'Renovated' Catholicism attracts few tenants
Wednesday, December 27, 2006
With interest in spirituality on the rise and church attendance in a freefall, a week-long National Post series considers the state of Canadian Christianity and whether the way forward may in fact be the way backward.
Picture, if you can, a Roman Catholic renegade.
If the image you summon is that of a portly white man in a plaid shirt, a man who hugs strangers and cracks wise from behind a makeshift altar, then you have summoned up the brand of religious subversion embodied by Gary O'Dwyer, the face of Mass at what may be Canada's only truly schismatic Catholic Church.
"Sisters and brothers," Mr. O'Dwyer begins on a recent Sunday morning, addressing the 50 or so parishioners who have gathered to worship at a community hall in this village 100 kilometres east of Toronto.
The service is unlike any Catholic Mass I have ever attended. There is no kneeling on the hall's scuffed hardwood floor, no pressing of fingers into sponges of holy water, no stiff handshakes when it comes time to offer each other the sign of peace. (That part of the service descends into a 10-minute hugfest.)
And when it comes time for Communion, the congregation forms a circle, accepts the Host and swallows at the same time.
Throughout the service, Mr. O'Dwyer continues to transpose the phrase "brothers and sisters" so that it is always sisters first. Subtle, but significant -- it was, after all, displeasure at the place of women in the church, and the example of a priest who insisted women deserved better, that brought this group of unlikely rebels together in the first place.
"Sometimes you have to take a step forward and be willing to be alienated or criticized," Mr. O'Dwyer later said of his decision to leave the Roman Catholic Church and help found a breakaway parish.
"I think it's very much connected to what's been happening in the church as well in the broader society," says John Huot, the chair of the Catholic New Times Publishing Group.
"There's been a retreat from social justice."
The seeds of Christ the Servant were planted in August of 2005 when Fr. Ed Cachia, a warm and well-loved priest at St. Michael's Church in Cobourg, wrote an editorial in the local paper praising the ordination of nine women on the St. Lawrence River, calling it, "the beginning of a new and awesome change in the life of the church."
He later celebrated Mass with female priests in the United States. Fr. Cachia was summoned to speak with Peterborough Bishop Nicola De Angelis and was later given a month's leave to reflect on his stance.
He refused to bend. The Bishop suspended him, prompting him to deliver three emotional farewell Masses.
The church's 9 a.m. folk choir resigned en masse that morning, deepening the rift that separated Fr. Cachia's supporters and detractors.
"It was very emotional," said Lyn Smith, 75, who stayed at St. Michael's, and disagrees with the stance taken by those who split. "Some of the rest of us were absolutely dismayed and disbelieving ... There were tears shed by lots of people at the time just because they thought they were losing a friend."
For a few months, Fr. Cachia and a core of families who left with him worshipped in private homes, traipsing from living room to living room. The experience was so positive they decided to formalize it and stick with it after the loss of their leader.
Almost a year to the day after he left St. Michael's, on Sept. 24 of this year, Fr. Cachia again provoked tears with an announcement that he was leaving.
After a week-long spiritual retreat, he decided to see if the Roman Catholic Church would take him back...
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