Father Gerry Kleba’s Meeting with Archbishop Burke

Received via email from a friend in St. Louis.

Published with the author’s permission.

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January 29, 2008 at Archbishop’s House 4510 Lindell Blvd. 1:30 PM

The meeting began with the Lord’s Prayer led by A. B. He was carrying a manila folder with about twenty sheets of paper in it, but only seemed to refer to the hand written one on the top. I couldn’t read the tab on the folder, but it didn’t say St. Cronan or Father Kleba. He began immediately by saying that the meeting was called to talk about me and several issues at the parish. He asked me if I would like to address each issue as it was presented or whether I would prefer having the whole material presented and then I could respond.

I said, “I have no idea what the agenda of the meeting is so I will decide after the initial material is presented. However, I am very happy to be here, because it seems to me already that it will be a good day for me. You see my sister bet me $100. that I was being named a Monsignor, and now I am safe in assuming that I will be $100. richer. I wanted this day to be a winner somehow. A.B. was so serious and dour that he didn’t even crack a smile, but Bob and Vern were clearly amused. I was so sad for the Archbishop that life is so ponderous and difficult.

He began by stating his sadness at the play ordination of the women, Elsie and Rea, and asked me if they were from St. Cronan. I told him that they were from the parish somewhat by default, because they had been members of I. C. on Lafayette and when that church was closed they came to St. Cronan. He asked if I knew that they were planning ordination and if I tried to dissuade them. I told him that I knew they were aware of their ordination being condemned by the church. He asked me if I called in a theologian to talk with them and bring them to their senses about this infallible teaching of the church. I told him that I had never faced any situation like that and I didn’t even think to do that.

He left that topic and moved to the women led liturgy at St. Cronans and to the fact that Rea and Elsie had led that last Saturday morning. He said that he knew that I was not there, but asked if they regularly do that in the northex of St. Cronan? He noted that he knew that this area was used for Mass and that we viewed it as a sacred space, but we also used it in this undesirable way. I told him since I wasn’t there I clearly didn’t know anything about these matters, but in the past when I did attend women’s prayer it was some kind of prayer, song, scripture and sharing, not a mock Mass. I continued by saying I wasn’t there, because I was helping with the First Penance Services at ICD and that in fact I went back to ICD on Sunday evening for 6 PM Mass to cover for Bob Reiker who was in Rome on sabbatical. Hence I drove about 140 miles to help serve the sacramental needs of others along with caring for the people of St. Cronans over the weekend.

He talked some about the Vespers in the street on Dec. 11th and how S. Louise in leading that had been an embarrassment to his edict regarding Rabbi Talve. He thanked me for denying her the opportunity to have Vespers at St. Cronans and was grateful for the heads-up that I gave the diocese in my phone call to Vern and the fax about the situation that I sent to him. He told me how these things were done to undermine his role as leader of the diocese. I responded that they were an honest effort for people to pray together in an interfaith setting and was not planned to embarrass him.

Next he focused on the St. Cronan website and the fact that the talk by Fr. Phan, the Asian priest from Georgetown, who was cancelled by the Aquinas Institute, was advertised on the St. Cronan website. He was upset by that and wanted it removed. A.B. said, “I know you don’t put anything on the St. C. website, but that it is your job to monitor it better.” I told him I would monitor it better and I didn’t even know it was there. Next he addressed liturgical aberrations at St. Cronans talking about those who preached. He noted that S. Louise, Sean Collins and some unnamed others regularly preach at St. Cronans. That is against liturgical guidelines that state that only the ordained can preach.

Next he noted that the Sign of the Cross was always to be said in the traditional Trinitarian formula and never have other terms substituted for Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Similarly, there are never to be times when the words in the Sacramentary or the lections from the appointed Scripture are to be revised. All this is contrary to the letter of Catholic liturgical directives.

After about fifteen minutes he concluded this presentation referring more fully to Catholic laws and teaching, but never saying that Rea and Elsie were excommunicated. Then he turned to Bob Hermann and to Vernon Gardin to ask them is they had noted anything about me that was a problem. They didn’t add any accusations, so A.B. asked me what I had to say for myself about these matters.

