The Roman Catholic Church has been in the limelight lately with a couple of stirring issues, including the sex abuse scandal and controversies surrounding women’s ordination – even at the local level.

In fact, in neighboring Oak Park, Rev. Larry McNally of Ascension Parish delivered a petition in September to Cardinal Francis George to show solidarity with women priest supporters, according to

With the problems the Church faces, along with recent cultural changes, this is a particularly difficult time for the clergy, said Hugh McElwain, a professor of theology at Dominican University in River Forest.

In light of all this, the Review recently sat down with the pastor of St. Bernardine, 7246 W. Harrison St. Rev. George Velloorattil, a 58-year-old from India, has been a Catholic priest for 32 years, the last 24 spent in the Chicago area. For the past year, he has been serving about 850 families belonging to St. Bernardine. While chatting with the Review, Velloorattil counted down the 409 days till St. Bernardine’s 100th anniversary mass and explained how the future of the Catholic faith “gives us a ray of hope.”

The church is going to be celebrating 100 years?

Velloorattil: The centennial, yes. The opening of the jubilee year will be on the 21st of November. …It’s a year-long program. We have spiritual review programs, outreach programs, educational programs, and finally we have fundraisers, so we have lots of things. I am excited, my parishioners are excited.

What’s the history of this church?

They started with a log cabin on the other side of Harlem [in 1911]. Then they bought this property and built a small church. Then the number of Catholics grew, so they expanded and in 1941, they built the present church.

How would you describe your parishioners?

They are a diverse group. We have Anglos, we have blacks, Hispanics, we have Asians, Filipinos and there are a few Indian families. So it’s a diverse group, yes. At my previous assignment, they were 95 percent Hispanics.

Have you seen a desire by parishioners to go back to more devotional practices?

Not only in our parish. It’s found all over the Church now. I think lots of people are getting kind of fed up with the modernisms. They think it’s kind of hollow so they want something they can hold on to. In lots of places, people are getting back to the devotional practices, the old traditional practices of piety and so on. 

It seems like the Church has been getting kind of rocked lately, especially with the sex abuse scandal.

It’s kind of a dark age of the Church, but we are getting out of it. It’s sad. …We are to do something about it, so things are tightening up. …But the downside is that a lot of our freedoms to mingle with the children and to lead them in different ways are kind of restrained. …Restrictions are good, but then sometimes it goes overboard. Why to get in trouble for nothing? …There is a reluctance to do anything with young people. Many priests have felt that way.

Do you know Father McNally next door? He’s been rather vocal about women’s ordination.  

I don’t know him that well, but I’ve heard of him. I don’t know what his stance is … but women’s ordination is something that Rome has to decide. The former pope, John Paul II, he closed the chapter on that. There was a lot of discussion during his lifetime, but then it did not get anywhere so he said finally, that is it and he closed the chapter on that. It’s a deeper issue. I don’t know who can come up with a solution. …It’s up to the pope, who am I to say. One pope closed it, another pope can open it. It all depends on him.

Do you think there is a lot of fear among priests as far as speaking out about it, given the consequences?

I don’t think there’s fear. What do we fear about talking about things? As regular pastors, we have a lot to handle in every parish, so those international problems and issues are not something that we are really concerned about because there are people for that. We have enough in our parish to deal with. The bigger issues we leave to people who are directly related to them.

What do you think about the future direction of the Church?

The Church gives us a ray of hope. The Church is always positive, looking forward. …There are times when we pass through difficulties, but we get through that. It’s like the economic depression here. It’s not going to be the rule for all time to come. No, we will get out of it. It might take time and it might take pain.

Celebrating 100 years

In honor of its centennial, St. Bernardine will host special activities throughout the year from Nov. 21, 2010 to Nov. 20, 2011. Some of the events include Late Night Catechism, a pool party, mass at the Park, a parish cookbook and spiritual renewal opportunities.

In conjunction with the anniversary, St. Bernardine has also planned a few projects that will make it “a very attractive place two years from now,” Rev. George Velloorattil said. The grotto is currently being remodeled, the church is getting painted and repaired, and there are also plans to build a new administrative office.