Welcome to the Faithful of Southern Illinois (FOSIL) website. FOSIL is no longer active but maintain this website containing a variety of essays written by Fr. McBrien, Roger Karban and Tom Smith.
2015 - Church Chat Critique of Priests' Convocation Ignites Controversy
FOSIL columnist Tom Smith stirred a spirited conversation with his Church Chat column #113, "Smelling Like the Sheep" (below and at this link. We reproduce here the emails about it that came to FOSIL's attention.
Number 113, September 12, 2015
SMELLING LIKE THE SHEEP?
I hope this chat is only about my diocese - but I doubt it. Just to be clear: I live in the Diocese of Belleville, IL, the 28 most southern, including the seven poorest, counties in Illinois. And our Bishop is Edward K. Braxton, PH.D, S.T.D., who was recently featured in America magazine and interviewed by the National Catholic Register regarding his pastoral letter on "The Racial Divide in the United States." Let me put it this way: he writes better than he does.
But this chat is not about the much-needed conversation regarding the racial divide. It is about our Priests' Convocation this year. Each Fall our diocesan priests attend a three day gathering to listen to the Bishop and other presenters, pray, and visit with each other. That is a reasonable activity for any group of people who do similar work. I'm sure other dioceses do something comparable.
The title this year is "Celebrating Our Priesthood and New Insights on Vocations: Lending our Voice to Christ." Looking at the schedule and biographies of the presenters, I doubt that any of those "New Insights" will include the ordination of married men or women. There are sessions on: Celebrating Our Priesthood; The Seminary Today; Priestly Spirituality; Good News for Women Religious Vocations. Plus Eucharistic Adoration for an hour two of the nights and Confessions.
By the way, the session on Women Religious is led by Mary Mother Clare, the habited sister who served on the Vatican committee investigating the nuns in the USA.
On the surface it sounds like a perfect Priest Convocation - for 1957.
Here's one of my many issues with this gathering: it is being held in downtown St. Louis and dinner one night is at Kemoll's Restaurant, one of the more plush, expensive and semi-exclusive establishments in St. Louis. Even if they get a "Catholic clergy discount", couldn't they find a more modest, more appropriate setting for this 1957 convocation? Like the retreat center in our diocese? Or, is this one of those "Father deserves the best" moments?
I don't begrudge any priest the opportunity to dine at Kemoll's occasionally. But to feed all the priests of the diocese at Kemoll's as a clerical function is something quite different. The message it sends is disturbing.
I hope I am wrong but this whole program seems completely out of whack for today's catholic clergy. A priest gathering for a Retro-Church? Pope Francis has set a new standard for our clergy, centered on servant leadership, humility, identification with the poor, and a life style of simplicity, poverty, and pastoral engagement. He said, shortly after being elected Bishop of Rome, that bishops and clergy need to "smell like the sheep", a wonderful and fitting phrase that depicts a servant pastoral leader. My suspicion is that our convocation goers may smell more like the Kemoll's 16 oz. choice strip steak served with sauted wild mushrooms in a demi-glaze sauce rather than the sheep. Still reminds me of 1957.
I would hope that a gathering of our priests would include sessions like these: How Do I Live a Life of Simplicity, Poverty, and Humility as a Pastor in Southern Illinois? This session could be led by Fr. Bill Rowe. (Oh, that's right, Fr. Rowe was kicked out of the priesthood by Bishop Braxton a few years ago because Bill was too good of a liturgist.)
Another session would center on the Pope's latest encyclical: On Care for our Common Home with an emphasis on the role of the pastor in leading the parish into an understanding of this biblical message.
How about a session on the coming Jubilee Year of Mercy, a yearlong focus of the Church on the practical meaning and application of tangible compassion in the life of a parish?
That should be a rough outline for three valuable days for today's pastors. For meals, I suggest simple, inexpensive servings prepared by an appropriate chef who shares his/her recipes for humble pastors living alone in Southern Illinois.
Our pastors are on the front-lines of the Church and deserve our respect and collaboration. But the Catholic Church led by Francis, the second Vatican Council and the gospel is not the 1957 Church. Priestly spirituality must incorporate the needs and issues of this era, not the triumphalism of the past.
Or, is the past still with us?
