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JP Grace: Four priests experience crises with bishops

Jul. 02, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

One morning some 13 months ago toward the end of an 8:30 a.m. weekday Mass at St. Joe's on 13th Street, to the shock of yours truly and others in the congregation, longtime and much beloved pastor Msgr. Laurence Luciana fell straight backward at the altar and landed with an awful thud on the marble pavement.

His collapse occurred midway through the Mass, prior to the communion. I dare say most of us in attendance had never before witnessed a priest collapse during a service. After a moment, we all hurried up to the altar.

Looking at monsignor's still frame and blank but pale face, I confess I was among those present who feared he might already have died.

Someone folded a jacket and put it under his head, someone else dialed 911, and the rest of us knelt to pray for our priest and friend to be revived. One woman gently stroked his hair.

Within seven minutes the EMTs were pulling a stretcher down the main aisle, then checking monsignor's pulse and breathing. Those present were relieved to learn that he had not died, just passed out, but had probably sustained injuries to his head and back.

That moment effectively spelled the end of Msgr. Luciana's public ministry to the people of St. Joe's. Upon recovery from the fall, he retired to the Woodlands off Highway 152.

In mid-June I was in attendance as another Catholic pastor's service seemed to come to a crashing conclusion, that of Father Jim Sobus, pastor for the past nine years of Our Lady of Fatima, off Norway Avenue, Huntington, and for the last six years also of St. Stephen Catholic Church in Ona.

Without going into all the issues between Father Jim and the diocesan chancery in Wheeling, and disagreements among the congregation at Fatima, let it suffice to say here that this veteran pastor and native of Logan put a dramatic exclamation point on his exit from public ministry.

He did so by announcing to an assembly of some 300 that he had decided to refuse a transfer ordered by Bishop Michael J. Bransfield to become pastor of Assumption Catholic church in Keyser, W.Va. At the same time he said he did not intend to leave the priesthood but rather find a way to remain in Huntington and develop a ministry.

Public ruptures between active pastors and a bishop such as this are fairly uncommon in Catholic circles.

A rather prominent such case, however, was that of Father Michael Pfleger, a white priest in Chicago serving a predominantly African-American congregation at St. Sabina parish. Father Pfleger figured large in Chicago-area newscasts for awhile in 2011-12 as he fought to prevent Francis Cardinal George from removing him from St. Sabina, where he was a passionate promoter of social justice.

The Chicago case was resolved after Father Pfleger, who had been suspended, apologized to Cardinal George for flouting his vow of obedience to his bishop, and subsequently was reappointed by the cardinal to be co-pastor at St. Sabina.

Another area priest, Father Charlie Moran, pastor of St. Ann's Catholic Church in Chesapeake, Ohio, underwent a similar experience under the Diocese of Steubenville. In sharp disagreement with policies emanating from the chancery in Steubenville, Father Charlie, then pastor at a parish near Marietta, simply exited the scene and betook himself to Fairbanks, Alaska. There he found work teaching high school English and also driving a cab. His diocese meanwhile suspended his priestly faculties, meaning he could not offer public worship services.

After 10 years, with a new bishop installed in Steubenville, communication resumed and the end result was that Father Moran's ministry was restored and he was appointed pastor to serve the Catholic community in southern Lawrence county.

Time heals, as they say. Father Jim, you are in our prayers and many people wish you well.

John Patrick Grace is a former Vatican correspondent for The Associated Press and former religion editor for The Greensboro (N.C.) News and Record. He is a member of St. Stephen Catholic church and a lector at weekday Mass (Tuesdays) at St. Joe.

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