and accusations have been going on for most of the past school year.  School administrators have brought up the possibility of suing Brooke for defamation.
Clearly, this situation has gotten out of hand.  What is sad here is not just the possibility that a religion teacher would be bullying a student or that a student would resort to near-obscenity on an exam, but the fact that school administrators have not explored some way to mediate the situation by having the student, her parents, and the teacher discuss the situation together and come to some ground rules for behavior.
As Bondings 2.0 has reported, Ontario Catholic schools are state-funded, and are also subject to the province’s recent Accepting Schools Act, which was designed to eliminate bullying.  Though Catholic schools originally balked at such a law, this situation clearly shows the need for it.  One member of the Ontario parliament, Cheri DeNovo spoke to Xtra about the need for student safety:
“ ‘That’s not just physical safety, but also psychological and emotional safety as well,’ she says. ‘I call on every adult that surrounds her in that school system to stand up for her safety.
“ ‘Here we have a student in a publicly funded school that is not getting the support from her administration. She does not feel safe. Her concerns are not being addressed. Frankly, I think it’s disgusting that no [administrator] is standing up for her.’
 ‘DiNovo says it’s now the province’s job to ensure the act is enforced. Students shouldn’t have to face a legal battle to get the protection they deserve, she says. ‘[Education Minister] Liz Sandals herself should intervene. It’s sad we have to ask this of our students.’ ”
It is terribly sad that the government might have to become involved here.  Last week, Bondings 2.0 reported on a dispute in New York City between a Catholic pastor and a nearby drag show.  The dispute was easily resolved by the parties sitting down and speaking with one another.
In this school case, good Catholic pastoral care and simple human contact and dialogue could have defused this problem before it escalated to such proportions.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

ALL ARE WELCOME: Going Beyond the Boundaries

The ALL ARE WELCOME series is an occasional feature  which examines how Catholic faith communities can become more inclusive of LGBT people and issues.  This is the fifth installment.  At the end of this posting, you can find the links to previous posts in this series.

Do you participate in your local parish or have you needed to find another Catholic faith community outside the boundaries of your neighborhood, town, or geographic area?  If you are a Catholic for whom LGBT justice and equality are important, you may fall into the second category.

A recent New York Times article, “A Parish Without Borders,” focuses on St. Boniface parish, in downtown Brooklyn, NY, which attracts parishioners outside of its surrounding neighborhood.  Not surprisingly, the parish’s welcoming approach to LGBT people and families is part of its wide appeal.  Indeed, the reporter also notes that a similar welcome of LGBT people has attracted many to another “intentional parish” in New York City:

“St. Boniface is an example of an intentional parish, a phrase some members of the clergy use to describe a destination church that attracts people from beyond its geographic boundaries. Many gay and lesbian Catholics travel to the Church of St. Francis Xavier in Chelsea [Manhattan].”

(Incidentally, both of these parishes are included on New Ways Ministry’s “Gay-Friendly Parish” list, which catalogs over 200 parishes around the country with an explicit welcome of LGBT people.  Many, though not all, of these faith communities could be described as “intentional parishes.”)

Indeed, the article uses homosexuality as the touchstone for defining the accepting pastoral approach that St. Boniface has adopted:

“ ‘Meeting them where they are’ is a mantra among St. Boniface’s five priests and a lay brother, who make it a point to invite new faces to monthly home-cooked lunches in the rectory.

“But the inclusive philosophy has a stickier side. While the priests hold true to and convey all the church’s teachings, whether from the Vatican, the United States Conference of Bishops or the Diocese of Brooklyn, they accept that not everyone in the pews does.

“When a lesbian couple approached one of the priests, the Rev. Mark Lane, about baptizing their child, they were afraid he would turn them away, he said. But they were welcomed. For Father Lane, 55, the parish’s openness simply reflected Christ’s teachings to love everyone. Even if that could be taken as an implicit critique of the church’s position on homosexuality, the parish did not make the family occasion into a cause.

“ ‘The danger is, you turn that into a platform and forget about the persons involved, and I think that’s wrong,’ Father Lane said. The two mothers stood at the font with their child along with everyone else. ‘The symbol is visually powerful, but that’s enough.’ ”

“The priests prefer to address controversial issues like same-sex marriage and the death penalty outside of Mass, and while anti-abortion marches are listed in the church bulletin, they are not announced after services.”

The question that comes immediately to mind is:  “Since these parishes are so successful, why aren’t other communities following their example?”  If these intentional parishes are able to attract people who must travel some distance to get there every Sunday (and to participate in non-liturgical activities during the week), they must be doing something right.  It seems obvious that a big part of the attraction they offer is the extravagant sense of welcome described above.  “Meeting people where they are” is key to that welcome, and something that all parishes could adopt with no additional cost, other than an intentional effort on the part of parish staff.

The notion of an intentional parish is not without controversy, however.  While the article states that none other than New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan recently gave an endorsement to the idea of Catholics seeking out parishes where they feel welcome, stating:

“I don’t mind telling you to be rather mercantile. If the particular parish that you’re in does not seem to be listening, there are an abundance of those that are.”

Yet the Brooklyn diocese’s Monsignor Kieran E. Harrington holds a different opinion:

“The church is about growing where you’re planted. . . .It’s like a family. . . .You don’t choose your family.”

What do you think?  Which is more important:  worshiping locally or worshiping in an inclusive setting?    Whatever you may have decided, what have you had to “trade-off”?  What benefits do you receive?  How did you find the community in which you feel welcome?  Do you have any advice for others?

Please submit your answers to these questions in the “Comments” section of this post.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Previous posts in the ALL ARE WELCOME series:

Say the Words , December 14, 2011

All in the Family , January 2, 2012

At Notre Dame, Does Buying In Equal Selling Out? , January 25, 2012

A Priest With An Extravagant Sense of Welcome,  February 13, 2012