|Two Pastors Calling on the Vatican to Stop Cleveland Church Closings
By Michael O'Malley
September 25, 2010
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Two high-profile Cleveland clerics are calling on the Vatican to stop Bishop Richard Lennon from what they see as his destruction of the Cleveland Catholic Diocese by a sweeping, reckless closing of churches, mostly in the inner city.
The Rev. Robert Begin, a Catholic priest, and the Rev. Kenneth Chalker, a Methodist minister, have sent letters to Archbishop Pietro Sambi in Washington, D.C., who represents the Vatican in the United States.
"It is becoming more and more difficult for many parishioners and leaders alike to remain 'Catholic' in our diocese," Begin wrote. "I believe the situation merits an apostolic visitor to conduct an objective inquiry into what is occurring."
Chalker wrote, "Rome must make a change."
"The marvelous legacy and respect in which the diocese has been held in this community by ALL persons in this city is under assault," Chalker wrote. "Not from 'outside forces,' but as a result of its current Episcopal leadership."
Diocese spokesman Robert Tayek strongly challenged the accusations.
"I have worked directly with Bishop Lennon for the last four years and nothing, nothing in either letter contains a semblance of truth," Tayek said Friday.
Chalker said he received a call from Sambi's office asking permission to forward his letter to Rome. "What this means, I am clueless," Chalker said in an interview. "But, as you would suspect, I was quick to give my approval to Pietro Sambi's request of me."
Sambi could not be reached for comment.
Over the last year, Lennon has closed 50 churches in the eight-county diocese, mostly in urban Cleveland, Akron and Lorain.
Ignoring small groups of protesters, Lennon, flanked by armed police officers, visited most of the churches to preside at their last Masses and to formally deconsecrate them as sacred places.
Following the services, churches were padlocked, stripped of their holy artifacts and placed on the real estate market.
Lennon has said the downsizing was necessary due to a change of demographics in the diocese and a shortage of priests and collection-basket cash.
In a statement Friday, the bishop declined to respond to his accusers.
His statement said, "Now, the real work continues with every parish working toward common goals of encouraging participation in Mass, evangelizing to non-practicing Catholics and non-Catholics, living Catholic social teaching by reaching out and advocating for people who are poor and marginalized and strengthening Catholic identity and education. . ."
Chalker said, "the esteem of the bishop's office is in the tank."
After the church closings, a handful of congregations appealed Lennon's actions to Rome. Some are pending.
Following the closing of the 151-year-old St. Peter's church in downtown Cleveland, the pastor and congregation set up their own church in rented commercial space, prompting the bishop to warn the group that their salvation was at stake if they worshipped in a space without his approval.
The group continues worshipping each Sunday in defiance of the bishop.
But Lennon's threat outraged a number of both Catholics and Protestants, including Chalker who, in a recent letter to the editor of The Plain Dealer, wrote it was "theological absurdity" to suggest "that a person's immortal soul may be in jeopardy from receiving Communion in episcopally unauthorized spaces."
Begin's letter to Sambi says Lennon's heavy-handed, despot style has some people believing that "he actually believes that he can control their access to God."
In interviews, both clerics were critical of Lennon for his indifference toward interfaith and ecumenical work. Begin, pastor of St. Colman's on Cleveland's West Side, is the past director of the West Side Ecumenical Ministry.
Chalker, pastor of University Circle United Methodist Church, has been actively involved in interfaith work for decades.
"From my point of view, the bishop has not participated in any ecumenical endeavors," said Chalker. "He's just not interested."
In his letter to Sambi, Begin enclosed Chalker's letter to the editor, saying Chalker is a well-respected religious leader in Cleveland, known for his hard work in bringing different faiths together.
"For one so well educated and so dedicated to the gospel and to ecumenical activity to speak about the situation in the Catholic Church with such dismay is truly significant and I hope that you will give his comments your close attention," Begin wrote.
Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.