Hundreds Pack Unitarian Church To Hear Reformist Catholic Priest

DEDHAM, Mass. — Hundreds of people, most of them Catholic, turned out Wednesday night in Dedham to hear a reformist Catholic priest from Austria.

The Rev. Helmut Schuller was scheduled to speak at Saint Susanna Parish in Dedham, but was barred by Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley due to his positions on several issues which run contrary to official Catholic Church doctrine. So the meeting was moved to a Unitarian church — First Church and Parish in Dedham.

Helmut Schuller, at WBUR (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Helmut Schuller, at WBUR (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

People lined up in the suffocating heat outside First Church as early as 3 p.m. Wednesday. Shortly after 6 p.m., when the doors opened, a sizable crowd had gathered.

“The windows in a Protestant church open,” someone in the crowd said as people filed into the old church, some of its windows jarred open with electric fans. “Ours haven’t opened since John XXIII died.”

People nearly filled the pews, and another 200 opted to listen via loudspeakers outside on the cooler town green.

Schuller is among Austrian priests pushing for the ordination of women and married priests. He also wants lay Catholics to have more say in how the church is run. Schuller is touring the U.S. this summer. Wednesday night he spoke of the closing of Austrian churches.

“We don’t agree with the plans of our bishops to come there and to close the parishes and to say to the people, ‘You can go to the next village, there you will get your communion,’ ” Schuller said. “Like a supermarket, you can buy something there.”

For two hours, Schuller spoke and took questions.

“Do you think that Pope Francis is moving to support a Vatican II?” someone asked.

“Well, we are hoping,” Schuller replied. “We are hoping, really, because his first gestures are very interesting in that direction, his orientation to a more simple behaving as a pope.”

Some waited for three hours to get into First Church in Dedham to hear a reformist Austrian priest Helmut Schuller. (Fred Thys/WBUR)

Some waited for three hours to get into First Church in Dedham to hear a reformist Austrian priest Helmut Schuller. (Fred Thys/WBUR)

The Archdiocese of Boston released a statement defending its decision to bar Schuller from Catholic Church property.

“It is the policy of the Archdiocese of Boston … not to permit individuals to conduct speaking engagements in Catholic parishes or at church events when those individuals promote positions that are contrary to Catholic teachings,” the statement said, in part.

The heat inside the old church was too much for many, and by evening’s end, the mostly older crowd had thinned. But outside, as people were leaving, it was clear Schuller provoked passionate responses.

“I think [Cardinal O'Malley's decision was] so foolish,” said Mary Scanlon, who regularly attends Saint Susanna’s, where Schuller was originally scheduled to speak. “I think any effort to silence people or to cut off dialogue is, as Father Schuller said, so disrespectful. We’re citizens of this church. How could talking to one another be a bad thing? It’s like a family. If a family refuses to talk to one another, that’s a sign of real dysfunction.”

Jackson Lawlor, who attends St. Mary’s in Dedham, was standing nearby listening to Scanlon and disagreed.

“Most of the young people in church did not agree with what Father Schuller said today,” said Lawlor, who just graduated from high school. “And I have to say, as a young person who’s really fallen in love with the Catholic church, the reason I love the church so much is because it’s different from everything in society. Society says, ‘Do whatever you want. Live free.’ But the freedom society offers isn’t true freedom, and I’ve found that true freedom in the church, in truth, the goodness and the beauty of the church.

“Father Schuller having this talk is only breeding disunity in the church by trying to open wounds that are closed,” Lawlor added. “And by trying to bring up arguments that have already been settled.”

“You are so wrong,” interjected Dana Winikates, from Saint Susanna’s church. “You have no idea how wrong you are. The fact of the matter is that there are very deep wounds in this church that need some very fundamental addressing in order for the church not to die.”

Winikates and Lawlor went on to disagree fervently but respectfully. Their passions showed just how alive the debate remains.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/David-Exum/1236252952 David Exum

    Thank you, WBUR for covering this! Great local journalism!

  • Goo

    jackson lawler is so right. most people have no idea how right he is.

    • Shane Rider

      Must be related to that Jackson Lawlor kid from Dedham. That kid is always right.

  • 1Concerned200

    As someone who was there on possibly the hottest day/evening of the year, the crowd was good both inside downstairs & balcony & a large crowd outside, where it was much cooler.

    I thought a good turnout was important to show that discussion of church problems would take place, with or without permission, with or without a church location. It was encouraging to see the community gather, meet old friends and make new ones while waiting for the doors to open. A woman who identified herself as a St. Joseph said she was surprised & pleased to see so many people with the same interests as hers-that doesn’t happen often.

    I was heartened by hearing someone who was humble, pastoral, with flashes of humor (all in a second language) and real intelligence. To spend his vacation taking about “The Catholic Tipping Point” takes courage and dedication. Just ask the Boston 58 who signed the “cardinal law” letter suggesting his resignation.

