Hundreds Pack Unitarian Church To Hear Reformist Catholic Priest

Download Audio

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.

This program aired on July 18, 2013.

Headshot of Fred Thys

Fred Thys Reporter
Fred Thys reported on politics and higher education for WBUR.



More from WBUR

Listen Live