Liberal white Catholic parish vs. new conservative black priest = clumsy Oregonian story

I attended college in southwest Portland; my first newspaper reporting job was just south of town; I have multiple friends in the area and my brother was an Oregonian reporter for 36 years.

In other words, I know a thing or two about the area, its people and the local media.

Religion coverage at the Oregonian has had some definite highs and lows in past decades. Highs were the coverage of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in the 1980s, reporting by Mark O’Keefe in the 1990s and in recent years, Melissa Binder, who was on the beat for a short time. She has since left the paper to start her own business (and a family).

The beat seems to be at a low point now, if the paper’s recent profile of a Catholic church torn by dissension is any indication. This story is very weak.

The new priest took charge of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church more than a year ago. Week after week, parishioners said, George Kuforiji changed their church in ways they didn’t think he ever could.

They talked to him, wrote letters to the Archdiocese of Portland about their frustrations, resisted change and protested during Mass.

But after a while, some couldn’t take it anymore. They left the Southeast Portland church for other parishes or their own spiritual groups. Others said they would stay to the bitter end.

The parish where some had prayed for decades was slipping away. St. Francis is one of the oldest churches in Portland. It has long been known as a bastion of progressive Catholic faith.

So far, so good. However, at this point this news report turns into a one-sided jeremiad.

Parishioners have marched in the Portland Pride parade, fed and given shelter to people experiencing homelessness and worked to make the traditionally patriarchal institution more inclusive of women. For several years, a banner hung above the church steps that read “Immigrants & refugees welcome.”

Now, the banner is missing. Vestments and one of several treasured photographs of the homeless community that had lined the walls of their parish had been piled in a trailer headed for the dump.

Many felt the new priest aimed to better align St. Francis with the archdiocese, who some feel is out of step with Catholics in Portland.

Which Catholics in Portland feel their archdiocese is out of step with them? All of them? Is there a debate going on here or not?

If you read the comments for this article, it appears that an equal amount of Catholics believe the archdiocese is is on track, in terms of faithfulness to the church and its teachings.

A discord exists between Catholics and church leaders across the country. Bishops pushing for more uniformity among parishes, including Portland’s Archbishop Alexander Sample, were appointed by a different, more conservative pope than the one currently sitting at the Vatican.

An archdiocese spokesman turned down multiple requests to interview Sample or Kuforiji. He only agreed to answer one of multiple questions about St. Francis.

A stupid move by the archdiocese, I must say.

But saying the “discord” among U.S. Catholics has to do with conservative vs. liberal is missing the point. Much of the discord is linked to the sex-abuse allegations that have been pouring out this past year. The Portland archdiocese - just this year - paid out $4 million to eight men who’d been abused by a priest and declared bankruptcy in 2004 after a 100 claims of sex abuse.

Meanwhile, Kuforjii was assigned to St. Francis in July 2018. Then:

Parishioners said the changes he made were almost immediate.

For years, St. Francis used inclusive language in its scripture readings. With references to God, for instance, they avoided using “he,” “lord” or “king” and instead used simply “God” or “creator.”

Kuforiji switched readings to traditional scripture, no longer allowing the new wording.

St. Francis outlined their values in a community commitment that parishioners would read after the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed. Kuforiji replaced the pamphlet and cut out the community commitment.

Parishioners brought their own copies and still said the words.

Readers really need some facts here. So what this means is that these folks are saying/shouting out this community commitment while the priest is trying to continue with the Mass? What is actually happening during these services?

On June 30, parishioners decided they’d be more disruptive.

… 16 mostly gray-haired parishioners stood on the church steps facing Southeast 12th Avenue. Most were dressed all in white and held the large black and white photographs that had been stripped from the walls of the church.

Videos taken by parishioners that morning show them holding signs and singing as they walked through the front doors. Some wore T-shirts during Mass that read “Jesus resisted the Pharisees” on the front. The back of the shirt read “Question authority.”

During the prayers of the faithful, a time for community prayer, parishioners prayed for what happened to the vestments, yelling from the pews.

Kuforiji stood at the pulpit with his arms outstretched, silent.

The rancor went on until the end of the service.

Picture it: Angry gray-haired white baby boomer parishioners yelling at a black priest. Unbelievably, the reporter doesn’t note the racial element anywhere in the article.

Now if the angry parishioners had been black and the traditionalist priest white, would the Oregonian have mentioned that fact? Of course the newspaper would have stressed that.

Here’s some more information about this service from hell:

Kuforiji was near the back of the church. There, another long-time parishioner, Rebecca Boell, confronted him.

“How can you be a priest?” she said. “I’ve been here over 15 years. You’ve been here a year.”

“Do you have reverence for God?” Kuforiji asked her.

Parishioners say they’ve shown it is the authority of the church they do not revere. They resist authority and find God in their resistance.

By now, it's clear the entire piece is a repetition of the dissidents’ talking points. In that last sentence, the reporter doesn’t know these folks are finding God unless he can read minds. Typically, a journalist would interject “and say they find God in their resistance.” (Italics mine).

But there were more of these blanket statements as the article went on. I kept on wondering who had edited this piece without asking the reporter some basic journalism questions. Some paragraphs just don’t make sense.

One of the main complaints of St. Francis parishioners is that Kuforiji has not involved them in most decisions. His changes have been unilateral and in line with the archdiocese.

Priests putting themselves at the center of the church is an idea that predates the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. But the attitude is increasingly popular among newer priests, said Patricia Killen, who until her recent retirement was a professor of religious studies from Gonzaga University.

Hello? The priest — or a church administrator appointed by him — always runs a church. Usually there’s a pastoral council, explained here that is consultative in nature. But the priest has veto powers, especially when dealing with matters of liturgy and doctrine. Maybe these powers weren’t used by recent clergy at the church, but Kuforjii is within his rights.

I am curious why the academic quoted was an out-of-town professor from Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash. Did the reporter try someone at the University of Portland, a local university that is Catholic?

My other problems with this piece include the clunky writing style and the reporter’s seeming inability to find a parishioner who favors Kuforiji. I mean, he attended the Aug. 4 Mass at the church and couldn’t locate one person to quote who approved of the liturgical changes? In the video atop this piece, there were parishioners who disagreed with the demonstrators.

The Nigerian-born priest, who was ordained in 2015, seems to be a more conservative guy who, like many Africans, toes the line on obedience to the church’s magisterium, with little patience for anything that isn’t approved for the Sunday liturgy.

A few months before Kuforiji was assigned to St. Francis, (Archbishop) Sample made two changes to the liturgical handbook. One change instructed parishioners to kneel after the Agnus Dei during the consecration.

St. Francis parishioners continued to stand. Standing, one parishioner explained, is raising your heart to God.

It sounds like this parish had added a ton of extra baggage over the years and the archbishop wanted the place cleaned up. Did the reporter approach the priest to interview him? The priest was at a parish on the Oregon coast before being sent to St. Francis. Did the reporter call anyone there who could speak on behalf of the priest?

Such an interesting situation, but there are way too many holes in this article.

FIRST IMAGE: Screen shot from The Oregonian video at the top of this post.

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