Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Fight of our Fathers: Who's more Catholic?

By Ronnie Polaneczky
Philadelphia Daily News
October 21, 2008

The more the Rev. Jim St. George read the letter, the more steamed he got.

"Dear Reverend St. George," the brief note begins. "We, the Roman Catholic priests of the East Falls, Manayunk and Roxborough areas, respectfully request that your listing in The Review be placed under an appropriate heading. Some people might be mislead [sic] into thinking that St. Miriam is a Roman Catholic institution. You and we certainly don't wish to misrepresent ourselves to the public."

It listed the names of 10 priests, including Monsignor Joseph McGeown, who wrote the note and was the only one to pen his signature.

"It was so arrogant," says Rev. Jim, whose Manayunk church, St. Miriam Catholic Apostolic Church of Antioch, opened eight months ago in space rented from Mishkan Shalom synagogue at Freeland Avenue and Shurs Lane. "Their churches aren't more Catholic than mine! They don't own the word 'Catholic.' "

The priests sent their letter not only to the Philly Archdiocese's regional bishop and vicar, but also to The Review, the Roxborough paper whose neighborhood directory lists houses of worship by denomination.

That list includes eight Catholic ones, among which St. Miriam is the only Antioch-rite church, the others being Roman-rite.

Since the priests went public with their letter, Rev. Jim decided to do so with his response.

He took out a full-page newspaper ad that includes the priests' note on one side of the page, and his long, heartfelt response on the other. (To read it, go to http://go.philly.com/churchletter).

If this thing were a prize fight, I'd call it "Fight of Our Fathers: The Catholic Priest Smackdown!"

And Rev. Jim's letter would be its knockout punch.

Not many people know that Roman Catholics aren't the world's only Catholics. It just seems that way, given that most of the world's billion-plus members belong to the Roman rite.

In many ways, the Antioch and Roman rites are identical: Same liturgy, sacraments, ecclesiastical calendar and apostolic succession of its priests.

The Antioch church, like the Eastern Orthodox, split from the Roman church in the first millennium, but traces its patriarchs back to St. Peter, the founder of the church at Antioch (in what is now Turkey).

Antioch priests, however, can be male or female, gay or straight. Celibacy is not required, and marriage is allowed.

Can you see why the Antiochs might irk the Romans?

The Antioch church also tends to butt out of personal matters. So birth control, sexual orientation and divorce are hands-off.


All of this makes the 60-member St. Miriam a pleasing home to estranged Roman Catholics.

Rev. Jim said as much in his response. He had hoped to run it in The Review, but says it was rejected as "too controversial" by the paper (Review publisher Wes Rowe didn't return my calls for comment).

So he ran it in The Star, another Roxborough weekly.

"You see," Rev. Jim wrote in the Oct. 9 ad, "Saint Miriam accepts all those whom you reject: the gay and lesbian, those of differing opinions or denominations, those in mixed-religious marriages, those who are divorced or did not receive or seek annulment, those who are otherwise and somehow 'just not right' - everyone."

The positive response from the public has been startling: Calls, e-mails and, this past Sunday, eight newcomers at Mass.

"People have been saying, 'I didn't know a Catholic church like this existed,'" says Rev. Jim. "It's been a great teaching moment for Catholics."

Monsignor McGeown told me last week that he hadn't seen Rev. Jim's ad, but he seemed aghast at the idea of it.

"It was private communication" between us, said the monsignor, pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary. He didn't seem to get that, by sending a copy to The Review, he made his gripe public.

All he intended, he said, was to help Roman Catholics avoid confusion when they consulted The Review's directory (a free listing compiled by Review staff).

When I suggested that it seemed like he was trying to control use of the word "Catholic," he answered, "I have nothing else to say. I don't want to escalate the matter."

It all baffles Rev. Jim, 42, who by day is a chaplain at Lehigh Valley Medical Center and takes no salary from St. Miriam, whose start-up he financed himself.

After all, he notes, Philadelphia's Cardinal Justin Rigali himself sees him as a valid priest.

Last October, Rigali invited Rev. Jim to help celebrate the funeral Mass of slain Police Officer Chuck Cassidy.

Back then, Rev. Jim was a chaplain at Albert Einstein Medical Center, where Cassidy died, and he had ministered to the officer's family there.

"If you say Mass with the cardinal," Rev. Jim said, "I think you're a real priest."

Knockout! *

Photo: Fr. Jim St. George, pastor of St. Miriam's

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