Bishop Moves Openly Gay Priest. Parishioners Protest.

Roman Catholic Bishops assign priests within their diocese.

When priests are ordained, they place their hands between those of the bishop in a sign of their obedience to him.

Bishop Michael Barber, of the Diocese of Oakland, has evidently reassigned Father Bill Edens, an openly gay priest who has been pastor at Newman Hall Holy Spirit Parish in Berkeley Ca.

Father Edens responded to this with an emotional homily that included reading an excerpt from a poem: “A friend once gave me a gift, a box of darkness, and it took me a long time to discover that even this was a gift.”

Parishioners at Newman Hall Holy Parish have held meetings in an attempt to try to fashion a protest about Father Edens’ reassignment. Father Edens has not participated in these meetings.

Bishop Barber has evidently said in private that he wants to change the pastoral direction of this parish.

Is moving this priest part of that “change in direction?”

Is the priest being punished in some way?

I don’t know. All I know for certain is that re-assigning priests is part of any bishop’s authority and that these reassignments are often painful, both for the priest in question and for the parish.

People grow close to their pastor. They confide in him and learn to trust him. He becomes a source of comfort and Christ-like love for them. When he’s reassigned, it can feel like being orphaned.

Priests return this love. They become the one who knows all these things about the people around them that no one else knows. They are the repository of their parishioner’s darkest secrets and deepest trust. Being torn away from this is like being tossed out of a warm bed and into the cold rain.

Yet, as Father Edens said with his poem, even this “box of darkness” is a gift. Because new beginnings and fresh starts keep both the priest and the parishioners focused on Christ instead of one another. It is easy for a parish to become ingrown and fixed on itself and its own small issues. A parish can lose sight of the fact that it is part of the Universal Church and that the head of that Church is Jesus Christ, not father so-and-so.

I don’t doubt that this parish and priest are suffering because of this move. But I also know that if they accept it in faith in Christ, that it will lead them eventually to a closer and more trusting walk with Our Lord.

From East Bay Express:

During Sunday Mass several weeks ago at Newman Hall Holy Spirit Parish in Berkeley, Father Bernard Campbell spoke of anger, bitterness, and sadness. At the end of the service, the pastor read a short excerpt from a poem: “A friend once gave me a gift, a box of darkness, and it took me a long time to discover that even this was a gift.”

The quote was his way of helping parishioners process the surprising news he had just delivered: Michael Barber, the new bishop of the Oakland Diocese, had decided to remove him and another pastor, Father Bill Edens, from Newman Hall. The “darkness” appeared to be a reference to the fact that, as Campbell told the crowd, the bishop had not met with the pastors or given them any information on the reason for his decision. It was, however, the bishop’s direct order, he said. And yet more troubling was the fact that, according to the pastor, Barber had made it clear that the removal of these two priests supported his broader goal “to see a major redirection of ministry at Newman.” The bishop had apparently expressed this intention last fall to the leadership of the Paulist Fathers, the Roman Catholic order that has run Newman Hall for more than a century.

The details of this “new vision,” as Campbell also described it in his remarks, are not yet clear. In the weeks since the February 16 speech — a copy of which was posted on the church’s website — parishioners at Newman Hall have continued to send letters to the bishop demanding an explanation. A day after the news broke, hundreds of churchgoers met at Newman Hall to discuss the situation and ways they might protest. Campbell and Edens did not attend. The bishop and the Diocese of Oakland have not publicly addressed this backlash or responded to individual parishioners who have written letters.

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  • Bill S

    It seems like around the Hosch way to move priests from one parish to the other. Why not sit down with them and discuss it?

    • pesq87

      IMHO that’s the crux of the problem. On the whole, Americans want transparency, discussion, reasoned debate and involvement in the institutions that are important to them. I’m not saying this to bash the RCC, but the fact is that’s just not their “business model” if you’ll excuse the expression. And their business model has kept them afloat for centuries.

  • Fabio Paolo Barbieri

    In the Catholic Church, the priesthood as such is vested in the Bishop. Look it up, it’s part of church teaching. The priest is the bishop’s assistant and has no independent authority, to the extent that if he leaves his bishop’s diocese, he loses all his canonical powers, unless he is “incardinated” in another bishop’s diocese. Therefore what this priest did – especially in preaching a sermon cleraly intended to anger his parishioners – is schismatic and rebellious, and in and of itself justifies the Bishop’s decision to transfer him.

  • SisterCynthia

    I thought it was “normal” to move priests around every so often? Watching Protestant churches I’ve been in take a membership drop when “Our Most Beloved Rev. Bob” leaves the pulpit for whatever reason, I think it probably would be good, in some ways, to have a bit of motion, just so people can remember that Jesus is the head of the church, and that just as the church predates that dear brother, it will survive him, too. Not to mention, different folks have different giftings and personalities they can bring and reach more folks on a personal level. Loss is always sad, but it doesn’t have to be the end. :)

    • hamiltonr

      It is normal Sister. The local press in California is just trying to make a big deal about it because the priest in question is openly gay. The priest himself kind of fueled this with references in his homily to private comments of the bishop that he wanted to make changes in the ministerial direction of the parish. But in truth, moving priests every so often is a routine thing.

    • Dale

      SisterCynthia, my understanding is that diocesan priests are typically rotated every few years. Exceptions, of course, sometimes occur on an individual basis.

