The Homily that Caused an Outcry and the Priest to be Dismissed
By John Jalsevac
ROCKFORD, Illinois, January 7, 2008 (LifeSiteNews.com) - This past December 9, at St. James’ parish in Rockford Illinois, a very normal Mass suddenly became a very unusual Mass when a parishioner stood up in the middle of the homily, interrupted the priest, shouting at him "When are you going to stop?", and then left, with her homosexual partner in tow. A few other parishioners also stood up and left the church. A few days later, the priest was dismissed from his duties at the parish by his bishop.
Catholics know that there are some things that you just don’t hear preached from the pulpit any more. The most conspicuous of these unpreachables is sexual ethics, especially the idea that using contraception might be immoral, and contrary to a Culture of Life. Most priests know that these are unpopular subjects, and emphatically avoid them. But Fr. Tom Bartolomeo, who until several weeks ago was the associate pastor at St. James parish, is not your typical priest.
To begin with, Fr. Bartolomeo was ordained only just over a year ago. This, of course, is not exactly extraordinary in itself, except for the fact that he is now seventy years old. At an age when many other priests are retiring, therefore, he is only getting his feet wet.
Perhaps, says the elderly priest in an interview with LifeSiteNews.com, his newness to the ministry and late vocation explains his almost youth-like zeal for his priestly duties. "I’m going to die with my boots on," he says. "Who knows how many years I have left? That kind of puts pressure on me to preach the Gospel message. My days are numbered."
About a month ago, however, Fr. Bartolomeo’s enthusiasm for the Gospel message brought an unexpected turn into his life, when he gave what he thought was a normal Advent homily. The homily was the second of a projected series of four homilies dealing with life and family issues, designed to coincide with the four Sundays of Advent - the season leading up to the birth of Jesus. This particular homily had to do with contraception and natural family planning.
The Catholic Church teaches that the use of contraception is intrinsically and gravely immoral. Church teaching does, however, allow married couples to use the natural rhythms of the female body to knowingly space children, if there is a sufficiently grave reason to do so. These fundamental moral teachings formed the basis of Fr. Bartolomeo’s homily.
"New births, anniversaries and funerals, separations of any kind, a photograph from the past - give us pause and remind us whom we are bound to," he said in his homily, a copy of which he provided for LifeSiteNews. "Our human sexuality - father, mother, brother, sister - reveals our deepest relationships. We call God our father, and his Son our brother."
"Contraception, contra-conception, trivializes the sacred value of human sexuality - a danger humanity did not have to face a century ago before the advent of modern chemistry and technology, the pill (before or after) and a host of plastic devices."
"Contracept, take God’s plan off the table, and you have mayhem," he said. "The most important thing in your lives, bearing children, is no longer discussed. It has been permanently removed from the conversation. Done deal. The pill, the IUD, the diaphragm, the sponge, the condom - who is making money here? - have shut down not only the body but the brain. And wives and husbands wonder why they grow apart? When a man and woman, a husband and wife, share daily this most wonderful mystery of their human sexuality they are bonding as nature and God intended."
In the middle of this homily however, say witnesses, one congregation member stood up and began to argue with the priest, yelling "When are you going to stop?" Gerald Weber, who has been a parishioner at St. James for 47 years, was at that Mass. "It was embarrassing, the noticeable argumentative tone with which she stopped him in his homily," he told LifeSiteNews. "Father treated her nicely for the way she was acting, but she continued yelling. She finally sat down, but then stood up again, and took her friend with her and made a show of leaving the church. With that there were some other people who objected to the subject matter."
While Weber suggests that the homily may have been somewhat "graphic" for a Sunday Mass, insofar as it touched on some of the science of NFP, he points out that nothing in the homily was contrary to Catholic teaching. The fact that Fr. Bartolomeo was dismissed from the parish Weber calls "drastic." "I think it’s rather drastic, without knowing all the facts, to come down on a man in this way."
Another parishioner, Heidi Martinez, who was also at the Mass in question, disagrees that the homily was graphic, saying that she can’t even recall what might have been considered objectionable in that way.
Martinez says she distinctly remembers the date and time of the homily, because she gave birth to her first-born child that same day, shortly after she left the church; she calls her new-born child her "miracle baby," since she had previously gone through three miscarriages. She also says that she has something of a different perspective on the homily, being as she is recently married. The message that Fr. Bartolomeo preached was extremely pertinent and necessary, she says. "The Catholic Church pushes all the time—don’t use contraceptives, use NFP, and all that, but a lot of people don’t know why. And if you don’t hear it from the Church that pushes it, where are you going to get it from?"
"You’re certainly not going to get it in the Catholic schools."
Weber also revealed to Fr. Bartolomeo, and LifeSiteNews, that the parishioner who had created the scene was a publicly practicing lesbian. She and her partner had recently been told that they could no longer lector or distribute Communion at the parish. "They [the lesbian couple] may have had an edge," says Weber, "because they have recently been kind of, not reprimanded, but not allowed to participate like they had been participating."
The priest, however, is quick to defend his bishop. "Bishop Doran’s orthodox Catholic reputation is well established," he points out. "Our diocesan Respect Life Office under the leadership of Bishop Doran is continuously advancing the pro-life cause."
"I’m not being punished," Fr. Bartolomeo clarifies, pointing out that Bishop Doran agreed that his homily was perfectly in keeping with Catholic teaching. "I wasn’t accused of doing anything wrong. I think the implication was that I was imprudent."
The Rockford Diocese’s media relations official, Penny Wiegert, told LifeSiteNews that the diocese would not comment on Fr. Bartolomeo’s dismissal, saying "The reasons for these moves are between the individual priest and his bishop and is considered a personnel issue that our diocese does not discuss in the press out of respect for both the individual priest and his bishop."
Wiegert also defended the Rockford Diocese’s pro-NFP stance, saying "The Rockford Diocese is in the forefront of supporting Natural Family Planning and educating the faithful on its physical and spiritual benefits especially in its marriage preparation programs, seminars for married couples and in informational classes….The aforementioned forums are considered to be the most appropriate for educating and promoting the benefits and details of NFP."
Fr. Bartolomeo, however, clearly does not agree that he was imprudent. "The Church is really under attack, and I think we flinch at the slight objections and I don’t think that’s the proper way to react to our enemies," he says. "Rather than dissuading me, all of this is drawing me more and more into that truth, into the Gospel. I have no idea where this is going to take me." He says that now he is beginning to read everything he can get on the life and family issues, and is looking into the possibility of pursuing advocacy in those areas.
He also disagrees that his homily was "graphic," observing that even the youngest children routinely encounter much more explicit material in their day-to-day encounters with television, the internet, and sex-ed at school.
The priest says that he was surprised at the adverse reactions to his homily, but is also learning that many of the Church’s teachings on sexuality are not well-known, and are often considered optional by some Catholics. "The fact is, I suspect that most Catholics do not practice NFP," he says. "I think for many people there’s a visceral reaction to that, particularly if they haven’t heard it before. And tweaking of consciences can be painful."
But, he adds, "There’s nothing more central to the malaise and disease in the church than contracepting Catholic couples, and not realizing the wonderful strengthening of faith that can be found in NFP. All you have to do is meet a family and their children to see that they have found the proper way to relate to each other. It’s so demonstrably wonderful to see this natural, loving union of children. You don’t ordinarily see that in families."
See Fr. Barolomeo’s complete homily at http://www.lifesitenews.com/ldn/2008/jan/080107a.html