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Parishioner Takes Church Case Straight To Vatican


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we are going to go to Sweden, where a cake and a minister who seemed to have too much fun cutting it have sparked international protests. We'll tell you more about this in just a few minutes.

But first, it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. Catholic parishioners in the Cleveland area were thrilled this week when Bishop Richard Lennon announced he will reopen 12 churches.

Back in 2009, Bishop Lennon started to close about 50 churches in the Cleveland Diocese citing financial constraints and the shortage of priests. Some of those parishes took their cases straight to the Vatican and last month their prayers were answered. The Vatican issued a decree ordering Bishop Lennon to reopen some of the churches, and on Tuesday Bishop Lennon said he will not challenge the Vatican order. Let's listen.

RICHARD LENNON: During these Easter days, I often think of Jesus' first words as he appeared to the apostles after rising from the dead. Peace be with you. I now say it's time for peace and unity in the diocese of Cleveland.

MARTIN: St. James Catholic Church in Lakewood, Ohio is just one of the churches that will reopen. And joining us now is Christine La Salvia. She's a parishioner at St. James and the lawyer who wrote the appeal to the Vatican on behalf of her parish.

Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

CHRISTINE LA SALVIA: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: And congratulations, I think, would be in order.

SALVIA: Thank you very much. We're very, very excited.

MARTIN: How did you come up with the idea of appealing straight to the Vatican?

SALVIA: Well, this whole process began in 2009 and as the decision came closer, people started to get a little concerned that maybe we would be the one that closed, so I started looking into it and I saw that there were parishes that had appealed in Boston. So once we closed, we made the decision that we wanted to appeal to the congregation of the clergy.

MARTIN: But did you feel - I'm just sort of fascinated by this. Did you kind of feel like you were - gosh, you know, all kinds of analogies come to mind. Right? David and Goliath. Did you kind of feel like you were going up...

SALVIA: Oh, yeah. I mean, I...

MARTIN: It was kind of intimidating. I'm sorry. Like arguing - I mean, arguing with, you know, the sister who's the head of the school is one thing. Arguing with the bishop is another, like especially going over his head to the Vatican. I'm sorry. I mean, that just seems like that could have been kind of - a little intimidating.

SALVIA: Well, I wasn't worried about that because we have a right to do it under canon law. I think the most intimidating part was figuring out how to do it, and there was a lot of little details that were difficult, like where to send it and how to send this brief and what needs to go in it. And it was intimidating, but it was doable because luckily there's a lot of people out there that were nice and that were willing to give me advice and, you know, some of it - I just worked on it and I wrote it and I crossed my fingers and I put it in the mail.

But I was shocked - I mean maybe even more than anyone else because it's been so long and I feel like I really knew a lot about the odds and how bad they were.

MARTIN: I'm tempted to ask. Did you say a little prayer as you sent it off or...

SALVIA: Oh, yeah. I did. And then, you know, there were a lot of people that really kept the faith for the whole two years and really believed that we would be reopening, but we felt like if anybody had a chance, we did. And that's why we did it.

MARTIN: What were some of those reasons? I'm sure that there were many, but could you just give us maybe just some of the bullet points about why you think you had a good case?

SALVIA: Sure. The first and the most important was that we were a vibrant parish. We were the biggest parish with the most people and the most sacraments in our area in the city of Lakewood. We also believed that some of the procedure wasn't followed in how the decisions were made for our closing and those are the two main areas that we focused on.

MARTIN: And I understand, you know, 1,500 families - to your point about the vibrancy of the parish, you know, eight masses per week, two priests serving...

SALVIA: Right. And we had a...

MARTIN: ...lots of services.

SALVIA: Absolutely. A lot of services in the community and a lot of deep roots in the community. You know, three, four generations of parishioners.

MARTIN: How did you find out that you had won? Prevailed. Maybe that's a nicer, more elegant word.

SALVIA: Well, we got a PDF of the decree and then about a week later I got a big envelope in the mail from the congregation of the clergy and it had our official paper decree with a seal from the Vatican.


SALVIA: And then I found out from the press conference, like everybody else, that the bishop wasn't going to appeal.

MARTIN: You know, the bishop seems to be OK with it from, you know, the remarks that we heard, but he's kind of warning that even with this good news there is still the issue of the finances - I think he's saying - of the entire diocese are still not on a firm footing. I'll just play a short clip from the press conference that he had. Here it is.

LENNON: It will be essential for each of these parishes to demonstrate on an ongoing basis that they have the active membership and the financial wherewithal to sustain themselves.

MARTIN: What do you take that to mean?

SALVIA: Well, I think what he means is that he wants all the parishes to be able to pay for their bills. You know, we fully intend to do that. However, we do think we're entitled to a reasonable period of time to rebuild because we have been closed for two years. We do have a financial plan. We have a lot of ideas in place for going forward and how we're going to pay our bills and sustain ourselves.

MARTIN: Where have you been going to church in the last two years since St. James has been closed?

SALVIA: I've been traveling around to different parishes in the area.

MARTIN: Did you kind of feel that you were constantly at your roommate's house for Thanksgiving instead of, you know, at home?

SALVIA: Right.

MARTIN: Or did you kind of feel a little out of sorts or what?

SALVIA: That's actually a good analogy. I mean, there's a lot of nice parishes in the area, but St. James was my home and I think that's the big reason why we did the appeal. We just felt like we had lost our spiritual home. Even though there's other nice places to go, you want to be in the place that you're used to and that you grew up with.

MARTIN: Well, congratulations.

SALVIA: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: Christine La Salvia is a parishioner at St. James Catholic Church in Lakewood, Ohio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.