Following the expulsion and arrest of some protesters who were occupying churches declared to be closed, the Archbishop of New Orleans Alfred Hughes has issued a message urging peace and reconciliation in the controversy.
Several Catholic parishioners in the Archdiocese of New Orleans had occupied the two former churches, 152-year old St. Henry Church and the nearby Our Lady of Good Counsel Church, to protest their closure.
On Jan. 6, at the request of the archdiocese, the protesters were removed by police. Two were arrested.
Archbishop Hughes on Wednesday published a message on the church closure controversy.
He began by referencing "seemingly contradictory scriptural passages," one from John 14 in which Jesus promises peace to his followers and one from Luke 12 where Jesus says he brings not peace but division.
These passages "actually point to a deeper truth," the archbishop wrote. "God promises inner peace to those who fulfill his will even when there is opposition or resistance. Christ witnessed to this in the hostility to him connected with his passion. Discernment of God’s will entails the willingness to sacrifice personal preference. Doing God’s will sometimes involves misunderstanding and criticism.
"No one wants to experience what we have experienced as church during the last two weeks in which decisions needed to be enforced despite the desires of some people within the church," he continued.
Archbishop Hughes explained that following the Hurricane Katrina disaster, the archdiocese has diminished resources in terms of priests and finances to support ministry throughout the diocese.
During the planning for cutbacks, he said, "we urged that the process be an exercise in the discernment of God’s will for us. Personal preference was to yield to the good of the whole."
He said the archdiocese had engaged in a "very thorough" consultation process which lea to the "difficult" final decisions made "with the desire to find God’s will for us and the intention to foster the development of more vibrant and evangelizing parishes."
The archdiocese especially wanted to ensure that the Eucharist would be celebrated in each of our open churches.
Archbishop Hughes said he decided it was necessary to end the protesters’ vigils because of "increased risks" to both the protesters and the archdiocese. According to the archbishop, though archdiocesan representatives "made every effort" to persuade the protesters to leave, "eventually it was necessary to engage law enforcement."
"Two individuals insisted upon allowing themselves to be arrested."
"It is now my hope that we can move toward a constructive series of steps that will promote reconciliation and integration of the newly merged parish of Good Shepherd," the archbishop’s message concluded, praying that God will grant his peace to the archdiocese.
The protesting parishioners say they will continue their prayer vigils outside the churches.
Our Lady of Good Counsel parishioner Cheron Brylski said the parishioners plan to pray a Rosary at the closed church every Sunday.
"But obviously our goals remain to get to the table and have a dialogue with the archbishop, and we're still hopeful that the archbishop will change his heart and meet with us," she said, according to WDSU News.
"We agree with the archbishop's plan to have a new parish created," Brylski continued. "All we're asking for is one Mass a week here with our parishioners."
Parishioner Harold Baquet was more resolute in his opposition. One of the occupants of Our Lady of Good Counsel, he had climbed out onto the roof of the church to try to avoid detection after police forcibly entered the building to remove the protesters.
"This is just the beginning, sister, and I promise you this community will maintain its cohesiveness, its organizational capabilities, its communication capabilities and its fundraising capabilities and this pastoral plan is a trip in the desert," he said, according to WDSU. "It has led us nowhere. It's dividing the body of Christ."
Parishioners from both closed churches have reportedly filed civil suits.
A representative from the archdiocese reportedly said the archbishop’s decision is final.