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Springfield Bishop Decree Tests Parishioner's Faith

Steve Rainwater

John Freml grew up in a Catholic family and attended parochial schools. He is an active member at his parish in Springfield and says he loves the Catholic Mass.

In high school, he came out as gay, though he feared the reaction of his peers and his teachers, given the Church's teaching on homosexual activity. Instead, he received acceptance -- something he says kept him in the church.

Now, a pronouncement from Springfield's bishop, denying certain sacraments to gays in same sex marriages or relationships, is once again testing Freml's faith.

In a "decree" on same sex marriage, Bishop Thomas Paprocki said married gay Catholics and those in same sex relationships cannot receive communion, participate in parish ministries or receive the funeral rites of the Church unless they "repent" of their actions.

Paprocki, who was an outspoken opponent of same sex marriage before the Supreme Court upheld marriage equality, said those in same sex marriages bring "scandal on the faithful."

"I think we have to make a very clear distinction here between between the church and the hierarchy. The hierarchy isn't the entire church. And the bishops - in particular Bishop Paprocki - does not own the church. In reality the church is the people of God," Freml said on GLT's Sound Ideas.

In response to questions posed by GLT News, Paprocki sought to clarify some of the statements in his decree.  He said the church not only has the authority but the "obligation" to communicate its teachings.

He said parts of his decree have been misconstrued by some. "They seem to think that the decree is a blanket condemnation of people who are gay and lesbian. It is not. My decree does not focus on 'LGBT people,' but on so-called same-sex marriage, which is a public legal status," the bishop said. 

"No one is ever denied the sacraments or Christian burial for simply having a homosexual orientation.  Even someone who had entered into a same-sex marriage can receive the sacraments and be given ecclesiastical funeral rites if they repent and renounce their 'marriage,'"the bishop continued.

Freml, 32, married his partner in 2014 in a marriage ceremony at a Protestant church. He and his spouse have found a welcoming parish at St. Joseph's. Both are licensed foster parents and have attended Sunday services with their infant foster child.

"We didn't make any effort to hide who we were," Freml said. "The atmosphere was very welcoming, very affirming, people let us know that our family was welcome there as we were."

The pastor also has been "very kind," Freml added.  "It's not the job of the priest to judge someone else's soul. No one can judge another person's soul."

Freml said he believes Bishop Paprocki is out of step with Catholics in the pew, with  many priests, and even many of his fellow American bishops who have not taken as hard a line against married gay parishioners.

Pope Francis, in his public pronouncements, often stresses  inclusiveness and mercy.

Freml noted that Cardinal Joseph Tobin of the Newark archdiocese recently welcomed a group of LGBT Catholics to the cathedral in that city. "He introduced himself as Joseph, your brother," Freml said.

"The church is not to be exclusive. The church is a field hospital as Pope Francis has said. And to quote Pope Francis, communion is not a prize for the perfect," he added.

Receiving communion, or the Eucharist as Catholics refer to it, is one of the most important essential parts of the faith. Catholics believe the Eucharist becomes the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ during the Mass. Denying communion to a person is considered a major step.  The church can refuse communion to non-Catholics and those who have committed grave sin.  

Freml said the experience of acceptance he received at his high school was "foundational" in forming his faith life as an adult.

"The (school) community was fantastically supportive. Teachers stuck up for me. One of the sisters who worked in campus ministry hugged me and told me I was perfect just the way I was ,which at that point was what I really  needed to hear. I realize, though, hat is not the experience of many kids in Catholic school," he said.

According to the Pew Research Center, 58 percent of Catholics support the right of gays to marry and about 66 percent say homosexuality should be accepted by society.

Freml said Paprocki's decree does not represent any new teaching. However, he said he still felt "disappointed and very hurt" by it.

He noted that the decree came out on a day that the gay community was remembering those who were killed last year in the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.

Freml says he hopes he can continue to practice his faith openly.

"At this point we continue to go to Mass. Last Sunday, we were not denied communion, and I hope next Sunday will be the same."

He says if that should change, "We will have to re-evaluate because I would never want to put myself or my husband or anyone in my family in a situation in which they no longer feel comfortable or safe."

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