An Open Letter to the Most Reverend Dennis Sullivan

Dear Bishop Sullivan:

There is nothing more important in the life of a Catholic second grader than First Holy Communion.  It is a very grown up step on their path to fully understanding just how much it means in their lives to know Jesus and to embrace our faith.  They spend months in preparation, including nervously heading into the confessional for the first time, memorizing prayers, and feeling the excitement of their big day.

Saturday, May the 4th, was a beautiful day.  God showed his love for the day and these children with brilliant sunshine and perfect springtime temperatures.  Our church quickly filled with parents and grandparents; aunts and uncles; friends and neighbors – all waiting to witness the walk of faith our tiny ones would make.

My daughter, Granuaile Frances, was among the children receiving the sacrament at St. Rita’s parish in Bellmawr.  She anxiously recited prayers over and over to make sure she knew them, even as her hair was pinned and her shoes buckled.  She was reading the presentation of gratitude to our parish priest, and she practiced her reading, practiced blessing herself, and even practiced bowing her head without knocking off her veil.

As we arrived at church, we deposited our children into the capable hands of Sister Miriam, who has been their spiritual mentor through every minute of this journey.  She welcomed them excitedly, organized them behind the scenes, and prepared them for their big moment.  The rest of us began gathering inside the church, with people bubbling over with excitement.  Just in my family alone, we had family in from Virginia and Florida, and guests who drove from various parts of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and we were excited to come together as a Catholic community, to welcome our children into the next phase of their Catholic journey.

Then we were shushed.  You know – where someone who is older than you or who has authority over you points their finger to their lips and yells, “SHHHHHHHHHHHH!!”  Multiple times.  No talking.  Despite the fact that there was still 15 minutes before Mass, we were told we couldn’t speak in the church.

The children were beautiful, bundles of excited and anxious energy, and Mass was going beautifully.  Father gave a lovely, brief homily, directed towards the children, which almost moved me to tears in it’s beauty and simplicity.  And then he turned his chair away from the children to speak with the adults.  What followed was a nasty, bitter, vitriolic tirade, where he scolded us for being responsible for the closing of the church and the inevitable imprisonment of our children, who are obviously going to get involved in drugs and other illegal behavior because of their lack of good Catholic parenting.  He spoke for nearly 30 minutes, chastising the adults, frightening the children, and alienating non-Catholic members of the people who congregated.

But he wasn’t done.  The children made their sacrament, Mass had ended, and he recessed down the center aisle to the back of the church.  He greeted and congratulated each child as they recessed out behind him, then he disappeared.  He did not make himself available for parents to thank him, children to have photos taken with him, or even to greet guests. Talk about a missed opportunity to make a good impression.

But wait, there’s more.

As the children giddily showed off their new certificates, bursting with joy from what they just experienced, parents began to congratulate their kids, thank Sister Miriam and the other CCD volunteers, and families wanted photos in front of the beautifully decorated altar.  Then the shushing began again.  Only this time, it wasn’t just shushing.  Father was yelling at us over the church’s PA system, telling us we were in a church and conducting ourselves improperly.  He told us all to get out if we couldn’t be respectful, reprimanding us for taking photos in the church and being gleeful and happy for our children.

And if this had been my first experience – as a mom to a first communicant, or as a guest in a Catholic church – I would have been completely turned off to the church and the process of celebrating a sacrament.  Having Father yell into the PA system about how disrespectful we were was in complete contrast to my two older daughters’ celebrations, where they were welcomed onto the altar by the priests to have photos taken, to enjoy their celebration, and to appreciate the joy that filled their hearts.  We were chased out of this church by the priest, and no one should ever be made to feel unwelcome in the home of their heavenly Father.

No one was unruly, no one was outrageous, no one was inappropriate.  The atmosphere was celebratory, the children excited, the parents overjoyed.

After watching this priest wobble and sway; after listening to him spit venom during one of the happiest days in the life of a member of the Catholic faith; after being shushed and chastised – it’s time to find a new church.  And I have to pray about keeping it a Catholic one.