I took a deep breath and began. “I have been a priest in the Archdiocese for forty-one years. During that time I have been pastor of some of the poorest churches in the roughest neighborhoods of the city. I have been in parishes for a decade that most brother priests would not stay in for a week. I guess I have to assume that during those forty-one years no one has ever written a letter of complement or commendation for the work that I have done. Because in forty-one years this is the first time that I have been called in and this is to note my failings and my shortcomings. Well, I am here to tell you that I am sad and angry about being called in regarding the issues that are highlighted on those papers in your hand. Some of my classmates are retired, and maybe I would do well to follow their example if instead of gratitude I get criticism. So since you don’t seem to know anything good about me, I will have to use this opportunity to tell you something about me.

I was made the youngest pastor in the Archdiocese when I was 31 years old. I was the associate at Visitation on Taylor and Evans when my pastor left the priesthood. When I went to inform Cardinal Carberry about that fact he said, “Well, you’re awfully young to be pastor, but there isn’t anybody standing in line to get that place.” So I became pastor there and the parish was too poor to pay me a salary. So for seven years I worked there for free, and when it was time to fill out the annual report, there was always a zero in the top line where it said, ‘Pastor’s salary’. And for seven years no one ever called me from Lindell Blvd. and asked me what I lived on or how I put gasoline into my car. However, there was a time when the typist doing the annual report made a typo in the financial columns and the numbers didn’t add up. Then I got a call from Msgr. Gallagher saying that I had handed in a bogus report and they were sending it back to have me correct it.

Later I was at St. Bridget’s parish in the Vaughn Housing Projects on Jefferson Ave. While I was there I was shot at two times. Another time I was in the projects when the elevators failed, and I had to walk nine floors down the fire escape when people were selling drugs. I stayed there to serve the people when it would have been easy to leave. When Christmas came in 1993 I was so frazzled and distressed that I could not celebrate Mass at St. Bridget’s. I got a priest from St. Louis U. to come and I went out to help Don Schramm at Sacred Heart Parish in Troy.

Archbishop, while I was waiting here in this residence for you to arrive, it occurred to me that the best incident in my priesthood, maybe the best moment of my whole life, happened in this house. Over the holidays in 1993 I came here to give Archbishop John May a get-well card from the people of St. Bridget Parish. He was dying of a brain tumor. The sister who answered the door asked me if I wanted to visit with him. I said I would be delighted and she ushered me up to the sitting room upstairs. He was sitting there reading a book by Marion Wright Edelmann, the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, who wrote a last will and testament to her two sons. It is great book entitled, The Measure of Our Success. Archbishop May asked me how I was doing. I told him that I was pretty depressed since I had been shot at two times down at St. Bridgets. I said I spent Christmas with Don Schramm at Sacred Heart in Troy, Mo and I was sure that I could make a good assistant in the country. He said, “Let me tell you the most important thing that I know. You have to take care of yourself and nobody else can do it for you. I’m supposed to exercise everyday. If I don’t get out of this chair, it doesn’t make any difference how many people want to go for a walk with me. I have to take care of myself.

So now tell me what are you doing to take care of yourself? I told him that I was going to Vail, CO to visit some friends. He asked me if I needed any money, and I told him that they were very good friends and I could go to Vail for free. We visited a little more and then he told me that I would have to go and he would have to rest. As I got up he started to get up with great exertion and stressful quivering. I told him that he didn’t have to get up, but he said, “I do too have to get up.” We gave each other a big bear hug, and he told me that I was one fine priest and a great blessing to the Archdiocese of St. Louis. So that is the only time that I got any wisdom and love from a bishop. ONLY YOU CAN TAKE CARE OF YOU.

