North Carolina parishioners clash with pastor, petition for his removal

This article appears in the The Field Hospital feature series. View the full series.

In the small Catholic world of the bucolic North Carolina mountains, this Advent is dawning with discord.

A total of 143 parishioners from St. John the Evangelist Church in Waynesville, in a parish of roughly 300 families, have petitioned Bishop Peter Jugis of the Charlotte diocese to remove their pastor, Fr. Christopher Riehl, who came to the church just a little over a year ago.

Parishioners who value what they say was the post-Vatican II style of their parish have locked horns with Riehl, who came to Waynesville from the Knoxville, Tenn., diocese in July 2014 intent with what his critics describe as "restorationist" approaches to liturgy and church governance.

In their petition, dated March 9, signees say that Riehl has moved ahead on rectory repairs and other expensive projects over the objection of the parish finance committee; has taken over the parish's Rite of Christian Initiation for Catholic converts with a pastor-centric approach which is at odds with the recommendations of the U.S. bishops; and has "openly defamed the Second Vatican Council" while substituting popular hymns with Gregorian chant. Most of the choir resigned en masse after the former director was relieved of her duties.

In interviews with NCR, parishioners say their pastor has been aloof and removed from the concerns of grieving families at funerals. Attendees at one local civic leader's funeral, which included a large number of non-Catholics, were told in the pastor's homily about church teaching on purgatory and little or nothing about the life of the deceased. They also said their pastor is slow to respond to requests for the sacrament of the sick for the dying. Their complaints fill hundreds of pages of documents they have submitted to NCR and to Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, apostolic nuncio to the United States.

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The parish is divided between a group which continues to attend St. John the Evangelist and supports Riehl, and others who have either left the parish for the town's Episcopal and Methodist congregations or no longer attend Christian worship. Some parishioners now attend Sunday Mass at the office of a local dentist, after being asked by Jugis to cease Sunday worship at the nearby Living Waters Retreat House.

For potential Catholic parish shoppers, there are few alternatives around Waynesville, a tourist town whose population swells in the summer and is located some 30 miles from Asheville in the sparsely-populated and largely Protestant Bible Belt region.

Carol Viau, a local Catholic, considers herself to be part of "St. John's in exile." The retreat center Sunday Mass had attracted as many as 100 former St. John's parishioners. Petitioners have so far received no formal response from the bishop, other than his suggestion that the group meet with Riehl. A first meeting, held Dec. 1, was described by Viau as providing some progress in addressing concerns about the pastor's response to requests for the sacraments.

She is, however, not pleased with the response from the diocese on the larger issues. 

"The group feels that the bishop is pro-restoration movement and that's why he's turned a deaf ear," said Viau, a member of St. John's for eight years. The restoration movement, popular among some newly-ordained priests, grew during the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI. Broadly defined, the movement has called for a leaner, muscular church, more attached to ancient liturgical traditions with a strict interpretation of Catholic doctrines and practices.

The diocese denies it is nurturing a "restorationist" movement and, according to diocesan spokesman David Hains, it is a term used by Riehl's critics to discredit him.

Viau said that St. John's was "a happy and vibrant parish" but is now deeply divided.

Parishioner Mark Zaffrann acknowledged that church attendance is down, but attributed that to what he said was discord sowed by the dissident group. The leadership of that group had "unbridled control of the various ministries" in the parish and resented Riehl's new approach. He said the old finance council in the parish presented Riehl with an overly-optimistic view of the church's finances, which was disputed by a diocesan-sponsored audit requested by the new pastor. As for the rectory repairs, Zaffrann, a local realtor, said the structure was uninhabitable and desperately needed renovations.

Liturgically, the parish has improved, Zaffrann told NCR. "My impression is that the Mass is better," he said. "It's very humble, reverent and solemn. It brings respect to the Eucharist."

However, critics of Riehl, ordained in 2009 for the Knoxville diocese, say he is out of step with the pastoral emphasis of Pope Francis.

The pope, in his Nov. 18 general audience, suggested that newly-ordained priests avoid rigidity. "I'm scared of rigid priests. They bite," joked the pontiff.

In an address to Italian Catholics, also in November, Francis suggested, "it is not useful to search for solutions in conservatism or fundamentalism, in the restoration of obsolete conduct or forms that no longer have the capacity of being significant culturally."

A retired priest of the Charlotte diocese, who has celebrated Mass for the petition signers, said that what they have experienced is common in the diocese. The priest, who requested anonymity for fear of publicly confronting Jugis, said that "restorationist" pastors have been placed in parishes throughout Western Carolina as well as the growing city of Charlotte and its nearby suburbs.

"Wherever they go, people leave," said the priest, noting that while in other regions shopping for a new parish is easy, the isolation of Catholic parishes in western North Carolina makes it more difficult for those seeking alternatives.

"They took a stand," he said about the group which considers itself in exile from the parish.

Riehl did not return a phone call from NCR. Jugis, via spokesman Hains, offered a statement which said that liturgical diversity is part of the church's practice, and quoted Francis that "the Church has a face that is not rigid."

Regarding the situation in Waynesville, Jugis said: "Parish priests have valued options for the sacrament and as long as there are options there will be differences."

The bishop declined to comment on the other complaints from the St. John's parish group.

[Peter Feuerherd reports on parish matters for NCR and is a professor of journalism and communications at St. John's University, New York.]


Editor's note: "The Field Hospital" is NCRonline's newest blog series, covering life in Catholic parishes across the United States. The title comes from the words of Pope Francis: "I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds. ... And you have to start from the ground up."

"The Field Hospital" blog will run twice weekly on NCRonline.org along with feature stories and news reports about parish life in the U.S. If you have a story suggestion, send it to Dan Morris Young (dmyoung@ncronline.org) or Peter Feuerherd (pfeuerherd@ncronline.org).

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