COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — After more than six decades on Ohio State University’s campus, the St. Thomas More Newman Center is saying goodbye to its Paulist priests.
The Paulists, who have led the Catholic ministry for 66 years, will hold their final mass Sunday after Columbus Bishop Earl Fernandes announced at the end of June his plans to install a new executive director, stripping the New York-based Paulists of their authority to run the Newman Center.
“I’m weepy, I’m weepy,” said member and Paulist associate Mickey Brucken on Sunday. “I’m heartbroken. I don’t know where I’m going to go.”
“To say the least, our departure is heartbreaking to us Paulists after nearly 66 years of Paulist ministry with the people of God in Ohio,” Rev. Rene Constanza, president of the Paulist Fathers, said earlier this month.
The appointment of Father Adam Streitenberg to lead the Newman Center came one month after Fernandes was installed as the 13th bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Columbus — a move Fernandes said reflects his pastoral priorities of evangelization and promotion of priestly vocations.
“We reiterate that the Bishop wants to be close to young people and keep them engaged with the mission of the Church,” the diocese said.
The Paulists are an independent order of priests often viewed as progressive and well-known for welcoming everyone to worship and take communion, including the LGBTQ community.
Some 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.
“This all came as totally unexpected and shocking news about four weeks ago,” said Greg Stype, who had been a Newman Center member for more than 45 years. “There had been no outreach, there had been no explanation.”
At Boston University, the University of Texas, and now Ohio State, Paulist priests have been asked to leave after decades of service.
Joe Gentilini, who has attended the Newman Center with his partner of 41 years, said earlier this month that he is “devastated” by the change in leadership and feels as though he lost his “spiritual home” that welcomed him regardless of his sexuality.
“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 adheres to the teachings of the church, which states same-sex attraction is wrong and those in the LGBTQ community should practice celibacy.
“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.
But the diocese said the decision was “absolutely not motivated by anti-LGBTQ sentiments” or political motives, but strictly as a reflection of Fernandes’ desire to promote evangelization and priestly vocations among young people.
Fernandes, who said the diocese will focus on fostering a “welcoming atmosphere at the Newman Center,” said he offered the Paulists the opportunity to remain at Ohio State’s campus — but as chaplains who would answer to the diocese.
“Why do we need to take away from what’s here for that to happen,” asked member Julie Bibb.
“I think a campus ministry without that is regressive,” said Ken Watkins, associate pastor at the University Baptist Church. “I think that is a progressive campus ministry.”
Former director of the center Father Ed Novak said the combined community betters students.
“Having a resident and student community together really prepares the student to be out in the world after this,” he said.
Some in the community feel the change is for the better.
“I hope it’s a place of worship for all, but I do think it needs to be titled back towards the students, not as more so towards the older folks,” said Paul Nerswick, who has been a member for more than a decade.
But there are concerns that the new direction may make even the students feel less welcomed.
“I think that there will be some of them that feel welcome, but not all of them might not feel welcome,” Novak said.
Newman Center members have two future gatherings on the calendar: On Aug. 7 and 14.
On Aug. 7, members are invited to the Gateway Film Center to watch the Paulist Mass live stream from St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church in New York City; doors open at 9 a.m., with Mass at 10 a.m.
On Aug. 14, members are invited to the First Unitarian Universalist Church for the Newman Community Discernment, set to begin at 2 p.m.
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