Tell them to their faces

Posted: June 23, 2013

DEAR ARCHBISHOP Chaput,

By now you know the name Pat Smiley. You have had some back-and-forth emails with her about the June 30 closure of her Frankford parish, St. Joachim.

She requested that you meet with parish members, as their "shepherd and brother in truth," to discuss alternatives to shuttering the church. She pointed out that closing St. Joachim, along with nearby Mater Dolorosa Church, would leave Frankford without a Catholic church for the first time in 168 years.

So Smiley wasn't concerned merely about St. Joachim going dark but about Frankford losing completely the bricks-and-mortar presence of the faith that has sustained generations.

Your response was first to snip, "Who appointed you as representative of your parish?" and then to scold Smiley that she "cannot go around those who represent me to see me personally."

And that pretty much characterized the remainder of your correspondence with her. Smiley would implore you to hear her out; you'd respond that the decision was made and ask her to get with the program already.

At least you closed your brief notes with nice lines like "May the Lord give you peace." But you should've added, " . . . because I ain't about to."

The truth is, you ought to stop hiding behind emails and lackeys, look the people of St. Joachim square in the eye and tell them exactly why you're shutting them down. They deserve honest answers from the man who is exercising his power to upend their spiritual lives.

Because this is a parish that has taken care of itself.

It has no debt and sends financial support to the archdiocese. Its modern, low-maintenance, handicapped-accessible church is in great physical shape, thanks to the hard work everyone did to rebuild it after a devastating fire in 1979. Its rented-out parish buildings generate six-figure income that more than covers the salaries of the Oblates of St. Francis DeSales, who have staffed the church for 35 years. So you're not even on the hook to supply St. Joachim with an archdiocesan priest.

Beyond that, the church and its 200 devout members, many of them older sentries of the neighborhood, provide food and spiritual sustenance to a community whose poor members struggle to feel part of a world increasingly enamored by wealth and luck.

St. Joachim's very presence telegraphs, "We are still here because you still matter."

Until the announced closing, says Smiley, "We were doing just fine in the service of God, our archdiocese and our community."

She and her fellow parish members deserve to tell you this to your face, and you owe it to them to listen. Don't worry - they will be well-mannered when you meet. They already showed graciousness by canceling the protest they'd planned to hold in Downingtown at the June 8 re-dedication of the $9.6 million refurbishment of St. Joseph's parish.

At your request, they stayed home so as not to distract from the joy of those getting a new house of worship while they themselves were losing theirs. Your representative, Monsignor Arthur Rodgers, suggested that St. Joachim members instead attend Sunday-evening services on Father's Day at the Cathedral Basilica of Ss. Peter and Paul, where you'd be celebrating Mass.

They canceled their own Father's Day plans for their chance to meet with you for a few minutes at the back of church. But your representative said you had visitors from Colorado to entertain, and you hurried off. The St. Joachim's pilgrims trudged home, disappointed and demoralized.

I wish I could tell you all of this in person, but you're in Spain for a conference hosted by Serra International, whose aim is to "foster and affirm vocations to the priesthood and vowed religious life."

Please know that the people of St. Joachim are citizen priests, examples of God's love in action. And they do it right in the community that their church calls home. They are a drain on no one - especially not on the archdiocese - and they suspect that their healthy rental finances and sellable church building are the real reason you want them out of Frankford.

That's why they want a meeting with you (and why they've been carring "Wanted" posters with your face on them at the daily demonstrations they hold outside the archdiocese office on North 17th Street). They want the truth, and they want you to tell it to their faces.

They deserve no less.

You can see a video of St. Joachim's parishioners "Keeping the Faith" at www.keepthefaithinfrankford.org/?p=119


 Email: polaner@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: @RonniePhilly

Blog: ph.ly/RonnieBlog

Columns: ph.ly/Ronnie

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