Fr. George Velloorattil

On paper the Roman Catholic Church is a top down organization, but what happened in St. Bernardine’s Fearon Hall last Wednesday indicates that the Archdiocese of Chicago can act in a very participatory manor.

About 60 people packed the hall in the basement of what used to be the parish school to interact with Fr. Michael Knotek and Fr. Greg Rom from the Priests’ Placement Board and the Rev. John Manz, the auxiliary bishop from the archdiocese responsible for Lake and Cook Counties. The occasion precipitating the town hall meeting was the announcement on Jan. 30 by Fr. George Velloorattil that when his six year term is up this summer, he will be moving on to a new assignment.

That the process of finding a new pastor for St. Bernardine began so soon after Fr. George’s announcement was, perhaps, an indication that both parish members and the archdiocese had acknowledged that the relationship between the members and their pastor was less than a “match made in heaven,” and that everyone involved was anxious to turn the page and begin a new chapter. Velloorattil was known to have conservative Catholic views, and butted heads with some parish members. Some congregation members, and a deacon, left the parish during Velloorattil’s tenure. The 98-year-old elementary school also closed during his time at the parish. 

Knotek, who served as the moderator of the gathering, began by stating that the purpose of the meeting was for him and his two colleagues to listen to what the parish members would say were their congregation’s strengths and weaknesses and then to create a profile of what assets they would like their new pastor to bring to their life together.

The listing of strengths went on for over half an hour and turned into something of a spirit lifting self-affirmation. “We are children of Vatican II,” said one member. “We tend towards liberal,” said another. “A pastor can’t come in and do it my way or the highway.” Others said they are hard-working, have a lot of real estate which is not being fully utilized, have many programs which are lay empowered and driven, are in pretty good financial shape, and have a dedicated core of members.

One participant celebrated St. Bernardine’s down to earth identity by saying, “We are different than parishes in villages around us. We love Forest Park and are proud to have a kind of blue collar approach to the world.”

When it came to weaknesses, most of the comments focused on the disconnect between the pastor and the parish. What seemed to encourage the parish members was the way Fr. Knotek frequently empathized with their disappointment about the preaching of Fr. George. 

The three priests heard that the members are hoping for a new pastor who is a good preacher, collaborative in his leadership style, spiritual, welcoming, a motivator, a good communicator and willing to ask for help.

When it came time for Knotek to summarize what he had heard, he declared, “There is no talk in the Archdiocese of closing St. Bernardine.” The fact that the audience responded with something of a cheer revealed that the possibility had been on some of their minds.

He continued by saying how moved he was by the congregation’s hospitality, at the huge assortment of desserts and sandwiches spread out for the meeting and for the respectful way in which people vented their frustration and pain. Knotek mixed a lot of humor in with his fielding of responses and the audience responded with much laughter. 

In lifting up the hope that things were going to get better for the congregation which meets for worship at the corner of Elgin and Harrison, he began by saying, “You already have a wonderful parish,” and then added, “A new day is right around the corner.”

Bishop Manz, who quietly listened for most of the hour and half meeting, added what seemed to be heartfelt expressions of sadness for what the parish had gone through with the closing of their school, parishioners leaving and personality conflicts in the congregation. He explained with candor that he has been aware of the tension at St. Bernardine for a long time but that when there is not a good fit between a pastor and a parish, restrictions from the Vatican make it difficult to take quick action.

 “We can’t always do what we want,” he said and then added, “I promise that we’ll make a good effort to give you the kind of pastor you need.” 

After the meeting, Fr. Rom commented on the tone of what he heard as he furiously tried to record everything that was said. “I know there has been a lot of distress, and the people were very kind, very optimistic.”

The energized mood in Fearon Hall following the meeting was palpable. Lin Beribak said, “I tend to be an optimist, but I really feel good. I feel like we were heard. We’ll see if it happens, but I’m really hopeful based on tonight that they can find someone who can bring us up.”

Donna Gawlas added, “We weren’t empowered before. Now we’re empowered to build. It’s good that there are more priests than parishes [22 open parishes and 34 priests]. I’m very encouraged by that. We want Fr. George to be happy too. We want him to be in a parish where he can flourish as well.”

 “This was a very encouraging meeting,” said Jim Murray. “I felt that these people listened to us. I believe that they heard us and that they’ll act on it. I’m confident that we’ll come out of this and get a new pastor.”