Bel Air Catholics discuss papacy, sex abuse, priesthood, other church issues

Parishioners spoke their minds on Catholic church issues, including some people's dissatisfaction with the direction of the papacy, during a frank, emotional discussion held at Bel Air's St. Margaret Church on Sunday afternoon.

Organized by Msgr. Michael Schleupner of St. Margaret's in light of Pope Benedict's resignation, the event drew more than 100 people to one of the largest parishes in the Baltimore Archdiocese to talk about everything from sex abuse in the church to the challenge of attracting young people.

Some parishioners who attended said they are angry about the direction the church has taken in recent decades, including the handling of sex abuse cases involving priests, while others were equally passionate in defending it.

At one point, Schleupner, the parish leader, said he could support allowing priests to marry.

One man drew a round of applause when he said his friends and seven siblings might be active in the church if they heard more church leaders admit to making "terrible mistakes."

He said he and his father, who grew up a "textbook Catholic," are "disgusted" by the opulence and hypocrisy of the papacy and thought the pope "had contempt for American Catholics."

"There have been good priests and there have been bad priests," he said, adding: "I have been dying to talk this way for so long, I just want to keep my thoughts together."

Another man asked Schleupner what he thought the church's biggest problem is, and Schleupner replied it was a "staggering question."

One woman had no problem answering it, however, calling secrecy the main problem.

She said she wishes Benedict had said openly he was stepping down for reasons such as the need for new blood or a new person to address the issue of pedophile priests.

"I think if it was all in the open, we would feel more like we are the church," she said, getting another round of applause from the others.

"The people are the church, but we are in the dark about everything that has happened," she added.

Another man pointed out the pope made it illegal for gay men to enter the priesthood.

"How many other religions have a law like that?" he asked.

Schleupner, for one, said he has "a good deal of respect" for Benedict, saying he liked many decisions the pope made.

Nevertheless, he agreed with attendees that some aspects of church life need to change.

"We got into a culture, really, of mistakes," the monsignor said. "I definitely didn't agree with everything he did as pope, I'll be honest with you. I thought he was far too inclined to tradition at times and those who wanted the Latin Mass and things like that. That happens to be my own personal opinion."

He also said "the entire structure of the priesthood" should be looked at, including potentially the issue of celibacy.

Schleupner noted Pope John Paul II had made an exception to allow married men to become priests and said celibacy was not essential to the priesthood.

After one man asked whether he thought the church should consider moving in the direction of Eastern Catholic Churches by allowing priests to marry, Schleupner replied: "That's exactly what I think."

Schleupner also said administrative tasks should be re-distributed so priests can spend more time on spiritual issues, adding that monastic training may not be appropriate for a diocesan priest.

"We need to create a sense of spirituality and sense of prayer that is really appropriate for a busy diocesan priest," he said.

"There's lots of things we can do in the mission of the church, there's lots of things that occupy my days, but when you really boil it all down …if I'm not about conveying spirituality, a sense of God and how to live our lives in a godly way,...we ought to just pack it up," Schleupner said. "It could be that some of what we're doing is clouding that."

"Why is it that young adults who are struggling with the church in significant numbers,… they'll say, 'I'm spiritual but I'm not religious,'" he continued. "When I read that, I think, whoa, whoa, whoa. I mean, I have to really think about that, that we need to be conveying a spirituality. I mean, that's got to be the heart of my ministry."

One man also said it made sense to let priests marry if other "important occupations," such as presidents and doctors, can.

"I see no reason why a priest couldn't, too," he said.

The man added he did not like the media discussion of getting a pope from the developing world.

"It bothers me that [people say] now is the time for an African or South American pope," he said. "It's time for the best pope. I don't think we should be looking at a nationality."

Some people at the forum criticized the media for coverage of church sex abuse. One woman said a recent education study found the Catholic Church had the least amount of abuse of any religion.

"The media has distorted the Catholic church and they may be the cause of people leaving," she said.

Another woman argued with her, saying the men involved should have been brought to justice.

Schleupner, however, said he was not one to bash the media.

"I think we did the deeds; the media had a right to report it," he said. "I do think it is fair to say that in addition to the current issue, we as a society have brushed this under the rug for a long time."

After one person asked Schleupner how parishioners' comments can get filtered up to higher levels of the church, he said he was not sure, outside of his ability to influence change as a monsignor.

"I'm on a board and we can speak very frankly in those venues," he explained. "For me, it starts here, listening, talking with all of you."

Attendees seemed pleased with the discussion.

"I think it was open. I think it was heartfelt. It was what I was expecting and hoping," Ron Basener, of Bel Air, said afterward. "Father Mike did a heck of a good job."

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