Bob Hermann interjected that on the two occasions that he came to St. Cronan Parish for Confirmation; he had always told the people that I was a good pastor and a great servant of the poor. He recalled that he complimented me on my dealings with Pam and the youngsters of the neighborhood who were being too greedy with the donuts and the cake. I told him that was true, he had done that. Hermann continued, “Given the way some things are out of hand at St. Cronan, do you think that you are capable of running the parish or do you think that we have to send someone else there to pastor? I said, “According to your analysis of the things that are on A B’s list, things are out of control. There are more important things than that list. I just want to stay alive long enough in this church to witness the time when a bishop sends out a letter to a priest or religious saying, “I am saddened to see how little interest you have in living the Matthew 25 gospel about loving the least of your brothers and sisters.” I’ll never live to see that happen, because all you are interested in is some liturgical rituals and orthodox beliefs. I am capable of staying at St. Cronan’s and I’ll admit that much about the parish is flawed. First of all, they have a flawed parish priest. But I am merely asking to be treated with the same understanding and compassion that Jesus had for Peter when he denied Christ. I want to be able to say, “Yes Lord, you know that I love you, and then looking at each one I said, I love you, AB, and I love you, Bob and I love you, Vernon. And I love the church. The church has always had conflicts and difficulties. Read about Peter and Paul in the Acts of the Apostles and the letter to the Galatians. Yesterday was the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas. How many condemnations did he get from the Archbishop of Paris until he was moved out of the diocese. He dared to formulate catholic doctrine leaning on the pagan, Aristotle, whom he had learned about from the Muslim influx into the west. During his lifetime, he was questioned. Now he is the Angelic Doctor. If our archdiocese thinks it’s important to have the Latin Rite at St. Francis de Sales then it needs to have St. Cronans to balance things out. With regard to whether I ought to stay at St. Cronans, let me tell you how I got here. In 2002 confirmation was over for the youth at ICD and Archbishop Rigali was removing his vestments and laying them on the vesting table. I went up to him and said. “I’d like to ask you a question. I’m curious as to why it is that three parishes each lost their pastor in the abuse scandal in the same week. One of them still doesn’t have a pastor? I said, “Our Lady of Sorrows got a new pastor in a week and Sacred Heart in Florissant got a new pastor in ten days while three months have gone by and no one has been sent to St. Cronan. Now I really don’t know how any of these assignments work, but if St. Cronan’s doesn’t have a pastor because of race, or gangs, or drugs, or violence or poverty, I’m good at all those things and I could go there. You have to understand that I like it wherever I serve, but deep down inside I’m really a city person. Consequently, there are four things that I miss about life in Dardenne Prairie. I miss culture, architecture, diversity and sidewalks. If you can live without those things and you like a car culture in vanilla vinyl village and O’Fallon strip malls than ICD is made for you. But I was the first priest in the diocese to have a hybrid car, so I’m not too keen on those things.” Archbishop Rigali was laying down the vestment, and while still facing down toward the table turned his neck sideways and looked at me wide-eyed and said. “You mean you’d actually go to St. Cronan”? I told him that he would probably forget about this conversation during all the Confirmation photo ops, so I would write him a letter tomorrow and remind him of what I had said. I did that and he called me in ten days and said he would appoint me pastor at St Cronans.. I never knew what a hornets’ nest I was getting into when I went to St. Cronans. The people were angry at Joe Ross, were angry at the Archdiocese for sending Joe Ross there, were angry at each other because some were Joe’s friends, and were angry at the diocese for removing him in a blink without a word of explanation. They were angry at me, because they couldn’t trust that the diocese wasn’t screwing them again by sending me there without any consultation. Then the person who was the angriest was Jim Krings, the associate pastor, whom I had to live with. We liked and respected one another, but he had been messed over by the diocese also. When Joe Ross was sent to the parish, Jim had heard rumors about his past and was wondering about his multiple assignments. He went to inquire on Lindell Blvd. and he was told to shut-up, mind his own business and be a good priest. Then he comes to find out that he had been living with a felon and when the bottom falls out of things and Joe is removed in eight hours, Jim is told to step up and do the best he can in running the parish. He was furious. So that is what I inherited and I had to bring some peace and sense of community out of this chaos. I tried to make friends and some people said, “I didn’t ask to have you come here. You were foisted off on us by the diocese without any consultation or collaboration. Then Jim gets moved away and I am at St. Cronans by myself, and no one from Lindell Blvd. ever calls and asks me how I am doing or thanks me for taking this hot potato off their hands. I can’t believe that when I was sent here the diocese didn’t know that there were some liturgical abnormalities at St Cronans. No one gave me notice about these and some were five years old. I couldn’t change them if I wanted to while diocesan leadership was not interested in correcting major issues like priests endangering the welfare of parish children. People would have screamed at the inconsistency. Now another five years has been added to the way St Cronans celebrates the liturgy. A. B. just last week I got a birthday card from you commending my celebration of the sacraments. I appreciate that and hope to continue to please you and serve the church faithfully. However, I do get mixed messages. I am the right person for this parish, because the truth is that the same question Archbishop Regali asked me could still be asked today, “You mean you would really go to St. Cronans’? And there still wouldn’t be a long line of priests who would answer that in the affirmative. The reason for that is that there are a large number of needy and hurting people at St. Cronans. There are a large number of former priests who have not been thanked for their years of service, but rather held in distain. There are large number of religious women and former religious who like being treated with respect and have suffered from an oppressive, patriarchal church. There are a large number of gays and lesbians who are accepted there for who they are and celebrated for their gifts. Bob Hermann burst in and reminded me that he had been at the Moramarco house and met Jane and Joan there and that he was open with them but also was faithful to the church’s teaching and reminded them to use the Sacrament of Penance frequently. I asked him whether he would tell gays and lesbians about Penance any more often than he would tell other people who may be breaking vows and commandments of various kinds or sinning in some way that was outside the realm of sexual matters. He said, “We must be clear about the church teaching.” I said, “What is the church teaching? Do we tell people that they are fundamentally disordered or rotten to the core, and then say, “but remember that we love you and we will help you to change, but since your disordering goes right down to your DNA you really can’t change, but we’ll tell you what you could be if you were able to follow our rules?” Let me tell you about the first person that I met when I got to St. Cronan’s. He was the president of the PC, and he wanted to get us together to meet me over coffee. He called me on the phone and I asked him where he lived. He said he lived in Florissant. I asked him why he came all the way to St. C? He said because I’m gay. I said, Why is St. C. good for you if you are gay? He said, because people there will accept you for who you are and not judge you or shun you for your sexual orientation. At St. C. when they find our your sexual orientation, they don’t try to delve into your private life, but they want to know how you can help the mission of the church. Can you make coffee and put out the donuts? Do you stay and clean the tables and fold up the chairs. I can and should stay at St. C. because I do well in all these situations and people are happy and dedicated to working together there and being open and non-udgmental. If I leave there and some ridged pastor arrives those 500 people are going to be out of there. They are not going to some cookie-cutter parish down the street that is parallelized by rules and rites, they are going to join the fastest growing church in the U.S. which is the church of former Catholics. I will be happy to stay there and to challenge people in living the faith and celebrate the sacraments with them. A. B. said, “I named the church a social justice parish and I don’t want to see it close. However, they have to live the social gospel in the way the church mandates.” St. C. doesn’t live all the mandates perfectly, I replied, but we do a good job in responding to the demands of the social gospel. It’s not some ethereal thing out there but real people being present in real situations of need. You say Feed the hungry, and I could write names of people at the food pantry and V. de P. You say give drink to the thirsty and I could add more names. You say visit the sick and imprisoned, and we will have a COPE list and the health care cabinet. Say shelter the homeless and we will have Habitat for Humanity and people addressing the housing needs of the poor in our regentrifying neighborhood. You say welcome the children and there are new neighborhood youth joining us for Sunday breakfast and choir and some even looking for help to go to catholic school, because they receive too much bullying in their public school. Let me tell you one more really measurable thing. It would not be surprising on any Sunday to have three wheelchairs parked in the front of little St. Cronans at 10 AM Mass. In my years at ICD with 1,200 at one Mass and 5,000 on the entire Sunday I never saw three wheelchairs at church. At St. C. people go to the nursing homes and pick these people up week after week. You might think we spend a lot of time talking about women’s ordination. That is not true. We spend much more time planning on how to go out at night and find homeless people in the cold under bridges and in sewers and give them blankets and mittens and coffee and keep them alive.

