COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – The Paulist Priests at the St. Thomas More Newman Center said they feel “disrespected and devastated” after learning the Catholic bishop would install a new executive director, stripping them of their authority to run the Ohio State University ministry. Instead, they said they will leave.
Catholic Diocese of Columbus Bishop Earl Fernandes said he wanted the Paulists to stay on, but under the authority of the diocese, as he focuses on student evangelization and the vocation of new priests.
But many members of the Newman congregation said they believe the Paulists were asked to leave as part of a national conservative trend because the Newman Center opens its arms to the gay community.
At Boston University, the University of Texas, and now Ohio State University, Paulist priests have been asked to leave after decades of service.
“Some morning, I am going to wake up and I am going to say not only did I lose my job, I lost my home,” said Father Vinny McKiernan.
McKiernan, 91, is trying to figure out where he will go now after serving the Newman Center for nearly four decades with the Paulist mission of welcoming all, including gay singles and couples.
“But when the bishop comes and it violates what he thinks and he doesn’t even ask about the inclusion in this community, he just tells them, ‘No. You obey me and not your congregational directives,’” said Newman Center member Marie Sweeney.
“Jesus spent a lot of time with the outcasts, the lepers, the prostitutes, and publicans, so what’s wrong with dealing with the outcasts in the cast of characters of Jesus,” McKiernan said.
“Many of the things are not… they are rooted more in rumor and fear than in fact,” Fernandes said.
Fernandes was asked if the changes at the Newman Center are because it is welcoming to the LGBTQ community.
“Well, as I said in the statement, the move had nothing to do with that,” he said. “It had everything to do with those priorities I mentioned earlier: Evangelization and vocations.”
Fernandes also adheres to the teachings of the church, which states same-sex attraction is wrong and gays should practice celibacy.
“So if somebody says to me, ‘Look, Father, I experience same-sex attraction, but I want to live the church’s teaching, I want to live in the freedom of the sons and daughters of God, can you help me?’ I want to say, ‘Yeah, we can help you,’” Fernandes said.
“I’ve been in a relationship for 41 years with my partner,” said congregation member Joe Gentilini, and for all that time, the couple has attended mass at the Newman Center.
“Where are they going to bury me?” Gentilini asked. “Do I have to deny who I am, or give up my partner? That’s not going to happen, so where do I go? My whole heart was just sucked out of me.”
Fernandes insists focusing on students will not result in the exclusion of others.
“This is one of the things that came out in the many e-mails that I received, that many people find the welcoming atmosphere at the Newman Center, and that’s what we hope continues, that people have the sense of belonging,” he said.
The final Mass for the Paulists will be held Sunday, July 31. Fernandes said he hopes members of the congregation will be open and welcoming to the new, young priests he will be sending to the Newman Center.