Response of Father Jim Dieters
To Followers of "Church Chat,"
I was quite sad to read the Tom Smith 'chatter' condemning the upcoming priests convocation that reveals un-Christian bitterness, false assumption, injustice, and divisiveness. What a sad day for the Karla Smith Foundation and the diocese when one of its lay leaders chooses to enter into such evils of tearing people apart instead of building up the Body of Christ. The 'chattering' displays a 2015 version of clericalism by some lay persons that the good priests of our diocese have shunned.
Ironically, we were planning to promote the Karla Smith Foundation at the convocation this year, encouraging the priests to learn about and support the Foundation through the fliers that were to be distributed. Just the opposite will happen now that it is very public that the leader of the Foundation is so resentful toward those who wanted to lead the way in promoting such a good cause.
The Smith-chat letter is filled with prejudices based on false assumptions that display ignorance and bitterness. The only correct facts are the location, theme, and restaurant name. The 63 faith-filled priests who will be attending the convocation - and are trying to build up the people of the diocese - see in this chatter how one of our lay persons is actively causing division and hatred among the faithful. When some of the 'sheep' rejected Jesus' disciples and the leaders wanted to call down fire upon them, Jesus encouraged them to simply "Walk away and shake the dust from your feet." The priests in our diocese who are working hard to build up the Church will follow the Good Shepherd's Voice and be asked to walk away from anything connected with the Smith Foundation, which has such a divisive leader. Our priests will be encouraged to actively search for a different source that helps people and families with mental illness, since it is such an important need.
Sadly, while the very goal of the Smith Foundation is to build up people in their struggles, the very opposite is being done by its leader. The Gospel recently revealed Jesus saying, "From within people, their hearts, come evil thoughts, malice, deceit, and arrogance. All these evils come from within and defile." Those who do attend the convocation will pray hard at each of our Mass intentions for unity among the faithful and for a conversion of the 'lost sheep' who are causing division and spreading violent words and injustices in our diocese.
Since Mr. Smith is so caught up in his assumptions about the food at our gatherings, it will be interesting to learn what is served at the upcoming Foundation fundraiser held at a place that makes expensive chocolates for the wealthy. The fundraiser advertisement proudly says a "feast" will be served within an evening of "decadence." How does this fit into Mr. Smith's unjust letter crying out for "simplicity" and "identification with the poor?"
With prayers for an end to divisiveness,
Fr. Jim Deiters
Cc: Fr. Nick Junker - Convocation Co-chair
When I first read your response to Tom's column, I thought you were being protective of the 63 priests who would attend the Convocation. You wrote Tom Smith"is causing hatred and division among the faithful." However, upon rereading Tom's column and rereading your response, I now understand you were [are] angry because Tom was unwittingly critical of you, the Convocation Chairperson, who chose to the theme of the Convocation and the venue for the dinner!
You falsely claim Tom disparaged the priests who have chosen to attend the Convocation. Not true! The focus of Tom's column was that the Convocation should focus on the positive theology of Pope Francis and follow his example of service and humility in eating at a more modest dining establishment instead of Kemoll's, one of the most expensive restaurants in St. Louis.
In your letter, writing as Convocation Chairperson, you promise retaliation against Tom by refusing to promote the good work of the Karla Smith Foundation at the Convocation and then you further vindictively assert:"the priests will be asked to walk away from anything connected to the Smith Foundation." Tom and Fran Smith have dedicated their lives to helping thousands of families cope with suicide following their own pain losing their daughter Karla to suicide. Through the Foundation they also provide assistance to the mentally ill. You promise to steer priests of the Diocese away from this wonderful charitable Foundation because your feelings are hurt.
Pardon me, Father, but did you just have a temper tantrum which might be expected from an ill tempered grade schooler? I would hope that as pastor of a parish you would not manifest such juvenile behavior by vindictively threatening retaliation. If vindictive words and retaliative behavior are your modus operandi, I suggest you seek anger management if not for yourself, for the sake of your parishioners.
[P.S.] FYI: The Karla Smith Foundation booked Bissingers for the dinner while the building was being remodeled and thus were able to save significant money. It is true KSF advertisement promises "a feast" will be served with an evening of "decadence." The food choices the dinner offers are chicken, fish or vegetarian. Included in the price of $75.00, KSF is able to offer the dinner, entertainment and still make a modest profit to help defray the cost of the free programs it offers for the mentally ill and families whose lives have been impacted by suicide.
