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FALL RIVERFor roiled parish, uneasy compromise
By Jack Thomas, Globe Staff, 7/27/2003
Before it was over, it had flared into a contentious public debate about the role of the Roman Catholic Church in politics and about the conflict between faith and culture, and even now, 11 years later, the recollection is so troublesome that those involved are reluctant to talk about it.
Asked about the events that roiled his congregation at Holy Trinity Church in 1992, the Rev. Gerald Shovelton sighs.
"Oh, dear," he says. "That's a bad memory, and I'd really rather not go through it again."
But the manner in which the crisis was mediated by Sean P. O'Malley, then bishop of the Fall River diocese, provides a clue to the passions and priorities he may bring to Boston.
As summer residents drifted from Cape Cod that autumn in 1992, the traffic along Route 28 thinned and so did the congregation at Sunday Mass at Holy Trinity Church, the home for many Catholics on Cape Cod since 1866.
With the November election only weeks away, Shirley Gomes stepped up her campaign for a seat in the Massachusetts House. A graduate of Harwich High School and a member of the board of selectmen, she'd been christened at Holy Trinity, married there, raised her children in the parish and served for 15 years as a lay minister, delivering the sacrament of Communion to parishioners unable to attend church services.
For her pastor, that posed a problem.
"Since she was active in the parish," recalled Shovelton, now retired in Florida, "I decided to find out her stand on [abortion]. Frankly, I'd been tipped she might be pro-choice."
Shovelton drove to her home, knocked on her door, and she invited him in.
"I asked about her stand on `life,' and she said it was none of my concern.
"I said, `I beg your pardon, but you represent the church as a Eucharistic minister ... and anyway, I can tell from your answer that you're pro-choice.'
"I told her I would ask in a nice way if she would resign as a Eucharistic minister and she said she didn't think she had to.
"I said, `Then the answer to that is you're fired.' I didn't say `fired,' actually. I said she was relieved of duties, something like that.
"She said she didn't think that was right. I said it was the way it had to be. She was upset, but anyone with a public position in the church should agree with the teachings."
Meanwhile, in Fall River, Bishop Sean P. O'Malley had been installed on Aug. 11 as sixth bishop of the diocese which embraces that city, along with much of Southeastern Massachusetts, the Cape and Islands.
He was a busy man. In addition to new duties as pastor to 400,000 Catholics in 109 parishes, he was struggling to begin the process of rescuing the diocese from scandal involving the Rev. James Porter, who would plead guilty and be sentenced to 18 to 20 years in prison for sexually molesting 28 children. O'Malley reached out to victims, arranged financial settlements, initiated backround checks on clergy and made clear that any priest facing a credible accusation of sexual abuse would be removed from ministry.
But O'Malley was making an impression in other, subtler ways, by saying Mass in Portuguese and strolling, in brown robe and sandals, past grand homes on Highland Avenue, where other bishops had been chauffeured. He made clear that his focus was on immigrants and the poor. He established contacts with the Jewish community and attended services at a synagogue.
One day the bishop's telephone rang. It was Shovelton from Harwich, alerting him to the crisis involving Gomes.
"The bishop agreed," Shovelton recalled, "that I had no choice."
What galled Gomes was an awareness that her Democratic opponent was also a practicing Catholic and, by his own admission in print, more liberal on abortion than Gomes. And yet there was no similar focus on him. "There's no consistency here," Gomes said at the time.
The dispute escalated. Shovelton warned Gomes, according to newspaper accounts, that he might deny her communion because of her abortion stand.
"I doubt I said that," Shovelton now says. "That would be up to the bishop, although I might have told Shirley that I believed she didn't have a right to receive communion."
Shovelton said he suggested that Gomes meet with O'Malley and she agreed. He hoped O'Malley would persuade her to change her mind on abortion. She hoped O'Malley would assert her right to Communion and perhaps restore her as lay minister.
On a Friday late in September, Gomes drove 71 miles west to meet O'Malley, and she still recalls doing so with a sense of foreboding, for on matters of doctrine, O'Malley, the genial friar, was and is a man of firm orthodoxy. He holds abortion to be one of the great crimes of the 20th Century.
For 19 consecutive years, he made a pilgrimage to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington for the annual rally against abortion. In sermons, he likened Roe vs. Wade to the Dred Scott decision in its devaluation of life.
The meeting between Gomes and the bishop lasted 20 minutes.
Gomes, recalling the session in a brief interview, said that although the bishop refused to reinstate her as lay minister, "he assured me that if my position on abortion was an act of conscience, then I would not be denied Communion."
So uncomfortable is the memory that Gomes was ambivalent about an in-depth interview with the Globe. She agreed, reluctantly, and then hours before the meeting, canceled.
"I have given considerable thought to the events of 1992 and why I went to visit Bishop O'Malley," she wrote in an e-mail. "I did not go as a candidate for public office. I went as an individual to seek clarification for me personally as to whether my right to attend Mass and receive Communion was in jeopardy."
"In my visit with Bishop O'Malley, I explained my beliefs, how I had examined my conscience and why I felt that my decision to be a pro-choice candidate should not threaten my right to attend Mass and receive Communion. The Bishop indicated that if that is what I really believe, then I should be able to receive Communion." An invitation to discuss the meeting with Gomes brought no response from O'Malley.
Looking back, Shovelton is disappointed the bishop failed to persuade Gomes to embrace the church's position.
"The bishop got nowhere with her," he said. "In the end, the bishop backed me up, but he had to. You can't change the teaching of the church just to make people happy."
"It seems to me an odd compromise," said Richard McBrien, a liberal theologian from Notre Dame, "but there is some theological validity to making a distinction between serving as a Eucharistic minister and receiving Communion.
"To be excluded from a particular ministry does not imply that one is outside the Church. Exclusion from Communion, however, is in effect excommunication, far more serious."
In Fall River, in the decade after his meeting with Gomes, O'Malley was not afraid to use his pulpit to influence political debate. He involved himself in campaigns for the homeless and for immigrants and against gambling, euthanasia, the death penalty, and abortion.
He joined three Roman Catholic bishops in Massachusetts in urging voters to judge candidates on a range of criteria, including their positions on abortion. He chastised Sheriff Thomas Hodgson's plan to put shackled prisoners on work details, saying the community shouldn't see people walking around in chains. He even spoke out against the Nantucket Steamship Authority's diminished service to New Bedford.
During his Fall River years, O'Malley also, on occasion, more directly entered the political fray.
As he wrote in the diocesan newspaper, the Anchor, "I will not vote for any politician who will promote abortion or the culture of death, no matter how appealing the rest of his or her program might be. They are wolves in sheep's garments, the KKK without sheets, and sadly enough, they don't even know it."
On abortion, bishops in Massachusetts have not had much influence on elections. Polls show that in spite of the church's opposition, many Catholic voters, and most state office-holders, support abortion rights.
Meanwhile, at Holy Trinity Church last Sunday, parishioners were willing to recall the events 11 years ago, though they didn't want to be quoted by name about a still painful episode in parish life.
That November, Gomes lost the election to the incumbent by 3,601 votes.
Two years later, in a race against another candidate, she won the House seat by a substantial margin, and now is in a position to vote on such issues as gambling, euthanasia, capital punishment, in vitro fertilization, stem cell research, birth control, and abortion.
This story ran on page B11 of the Boston Globe on 7/27/2003.