Paulist priests who have long headed ministry at The Ohio State University’s Catholic Newman Center have been removed by a newly-appointed bishop. It was a surprise move that some believe signals a more conservative approach to LGBTQ+ issues in the diocese, such as when the words “All Are Welcome” were removed from the Center’s signage.
St. Thomas More Newman Center, which ministers to students and others at the Columbus, Ohio, school, has been run by the Paulist Fathers for 66 years. For 25 years, they have been listed by New Ways Ministry as one of three LGBTQ-friendly parishes in the Diocese of Columbus.
For many, the decision to terminate the Paulists’ presence came as an abrupt surprise, according to the National Catholic Reporter. Bishop Earl Fernandes of Columbus was installed on May 31st, and a month later, he appointed a diocesan priest to head the Newman Center. His existing record on LGBTQ+ issues is negative, including a book he authored which endorsed the ban on gay men being accepted to seminaries.
Paulist Father Ed Nowak, who directed the Center, said the decision was “devastating.”
“In a diocese that is short of priests and personnel, to lose three able-bodied men overnight does seem unconscionable, and people are questioning that,” Nowak told the Columbus Dispatch.
Some think that new attitudes to LGBTQ+ issues in the diocese are part of the reason for the change.
According to NBC News, “many members of the Newman congregation say they believe the Paulists were asked to leave as part of a national conservative trend because the Newman Center opens its arms to the gay community.”
“Jesus spent a lot of time with the outcasts, the lepers, the prostitutes, and publicans,” Paulist Father Vinny McKiernan said. “So what’s wrong with dealing with the outcasts in the cast of characters of Jesus?”
A potential sign of such a shift also came this week when the words “All Are Welcome” were removed from the Center’s signage, prompting more questions about the future of ministry there.
LGBTQ+ parishioners have expressed dismay in response to the bishop’s decision. Joseph Gentilini is a gay man who has attended Mass at the Newman Center for over fifty years, including for over forty years with his partner.
“Where are they going to bury me?” he asked. “Do I have to deny who I am, or give up my partner? That’s not going to happen, so where do I go? My whole heart was just sucked out of me.”
However, Fernandes denies that the changes have anything to do with the Paulists’ welcome to LGBTQ+ Catholics, citing evangelization and vocations as his motivations for the order’s removal.
With the new diocesan leadership will come more lay movements, including new groups such as Courage and Opus Dei. Courage is a Catholic ministry to lesbian and gay people which promotes chastity by adhering to a 12-Step approach to sexuality. Opus Dei is an international lay Catholic organization which promotes a conservative, pre-Vatican II approach to faith and ministry.
“I would not feel comfortable anymore in a place that sanctioned Courage,” Gentilini told NCR. He does not know where he will go to Mass now that the Paulists have left the Newman Center as of July 31st.
Hundreds of people signed a letter asking the bishop to reconsider his decision. Many took the opportunity to thank the Paulists for encouraging their lives of faith.
As the Paulists look for new places to go, they have been moved by their parishioners’ and former students’ testimonies and letters of support.
“To know how big an impact we’ve had on them is just so overwhelming,” Nowak said.
Only time will reveal the new direction of the Newman Center in Columbus. The outpouring of support for the Paulists from the Columbus and Ohio State communities is a testament to the depth of their ministry’s impact on so many Catholics’ lives of faith.
—Grace Doerfler (she/her), New Ways Ministry, August 16, 2022