Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Victory in Hartford

What began as an attack on the Catholic Church here in Connecticut, I think has the potential to be something to truly strengthen the Church in the end.

As you know, two state legislators here - Sen. Andrew J. McDonald, D-Stamford, and Rep. Michael P. Lawlor, D-East Haven - proposed legislation that would remove priests and bishops from any substantive role in the Catholic Church here leaving them mere functionaries and providers of sacraments while all true leadership in the Church would be conducted by locally elected lay boards.

The response to this by the Catholic community was loud, fast, and clear - keep your hands off of our Church. And I have to say, I was so wonderfully strengthened by the defense of the Church by its members.

There was supposed to be a hearing on this bill in the State House today and the state's bishops encouraged Catholics to come out en masse to protest this bill. Well, they let their voices be heard and this seemed to scare McDonald and Lawlor and they had a sudden change of heart and took the bill out of consideration.

So, in this, the Church has won a tremendous victory. As a Church, the last decade has been a tough one because of problems within and attack from without and it was beautiful to see people proud of their church and in defense of their priests and bishops. I for one am so grateful for that.

But, I also think this is a good example of what we can accomplish when we speak with one voice. I hope that Catholics are emboldened by this and that we seek to work together more on the serious issues facing our time.

I also hope that the voters of Stamford and East Haven don't forget this sad moment when two of their representatives have made this effort to attack the Church and the Constitution and that the two be returned home from their elected roles in the legislation. They are not worthy of the trust that voters placed in them. Their actions are shameful.

Here is an account of today's activity in the Capitol from the Danbury "News-Times":

HARTFORD -- Shortly after the rainy rush hour Wednesday morning, the buses -- more than 50 in all -- loaded up with the faithful in church parking lots throughout the state.

Their destination was the Capitol, and the goal was to make known opposition to a bill that, even though it was declared dead in the General Assembly, would have changed the way parish boards are incorporated.

People like Mary Lou Dulemba, an elderly member of Sacred Heart Church in Stamford, joined other parishioners who literally took over the Capitol complex Wednesday.

"We decided to take a stand," she said in the late-winter cold during an hour-long rally outside the Capitol. "You can't tell us what to do. It's not enough we're going socialist in this country, and now they're going to tell us what to do in church? No."

Maria Grieco, 18, of New Milford, agreed. "I'm here to rally in defense of my religion and my religious beliefs," said the student at Felician College, a church-affiliated school in New Jersey.

Virginia Harger, parish secretary at St. Joseph's Church in Shelton, said 46 people boarded its bus for the one-hour drive to Hartford.

"We have to protest the actions that were instituted to deny our religious freedom," Harger said.

Despite the legislation being killed Tuesday, the issue requires a show of strength and unity, she said. "You have to be vigilant. You have to make sure that something else isn't going to pop up, and you have to take a stand."

Katherine Vargas, 25, and her husband, Bryan Mercier, 35, who live in Milford, hopped on one of several buses at St. Mary's Church in Norwalk at 9:30 a.m., bound for the Capitol.

Mercier, as the youth minister at St. John Church in Darien, is a Bridgeport Diocese employee. That church is where the Rev. Michael Jude Fay embezzled about $1.4 million to support a lavish lifestyle, a crime for which he is serving three years in prison.

Vargas, an animator, said they weren't parishioners there at the time of the scandal, but she doesn't know anyone in favor of the legislation, which would have required more lay members to serve on parish boards.

"Or at least if they are, they haven't come out publicly," she said. "The feeling is very negative toward this bill."

Mercier agreed. "Everyone at the church is outraged. They find it absolutely preposterous. They can't even believe it can be put on the table, and I've talked to a lot of people," he said. "I don't know of anyone who actually believes in it."

Signs on display included a large banner that read "We protest Connecticut's ubiquitous attack on the freedom of the Catholic Church."

There were many hand-painted signs as well, including "My faithful voice says: stop dividing my church" and "Religious Freedom: Our Constitutional Right."

Another sign was targeted at the two lawmakers ­-- Sen. Andrew J. McDonald, D-Stamford, and Rep. Michael P. Lawlor, D-East Haven -- who raised the controversial legislation for a public hearing in the Judiciary Committee, then killed it when the controversy exploded over the weekend in churches throughout the state.

"McDonald," the sign read, "Stamford is watching you."

Msgr. Stephen DiGiovanni, pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church in Stamford, told the crowd the now-dead legislation would have been a blow to the church's religious authority and a step back in time, when Connecticut laws hindered non-Protestant denominations.

"The problem and the question of lay control of parishes and buildings, real property and finances was not then, and is not now, simply a question of lay oversight, but the desire to be autonomous," DiGiovanni said.

"We are not a religion that needs change with every change of wind or doctrine."

He said the Catholic approach to authority, with bishops and priest central to the life of the church, is much different than non-hierarchical denominations. He translated an old Italian saying, "Whoever controls the purse strings, rules."

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