    What effect all this will have on the church administration, we can hope. But we are doing what we can. And for the Boston Vigiling parish communities, it was good to hear concern for the local parish community, which should not be closed & “set to the next village…..like a supermarket”.


    This is a copy of what I sent in this morning to the Philadelphia Daily News. It has an article in today’s edition on the fact that Philly’s Archbishop Charles Chaput is extremely distressed by Chestnut Hill College’ hosting of Fr. Hulmet Schuller tomorrow evening.
    Sister Maureen

    The bishops have been talking and writing about Religious Freedom and hawking Fortnights of Freedom for some time now. But apparently the freedoms of the People of God are restricted only to those areas carefully defined by the hierarchy. Daring to brook those boundaries is to invite condemnation by the local bishop, attempts at silencing and even excommunication.
    What about the freedoms of conscience, thought, discussion and assembly?
    Kenneth Gavin, speaking in the name of Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, says that the reformist views of Helmut Schüller on the ordination of women and married men, the permission of divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the sacraments and an end to celibacy for priests is to “diverge very seriously from Catholic belief and practice.”
    What Gavin doesn’t say is that these beliefs and practices did not come from a loving God but are man-made decisions of a particular age for a particular reason. Those reasons revolved more around money, power and control than anything else.
    Helmut Schüller is the founder of the Austrian Priests’ Initiative, a movement organized in 2006 to address an increasing shortage of priests. His Call to Disobedience has brought worldwide attention to the crises in the Catholic Church and addresses the necessity of reforming church governance.
    A religious denomination that seeks to deny or stifle the exercise of such basic human rights by its membership is a religion in deep trouble. More than that, attempts at such condemnatory actions are unconscionable.
    Why does the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church so fear an educated, thinking laity willing to work with the bishops in addressing the crises in today’s Church?
    Perhaps Archbishop Charles Chaput and some of the bishops of the tri-state area will be gracious enough to attend this Friday evening event at Chestnut Hill College’s SugarLoaf campus and share their thoughts with us.
    Sister Maureen Paul Turlish
    New Castle, Delaware

  • Albert de Zutter

    I take exception to the news media labeling everything as Catholic “doctrine” (teaching). The church’s refusal to ordain women is a policy, not a doctrine. There is no such dogma (core belief) or doctrine that says “Women are not allowed by God to become priests in the Catholic Church,” and there never will be. Women have already been ordained as p.riests, and refusal to accept that fact is a POLICY of the Catholic hierarchy and fiercely defended by the ultra-right wing of the church, which has a narrow view of what it means to be Catholic, and which — by and large — rejects the crucial social justice teaching of the church.

  • Carolyn Russ

    thank you First Church in Dedham for providing a forum for this presentation

  • Chauffeur

    I agree with Jackson Lawler. “…true freedom in the church, in truth, the goodness and the beauty of the church.” Too many American Catholics think the Church should be a democracy – as if we can “vote” on what Truth will be. As if…..

  • Al Polito

    There’s a difference between unity and group-think. You can’t have a healthy community without differences of opinion and style. It creates too many blind spots and fosters an environment ripe for serious errors in direction, because “everyone agrees” that the direction we’re headed is the right one.

    As for the old wounds being closed? One interpretation of that is that all those with the wounds have been closed out of the church. The Catholic Church and indeed the whole of the industrialized world is deeply in need of the fierce and gentle feminine influence that brings compassion and mercy, movement and fluidity to a family. And the church is a family. And note how the magisterium is treating the nuns, should you need any proof.

  • http://www.vivificat.org/ Teófilo de Jesús

    I can see a low of gray hairs out there: remnants of the 60′s who still want things their way, and not the way it ought to be. Those of us who belong to Blessed John Paul’s generation will not allow it to happen.

    The Unitarian venue was appropriate also: a non-Catholic venue for a barely Catholic priest.

  • CHCGrad


    Link above – a video that Chestnut Hill College produced in 2012. Take a look. Not ONE reference ANYWHERE that Chestnut Hill College is a Catholic institution. Beautiful shots of the campus and surrounding area, and the possibilities of Philadelphia… but who would ever guess that what should first and foremost make the school stand out in distinction – its Catholicity – would be overlooked entirely? Oh yeah – and Harry Potter. What??

    Let’s not forget that this is the same “Catholic” school that came under fire in 2011 when it was found out that they hired a “priest” (i.e., never checked his credentials) to teach Religion classes – who turned out NOT to be Catholic AND openly gay (link below). Great job, SSJs.


    It’s no surprise, then, that the SSJs have invited Schuller to speak there.

    Beware, parents, of the “Catholic” school to which you send your child.

  • LeticiaVelasquez

    Lots of aging hippies in that crowd, I hope AARP was there recruiting.

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