Vernon Gardin asks, “Gerry, do you think people at St. Cronan like you.” I said, “Vernon, there were 100 people at church praying for me and for A. B. (I looked directly at him) before I left to come to this meeting. If you go back with me after the meeting I bet we will still find 40 or 50 there waiting to hear what transpired at this meeting. When S. Louise went to the meeting at the Catholic Center last Tues. there was a similar turn out at St. C. and the canon lawyer who accompanied her said that he had never seen anything like that when he had accompanied anyone to a juridical proceeding. Yes, I know that the people like me. Let me tell you my three goals for this meeting. I didn’t know anything about the agenda, but I really assumed that it might have more to do with S. Louise than with me being named a Msgr. So here are my goals.
1. I wanted to be humble enough to listen and courageous enough to say what had to be said in the Spirit of Jesus. I think I have done that, but you can be the real judges.
2. I wanted to remain the pastor of St. C.
3. I hesitated, but then I got the courage to say it. Archbishop, (I looked right at him),the Spirit had you name this a social justice
parish. In social justice teaching there is a term called the Principle of Subsidiarity. Simply put, it means that any contentious issue or argument ought to be settled on the lowest possible strata with the participation of the people directly involved. In the terms of the gospel, we would be speaking of the verse, “If your sister or brother has anything against you, leave your gift at the altar, and go to that person and be reconciled, and then take your gift to the altar.” A.B. I would urge you to call S. Louise and invite her to come here and speak with you about the issue personally rather than have couriers and canon lawyers and juridical hearings. I promise you that she will be willing to do this. A. B. stammered and said, “well if she is willing to come and be reconciled, of course.”

