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By: Bernie Survil

With an Adelante (Forward) former TMC organizer Art McDonald’s pen signed my copy of his History of the APP (Association of Pittsburgh Priests) at the December 8, 2019 book signing party. At least half of the attendees were Thomas Merton Center regulars. With good reason. As Art points out “In the area of social justice there is nothing they have done that is more important over more than five decades of existence than their instrumental role in helping a start-up group, the Thomas Merton Center (TMC), a peace and justice organization…get off the ground…” Because “the Diocese of Pittsburgh did not see a need for Commission on Peace & Justice.” Nor does the diocese have such a commission to this day. Thus, the APP and TMC have a parallel history as TMC approaches its 50th anniversary in 2022. 

That “Adelante” expresses Art’s guarded hope that the APP HAS a future, while he recounts its glories since its founding in 1966. Those glories were accomplished by the names of people we hope to spend eternity with: Molly Rush and Larry Kessler, with us to this day; Don McIlvane, Don Fisher, Neil McCauley, and Warren Metzler among those who preceded us. These were the “political priests” who seamlessly combined traditional pastoral work with public witness on issues of the latter 20th century: Anti-War, Anti-Nuke, Central American solidarity and a slew of economic justice matters all at the heart of the TMC agenda. 

It was also APP members, which since 1993 includes any baptized Catholic, who rescued the TMC from the clutches of “The Anarchists” around the time of the G-20 gathering of world leaders in 2009. Not that the TMC remained a “Catholic entity” after its founding: Witness collaborators such as Jules Lobel, Pitt Law Prof. and Dan Fine, the finest of secular Jews and, more recently, Muslim Peace & Justice Seekers. 

The reader must come to appreciate how the local Catholic Church needed and needs the likes of an organized loyal opposition. As the U.S. as a nation suffers the three ills described by MLK: Racism, Militarism, and Consumerism, the U.S. Church’s de facto values are often the same. Without an organized prophetic element, churches fall into line with society’s values. If only the other 185 U.S. dioceses had their own “APP’s” the U.S Church would have a different face. 

TMC readers who are not church-goers may not appreciate the other element of the APP’s mission recorded by McDonald: CHURCH RENEWAL. Long before Pope Francis called the universal church to implement the changes called for by Vatican Council II, which concluded way back in 1965, the APP was poking its finger in the eye of the likes of Bishop Anthony Bevilacqua when he denied the washing of women’s feet during the Holy Thursday liturgy. When the APP revised its requirement for membership to permit women and other “unworthies” to join, the several bishops since then have tried unsuccessfully to get the APP to change its name. “How can an organization that includes women (mefiez-vous des femmes) dare call itself an association of priests?” they asked. The APP-organized protest outside St. Paul’s Cathedral, Oakland, against the shoddy treatment directed against the LCWR (Leadership Conference of Women Religious) from 2012-15 was de facto in solidarity with local congregations of women religious who were being reined in by a Vatican Investigation. (Women again!) 

Similarly, it was an internal church matter when the APP had Bishop Gumbleton — who writes the Forward to Art’s History — speak at St. Paul’s Monastery on the upper South Side. Gumbleton addressed the relationship of the U.S. Church to gays, using his own gay brother as a case that sensitized him to the issue and the need for the Church. to open its arms to its gay children / adults. Not a few Pittsburgh conservative Catholics have been scandalized by APP participation in annual pride parades. 

It’s been said that many national institutions have lost numbers and influence in recent times. That’s true of the Catholic Church as well as the APP. Nonetheless, even if McDonald frets APP is facing, since the last time it gained a “canonical-real priest” member was in 1979, the TMC would do well to keep in good repair its relationship with the APP. I say this because of what I experienced during my nine years working pastorally in Nicaragua, both during the Somoza dictatorship, then under the Sandinista regime. What a mistake the Sandinistas made when they proclaimed “With the Church; without the Church; against the Church” the revolution will go forward. Social change-oriented groups such as the TMC or revolutionary governments ignore at their own peril the religious sensibilities of their co-nationals. It will be Adelante for both if they respect each other’s contributions. 

Bernie Survil is a TMC member and Steering Committee member of the Association of Pittsburgh Priests. 

NewPeople Newspaper VOL. 50 No. 1. February, 2020. All rights reserved.

Categories: Local, News, Religion

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