Dear Fr. Deiters,
I am sorry that my recent column about the upcoming Priests' Convocation offended you. As Convocation Chairperson, you, Fr. Junker and probably others worked hard in planning and implementing this important gathering. Along with your considerable parish responsibilities, this added task indicates your leadership and concern for the diocesan church and, in particular, for your brother priests. I am grateful for your service on all these fronts, and I pray for and wish all of you continued success in your ministry.
I too am concerned about divisiveness in our church, both universally and in our diocese. For over 50 years I have been involved in various ministerial leadership roles in three dioceses and nationally. My commitment is personal, deep, and permanent. I am correctly labeled a "progressive Catholic" and, by that, I mean that I look to the future and foresee a Catholic Church even more closely aligned with the gospel and the teachings of Vatican II. While I have been loyal to all the Popes in my life, I am especially supportive of Pope Francis and the initiatives he has promoted and the lifestyle he lives.
Obviously, we have some differences regarding the coming convocation and, I would assume, on other issues as well. I consider these differences as healthy and I would welcome opportunities to dialogue about them personally. I firmly believe that honest dialogue among people committed to the church is not only desirable, but also necessary as together we seek ways to live the gospel ever more faithfully.
I do have some specific comments about your email regarding the convocation:
- I made two main points in my column: in my opinion, the convocation is a missed opportunity to focus our priests on the practical implications of the initiatives that Pope Francis has created, and that the dinner at Kmoll's sends a disturbing message. I still support those points.
- I want to emphasize that I write a column which, by its nature, is a personal opinion piece.
- Based on response from my readers, I do give voice to a large segment of the Catholic population. I get both positive and negative reactions which I expect since it is an opinion column.
- This convocation column has nothing to do with the Karla Smith Foundation. My opinions about the church, and the convocation, are totally unrelated to the thousands of people dealing with mental illness or suicide that we have helped in the past ten years and will continue to assist for many years to come. Please do not hold them hostage because you disagree with my church-related opinions. I never have and never would mix any of my opinions about the church in with my work with KSF. I respect our clients and their struggles too much to involve them in my ideas about our church.
- There is, however, a faith based dimension to KSF. We adopt an approach similar to Twelve Step programs: belief in a Higher Power is a critical part of recovery whether that recovery is from mental illness/substance abuse, the need to cope with the mental illness of a family member, or the suicide of a loved one. In fact, we recently launched a faith-based program we call Companions which partners a family coping with mental illness with a trained Companion who helps the family emerge from isolation and enter into community.
- You mentioned that you planned to inform the convocation about the ministry of KSF and I thank you for that. I ask you to reconsider your decision to change that plan. As I said, my positions on church matters are not relevant to our KSF programs for those in need. If you survey our local mental health scene, you will find that KSF offers some services that no one else does and that there is an immense lack of services which is getting worse because of state funding cut-backs and St. Elizabeth's closing their Behavioral Health Unit. Faith based communities, including our Catholic parishes, can help fill that ever-widening gap and KSF has a program that can help.
- There is a major, significant difference between the priests having dinner at Kmoll's and KSF holding our Dinner Auction at Bissinger's. We must have compassionate wealthy people at our fundraiser in order to raise the funds needed to serve our clients. Our commitment to the poor is manifested by our free service to any family dealing with mental illness or suicide. So, yes, we encourage, invite, and entice wealthy people to a venue that is comfortable to them in the hope that they will be generous to our mission. There is no such mission when the priests dine at Kmoll's as a function of the convocation.
- In terms of the "tone" of my column: I really am not a bitter person and I am sorry that you read it that way. I see some things in our church that I would like to change and I write about them. I have degrees in theology so my opinions are not just "surface pot-shots." I also know some church history and church teaching. I use a "chatty" style because people tend to read it more and I am comfortable with it. If you read my columns regularly, or my book of columns, you will find that that there are many times when I am very positive, upbeat, and complimentary about a variety of things in the church. My "nature" is to be positive and optimistic.
I'm afraid I could go on a lot more but I will mercifully stop here. Thank you for your patience if you got this far. I repeat that I apologize if I offended you and, as I said in the column: "Our pastors are on the front lines of the Church and deserve our respect and collaboration." I believe that statement even when I disagree with some decisions and a variety of things in the church. I also repeat my willingness to dialogue in person.
May God bless all of you,