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Priest says grouping parishes will weaken church

Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe

More than 500 people turned out to a Unitarian-Universalist church in Dedham on Wednesday to hear the Rev. Helmut Schuller, a Catholic priest banned from speaking at a Boston-area parish.

An Austrian priest who advocates ordination of women and married men, a position that led Boston church leaders to bar him from speaking at a local parish, said Wednesday that plans like the one Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley has put forward to group parishes and priests into clusters weaken the church rather than strengthen it.

The Rev. Helmut Schuller, who has long been concerned about how power is concentrated at the top echelons of the church hierarchy, is organizing a major priests’ movement in Austria that grew out of priests’ opposition to parish closings and restructuring plans that require clergy to minister to multiple churches. He argues that expanding the priesthood is a better answer than clustering plans that spread priests too thin, undermining their relationships with parishioners.

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“They are doing it like downsizing a corporation, but we are not a corporation,” he said. “We are not the post or the train system or Starbucks. The local parish is very important, because it’s a question of companionship with the people in their lives.”

Schuller spoke in an interview at the Globe Wednesday in advance of an evening talk at a Unitarian-Universalist church in Dedham, where more than 500 people sat in sweltering heat to hear him. He lamented at one point a system that has overburdened priests dispensing sacraments “like a supermarket.”

Terrence C. Donilon, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston, said Schuller did not appear to understand the archdiocese’s approach to clustering parishes. He said the whole point of the plan, which he said has broad support, is to help priests have the time and support they need to focus on strengthening parishes. Vibrant parishes, as O’Malley sees it, are the key to bringing more Catholics back to church, which in turn will bring more young men into the seminaries.

“He obviously hasn’t read” the plan, Donilon said. “If he read it, he’d understand we’re not approaching this like a corporation. We’re doing this after many years of review, with input from a very significant majority of our priests and people at the parish level. It has been designed specifically for Boston.”

Schuller’s appearance was part of a 15-city tour of the United States sponsored by a coalition of 10 reform-minded American Catholic organizations, including Voice of the Faithful, based in Needham. He said he hoped the tour would help build an international network of reform-minded priests.

‘They are doing it like downsizing a corporation, but we are not a corporation.‘

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He spoke at First Church and Parish instead of St. Susanna Parish, as originally planned. The archdiocese said in a statement last month that it does not allow individuals promoting positions contrary to Catholic teachings to speak at Catholic parishes or church events.

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia also barred Schuller from speaking in his archdiocese, lamenting that a small Catholic college providing space for the event has said it will not cancel the talk. An event in Detroit was also moved from a Catholic parish to a school.

Schuller said he did not understand why the bishops would not join the discussion, or at least allow it to go forward on church property.

“My experience is that we are gathering very fine Catholics [in the audiences],’’ he said. “Some of them are working for the church [for] generations. They are not dangerous people, and it’s not dangerous for them to listen to us.”

In the interview, he said 430 priests in Austria, about 15 percent of that country’s Catholic clerics, he said, have signed a “Call to Disobedience,” pledging to openly advocate for expanding the priesthood to women and married people and to publicly state their intention to break certain church rules that he says about 80 percent of priests already ignore without acknowledging it, such as distributing communion to people who are divorced and remarried. He says it is unhealthy for the church to operate according to one set of rules publicly and another privately.

He said the priests see themselves as advocates for lay people who share the same views but who have been sidelined for years by the church hierarchy. The priests, he said, have come to realize that their strength lies in their numbers. “The bishops have become a little bit nervous,” he said.

At the event Wednesday night, he urged those attending to consider themselves citizens of the church and said they should have rights as individual church members.

Schuller has had firsthand experience with power in the Catholic Church. He ran Caritas Austria, that country’s major Catholic aid agency. He also served as vicar general of Vienna, the most important position under the archbishop, from 1995 to 1999, when he was abruptly dismissed by Cardinal Christopher Schoenborn.

He has experience as a parish priest, as well. He remained one even when he was vicar general and still serves the same parish, outside Vienna.

He said he did not fear being excommunicated because the “Call to Disobedience” does not defy the church on “the substance of the faith.”

He said that his group will not try to ordain women.

Schuller shrugged off the Vatican’s decision to strip him of his “monsignor” title last December: “It’s not the tragedy of my life,” he said.

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lwangsness@globe.com.
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