The sight of a dozen elderly, white, progressive Catholics singing “We Shall Overcome” as they protested against an African priest who threw out their felt banners would be funny, but for the fact that it happened in a church just after Holy Mass.
The clash between liberal parishioners and Fr George Kuforiji at St Francis parish in Portland, Oregon, blew up in the Catholic media world last week, following the publication of a long feature that ran on the front page of The Oregonian’s Sunday edition on August 11.
The fact that Fr Kuforiji was a Nigerian immigrant added another layer of irony to the protest. One of the points of contention was that he threw out a banner that said “Immigrants and Refugees Welcome.”
Whatever the comic undertones of the protest in Portland, by the standards of mainstream coverage of Catholic issues, The Oregonian’s treatment of the controversy was fairly good. But a few lines revealed who the reporter was mostly speaking to. For instance: “Parishioners say they’ve shown it is the authority of the Church they do not revere. They resist authority and find God in their resistance.”
Fr Kuforiji, upon taking over the parish, began to restore liturgical normalcy. The Oregonian story cites three changes parishioners objected to: kneeling after the Agnus Dei, cutting the “community statement” that parishioners concocted to say after the Creed, and insisting on approved translations of Holy Scripture.
The latter two changes, in particular, seem easily justified as corrections to liturgical abuses. Deacon Greg Kandra wrote at Patheos that “When a parish starts rewriting liturgical texts to remove God’s gender, and inserting its mission statement into Mass, that’s a serious problem.”
The Oregonian reported that the liturgical changes came during the tenure of Fr Don Durand, who served from 1970 to 1983, when “He and parishioners created progressive liturgy, embraced folk music during services and emphasised a social justice mission.”
The Catholic News Agency reported that several lawsuits have been settled with people who accused Durand of molesting them when they were boys and that Durand’s priestly faculties were withdrawn shortly after his retirement from active ministry in 2001.
Several of the women involved in the protest held up signs that said “Catholic Women Strike”, about which there is little information, other than a Facebook page that says they were inspired by a similar strike in Germany, and that “We will enlist as many Portland parishes as possible to join us in a strike June 22nd-29th.”
The Oregonian also published an accompanying video showing a woman holding up a sign during the intercessions. She said: “We are following the voice of Jesus, of love. Jesus of inclusion. Jesus of resisting the authorities because when we resist the law, we are in the Spirit of God.”
After Mass she stepped up to the ambo to claim that parishioners were being “abused” by Fr Kuforiji and the archdiocese. “We have been wanting real dialogue,” she explained. “I said that we are being abused. We are being abused in the Catholic Church by this priest, and by this archbishop.”
The protester’s name is Melinda Pittman, and she is a comic actress and long-standing parishioner. A quick search reveals Pittman has a graduate degree in Women’s Social Justice Theater. She was described by Spokane newspapers as a “feminist political comedian” in 1997, and she produced and directed a lesbian cowgirl musical in 2012, with the help of an LGBT Equity Foundation grant. A Virginia Tech alumni magazine boasts that she once entertained Hillary Clinton.
The efforts taken by the archdiocese to rein in St Francis seem to go even further than the parish itself. Pittman was also quoted in a story earlier this month about Catholic Charities taking over St Francis Dining Hall, one of the longtime ministries of the parish.
According to the story, many of the parishioners stopped going to Mass entirely, seeing the charity in explicitly religious terms, as the “Eucharist of the dining hall”.
Feeding the poor is a noble mission, but it is not a substitute sacrament.
“Melinda Pittman said they may not have as much money or resources,” the earlier Oregonian story added, “but parishioners can offer a sense of community and dignity that larger organisations like Catholic Charities can’t.”
The archdiocese said in a statement that it was “happy to be working with Fr George Kuforiji, pastor of St Francis Parish, to revitalise the parish so that it is able to better serve the growing population in the area as well as future generations of Catholics in Portland”.
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