COLLEGEVILLE, Minn. — When St. Paul and Minneapolis Archbishop John Nienstedt was invited to celebrate Mass at St. John’s University’s Abbey Church on Sept. 26, the last thing he expected was a protest.
A protest is what he got.
In response, the archbishop upheld Church teaching, just as his predecessor Archbishop Harry Flynn did, by denying homosexual activists holy Communion and choosing to bless them instead.
According to St. John’s University spokesman Michael Hemmesch, the archbishop had been invited to celebrate Mass by the university’s president, Father Robert Koopman. Upon his arrival for Mass, said archdiocesan spokesman Dennis McGrath, the archbishop was informed by Koopman that there were many in attendance who were wearing rainbow pins, buttons, ribbons and sashes.
The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has a policy in place that was first instituted by Archbishop Flynn and has been continued by Archbishop Nienstedt to deny the Eucharist to those who use Communion as a time for a political statement or protest.
According to the university’s student newspaper, The Record, the protest was organized by senior Ana Seivert, educational liaison for People Representing the Sexual Minority (PRiSM), who used e-mail to rally the university-sanctioned organization.
The Mass took place at the conclusion of the campus’ “Coming Out Week” activities. A group of approximately 25 students, staff and religious attended the Mass wearing rainbow paraphernalia.
“The Eucharist is a sacred time, and the Church does not permit someone to use the reception of Communion as a backdrop or stage for protests,” explained McGrath, director of communications for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. “The Vatican has spoken on that, and this is just a continuation of that policy.”
Archbishop Nienstedt was traveling out of the country and unavailable for comment. Diocese of St. Cloud Bishop John Kinney, where the incident took place, was unavailable for comment.
“We did not act in a political manner,” said Elizabeth Gleich, vice president of PRiSM via e-mail. “The second Archbishop Nienstedt denied us Communion he made it political.”
McGrath noted that nothing the archbishop did was “political,” but that he was merely following Church teaching.
In fact, PRiSM’s Seivert told The Record, “We did this because we needed to … make a statement.”
Following the archbishop’s Mass, a priest at the abbey held a short Mass and distributed the Eucharist for those who were denied Communion by the archbishop.
“I offered a Mass following the student Mass to those students who weren’t allowed to receive the Eucharist,” Benedictine Father Rene McGraw told The Record. “It’s the Church that’s causing the problems here, not the students or their opinions. In comparison to the Benedictines and the College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University community, Nienstedt and archbishops in general are conservative.”
Former graduates say that the abbey and university have long been home not only to speakers who promote dissent from Church teaching, but also open faculty support for homosexual lifestyles.
The student organization PRiSM’s constitution states that it exists to “offer an opportunity for students to become further informed about and comfortable with accepting all sexual orientations.” It does so through speakers and public events on campus such as a “Coming Out Week” each fall and a “Proud Week” each spring.
Margaret Cruikshank, who spent two years at St. John’s University as a fellow of the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, wrote for the Gay Community News in 1980, describing St. John’s Abbey as “a kind of gay male commune” and “a center of gay culture.”
In addition, the abbey is home to a significant number of monks and priests who have been accused of sexual abuse.
According to Pat Marker, a 1983 graduate of St. John’s, former External Review Board member for the abbey and author of the website Behind the Pine Curtain, 53 members of the community have at least one allegation of abuse or misconduct, 15 of which have been identified publicly and placed “on restriction.”
Historically, abuse extended all the way to the top, with the abbey’s former Abbot John Eidenschink admitting that he sexually abused two former monks. He was abbot from 1971-1979. The first incidents of abuse occurred in the 1960s when Father Eidenschink was subprior, the abbey’s third in rank, and the second incidents occurred during the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Marker estimated that since 1955 there have been more than 250 victims.
The protest during Mass was only the latest controversy that has followed on the heels of the archdiocesan mailing of DVDs on the sanctity of traditional marriage to 400,000 of the state’s Catholics in late September. The effort was funded entirely by a private donor and supported by all of Minnesota’s six archdiocesan and diocesan bishops.
It includes a message from Archbishop Nienstedt supporting a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex “marriage,” as well as a presentation by the Knights of Columbus.
Much of the criticism leveled at the DVDs has come from individuals who receive funding from the Church.
Archdiocesan priest Father Michael Tegeder was the first priest to publicly protest. Father Tegeder made his opposition known through a letter to the editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
“It is very hard to make the case that a small percentage of the population who bond with members of their own sex and seek to live in a committed relationship with members of their own sex could have anything but a positive effect on the general population’s appreciation of stable, faithful, life-giving unions,” wrote Father Tegeder, who is pastor at St. Edward’s in Bloomington.
“This man is leading us in the wrong direction,” Father Tegeder told the National Catholic Reporter. “It’s bullying behavior. It’s not the work of Jesus Christ.”
Another protester was Minneapolis’ Basilica of St. Mary employee Lucinda Naylor, who said she planned to create a protest sculpture using the DVDs. Naylor told Minnesota Daily that she “wanted to send the message that not all Catholics share the exclusionary views of the archbishop.”
She organized DVD collection efforts outside five Twin Cities’ area Catholic churches. A small group supporting Naylor created the website ReturntheDVD.org. At press time, more than 700 DVDs had been collected.
Naylor, who had been employed by the basilica for the past 15 years, was suspended from her position by the pastor two days after announcing her art protest.
“If you’re going to have someone associated with you going against the main thrust of what you’re doing and lobbying against the teachings of the Church, it’s pretty logical you’re going to take some action,” said archdiocesan spokesman McGrath.
“There are a lot of Catholics who are ‘homeless,’” said Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. “They’re in the wrong Church. If they don’t like the beliefs or tenets of the Catholic Church, they can go elsewhere, but to stay and be like termites eating at the edifice of the Catholic Church shouldn’t be tolerated. Why do we tolerate people working for the Catholic Church who misrepresent the Church?”
If the archbishop’s criticism has come from surprising places, so has some of his support. The Star Tribune, while disagreeing with the Church’s position and the DVD’s message, reaffirmed its support for freedom of speech and religion, saying that the Church should not lose its tax-exempt status because of the DVD.
Said the Star Tribune in an Oct. 7 editorial, “A free society should respect the Catholic Church’s right to advocate for its principles.”
Tim Drake is based in St. Joseph, Minnesota.