      When a religious order is tending to the needs of a parish, they do so at the invitation of the bishop. The bishop authorizes (incardinates) each priest of the order who is assigned to that parish. However, generally the bishop allows the religious order to run the affairs of the parish and to decide which priests will be assigned there. Still, the parish is ultimately the responsibility of the bishop, and he can terminate the agreement with the religious order if he decides that is best.

      My sense of what is going on in Berkeley is that the bishop requested that the religious order reassign the priests, The priests will go do their order’s business somewhere else, I would guess outside the Diocese of Oakland. The news article mentioned that the order has already selected two new priests to replace the ones who are leaving..

    • Manny

      It is normal. Read my comment above on the policy at my diocese.

  • FW Ken

    One problem is that I don’t know for sure what it means that he’s “openly gay”? Is he afflicted with same-sex attractions and fights it as best he can? That is not the usual meaning of “openly”. I would expect, though don’t know, that he regards his sexuality as something positive, to be celebrated. I also don’t know if he is personally chaste (continent), but suspect he is. And unless he is flaunting a sexual relationship, it’s none of my business. That leaves the important point: is he teaching that same-sex acts are not immoral? Does he dissent from Catholic moral doctrine?

    A second point is that (if I read it correctly), he belongs to a religious order, the Paulist Fathers. As such, his obedience is to his religious superiors, and indirectly to the bishop. I don’t know all the ins-and-outs of the relationship, but the bishop won’t be transferring him to another parish in the diocese. One scenario – a likely one – is that the bishop wants to change the direction of the diocese away from dissent and to the Catholic Faith. To do that, he invited the Paulists to leave or provide faithful priests. My diocese has a similar situation with Third Order Regular Franciscans, although our cadre of priests was not adequate enough to give them up.

    • Manny

      Good points Ken.

    • Colin Kerr

      So far you are the only one to bring up the relevant points.

  • Theodore Seeber

    My parish has been through three priests in the last five years. It is hard indeed. But one thing I’ve noticed, is that our parish had become a bit of a cult of personality around first a very charismatic left-leaning priest that I had followed there, then the hand picked replacement who was there for 10 years before leaving the priesthood to get married.

    We’re now down to a 1/3rd the number of people at Sunday Mass, under a priest I could really grow to like if he’ll let me. He’s a canon lawyer, and the *first* thing he did was end all the liturgical abuse.

  • Dale

    Some parishioners are also concerned that the bishop could be looking to
    prioritize serving UC Berkeley students over longtime community

    When I was in college, the students who attended the university’s Catholic center were encouraged to occasionally attend Mass at the local parish in the community. However, when we graduated, we were expected to attend there.

    I think there is wisdom in that. The university Catholic center is there to shape the faith of young persons who are still learning what it is to be Catholic in the adult world. The priest, and his staff, should have that as their focus. And their work shouldn’t be interfered with by mature Catholics who may have strayed from orthodoxy or have particular agendas.

    If the bishop is attempting to create this focus, so the faith of the students will grow and deepen, then surely it is a good thing.

  • Manny

    Here in the NYC diocese there is a rule that a priest can be moved after a six year term in one parish and must be moved after two six year terms in one parish. I love the current pastor at my church. I think he’s approaching his first six year term. I hope he stays, and I certainly rue the day when he must be moved. The details of Fr. Eden’s move are too sketchy to form any conclusion. But if you learn more I would be interested in hearing about it.

    • hamiltonr

      In our archdiocese, the bishop could, theoretically, move ever priest, every day. The standard practice is that priests under 60 cannot stay at one assignment longer than 12 years, but may be — and are — moved at any time less than that. Older priests are left in place most of the time. There are also exceptions for priests with health problems or some other extenuating circumstance, but they are not the rule. It is all at the presiding bishop’s discretion.

  • Mary E.

    What I noticed is that both of the priests are being moved (Father Bernard Campbell and Father Bill Eden), but the headline focuses only on the priest who is openly gay. (Father Campbell is the one who read the excerpt from the poem.). The moving of both priests suggests that “the major redirection of ministry” is the reason, not the fact that Father Eden is gay. I don’t know much about on-campus parishes such as Newman Hall–does the college or university contribute funding towards the parish? If so, and UCAL-Berkeley is providing some support, that could be a contributing factor.

    • hamiltonr

      I agree that the headline is not a good reflection of the article. I picked it up from the original source. Mea Culpa.

  • Frank Hale

    The East Bay Express is not a great source for news on the Catholic Church. If anyone wishes to verify that, you can simply read a few issues of this alternative, edgy publication.

    Newman Hall, also called Holy Spirit Parish, has been staffed by Paulist priests for about 100 years, and that tradition continues. It is the Paulists, not the local bishop, who make the staffing assignments, as indicated in the first announcement in last Sunday’s bulletin (caps in original).

    “THE PAULIST FATHERS have announced the appointment of Ivan Tou, CSP as pastor at Newman Hall and Dat Tran, CSP as associate pastor beginning sometime in July. More personal information about both Paulists will be outside after mass. Bishop Michael Barber has approved them and welcomes their coming.”

    This is not, as the Express spins it in their headline, “Gay priest ousted by conservative bishop.” Rather, it is an orderly cooperation between a local bishop and a religious order to carry out a refresh of assignments for religious priests. No doubt some people prefer their old, familiar priest. I hope they can all learn to love and support their young, new priests when they arrive. They are all Paulists.