“Archbishop,” I said, “listen again. The gospel says you go and be reconciled, it doesn’t say anything about the other party. So I’m not telling you how things are going to proceed with Sister, I’m only saying that she would like to talk with you. If you never talk, there will be no reconciliation. But if you talk something wonderful might happen.”A.B. seemed to be quite touched by my clear and sincere effort to promote the type of honest dialogue that might allow for a break through in the S. Louise juridical conflict. He stammered some indication of agreement. I added that I was certainly miffed by the notion that A. B. believed anything that came his way on the blogs. I told him that I knew a man from ICD who certainly bloged me and St. C. unrelentingly. I told him that man would always walk out of church in a very public way after I entered to celebrate Mass. Since his wife worked in the parish office I would mention to her on Monday that I was concerned for her husband’s health since he left Mass so early. She said, “He hates your Masses and was going to the Latin Mass.” He and his wife had five children and were never married sacramentally. But he always felt confident to be righteous enough to question my fidelity and orthodoxy. I wish you would stop listening to them in favor of priests who have served the church with fidelity for over forty years.A. B. said that he didn’t rely on them for his information. As it seemed that time was coming to a close, A. B. left me with two clear directives. He wanted me to make sure that Rea and Elsie never led a liturgy service in our church since they already had a Saturday service at the Unitarian Church. (I was amazed that he continues to publicize them so clearly.) I once more explained that this was not liturgy but more a para-liturgy. Secondly, he said that the ad for Father Phan had to be removed from the St. C. website. I PROMISED TO DO BOTH OF THOSE THINGS. I told him that I was unsure about the other directives that he had mentioned to me since so much time had gone by. I asked him to give me the packet of papers that he had in his hand so that I could review them and know what more was expected. I told him that I would look at them and discuss them further at some future time. He said that he had failed to prepare them adequately and that he should have had them word-processed since he didn’t want to inflict his penmanship on anyone. He said that he would have them typed and mailed to me and then we could have another appointment in the next month after I had a chance to pray about them and discuss them with my spiritual director.

I invited him to come and celebrate Mass at St. C. since he had not been there in five years. I told him that he would be impressed by the choir and the spirit of the liturgy and that he would find that we love him very much. He stood up and shook hands with me and asked me to continue to pray for him. I departed at about 2:35P.

Fr. Gerry Kleba

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