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Montauk parish protests removal of priest who spoke about Communion vote on CNN

Father Edward Beck talks about departing the St.

Father Edward Beck talks about departing the St. Therese of Lisieux parish in Montauk, after his contract was not renewed by the Diocese of Rockville Centre, upsetting the congregation. Credit: Gordon Grant

Priests Robert Joerger and Edward Beck arrived a year ago at St. Therese of Lisieux, Long Island’s easternmost Roman Catholic Church, with hope and faith.

With Joerger, 71, as pastor and Beck, 62, in residency at the rectory, the duo struck a chord with the flock, who praised their compassion and eloquence.

But now, despite petitions to the Diocese of Rockville Centre, including one with 631 signatures, and a rally attended by over 250 people — "WE ARE HURTING," read one sign; "DONT FIX WHAT’S NOT BROKEN," read another — both clergymen have left the congregation, for a home in Pelham run by their Passionists religious order.

The diocese wouldn't let Beck stay beyond a year. And so Joerger left too, citing the constitution of their religious order. The departures have sown confusion and sorrow.

Beck said he suspects that the diocese wanted him out because of his commentary on CNN criticizing a vote by U.S. Catholic bishops that could lead to the denial of Communion to President Joe Biden and other politicians who support abortion rights. Biden late last month met with Pope Francis at the Vatican and afterward told reporters the pope said he should keep receiving the sacrament.

But Beck can't be sure why he wasn't allowed to stay at St. Therese, he said, since neither he nor his religious order has been given any explanation.

The diocese, which oversees St. Therese and more than 130 other parishes on Long Island, did not answer questions from Newsday. But diocesan spokesman Sean Dolan said in a statement that Beck was always supposed to leave after a year, that the decision to remove Joerger was the Passionists’, and that St. Therese typically has been served by diocesan priests.

A Passionist priest, like a member of other religious orders, generally reports to a superior within his own order and not to the local bishop, but can minister in the diocese only at that local bishop’s pleasure.

In a news release, the order's headquarters said that its original understanding with the diocese was that the arrangement with Beck, who relocated from Los Angeles to accept the posting in Montauk, and Joerger would be renewable.

As for Joerger, the diocese says he was welcome to stay, but, the Passionists order says, its constitution requires priests to live "in community" with at least one other member of the order, so Joerger had to leave too.

Both clergymen, whose order says it spent over $30,000 to repair the rectory, say that the diocese must have known that Beck's departure would necessitate Joerger's. Joerger said the diocese had asked him to stay for three years — and then six — after the parish lacked a permanent priest for a year and a half.

Father Liam MacDonald, who had been chaplain to Holy Trinity Diocesan High School in Hicksville, took over as pastor on Oct. 19.

Since becoming St. Therese’s pastor last year, Joerger had more than doubled attendance at the Sunday morning Mass and attracted more young people and families, said a now-former trustee, Jerry McKeon, an usher at the 10:30 a.m. service.

"This guy is electric. He speaks down to earth, in a language people can relate to, and all of a sudden you can see more people coming back to church. They’ve heard about him by word-of-mouth," McKeon said.

McKeon, who resigned as a trustee — an advisory role that entails helping run church affairs including finances — on the eve of Joerger and Beck's departure, said the St. Therese parishioners have "felt ill-treated by the diocese for 30 years or so" and "we’ve basically had a revolving door of priests" until Joerger and Beck.

Religious orders, such as the Passionists, founded in 1720, sometimes supplement dioceses, which oversee parishes.

Beck's comments on CNN came within days of the June 18 announcement by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to advance a plan — after a vote of 73% to 24% — to draft guidance on who is eligible for Communion, the rite in which Christians remember Jesus' sacrifice made in death. Catholic teaching is that the wine and bread, in a process called transubstantiation, becomes the blood and body of Christ.

Beck, who has been a CNN religion contributor for nine years, appeared on the network June 20 to criticize the bishops' vote and argue that Communion is "supposed to bring people together … so to base it on exclusion, I think, is barking up the wrong tree."

"People just see it as really based in hypocrisy. And I can't tell you — some people said, you know, this is the final straw for them. If the bishops go ahead with that, that's it for them," Beck also said. His remarks were excerpted the next night on the Fox News Channel's "The Ingraham Angle" program by host Laura Ingraham, a practicing Catholic, who said, "Wait a second. Is that a priest? … Oh, my gosh."

In September, Pope Francis, who is opposed to abortion and calls it "homicide," repeated his belief that Communion "is not a prize for the perfect" but "a gift of the presence of Jesus in the church." But Francis was unequivocal that the sacrament can’t be given to someone who is not "in communion" with the church; he declined to say whether being a politician who supports abortion rights means being out of communion.

Days after the papal meeting last month, Biden said that Pope Francis told him he was pleased he was a "good Catholic."

"This is a man who has a great empathy. He is a man who understands that part of his Christianity is to reach out and to forgive," Biden said of Francis.

Last year, when Joerger was asked by the diocese to be St. Therese’s pastor, part of the agreement with the diocese was also to bring in Beck, according to a letter sent to parishioners by the Passionists' superior, Father Jim O’Shea. The order said it paid a stipend for Beck's residency.

With Joerger as pastor, Beck took up supplementary ministerial responsibilities, including elsewhere on the East End, in addition to writing for and appearing on CNN, after past stints at ABC and CBS.

And with Beck's departure, "we had no other choice than to withdraw, as a community, from the Parish," O’Shea’s letter said. He didn't return a message seeking comment.

In May, Beck said, the head of the diocese, Bishop John Barres, had visited the parish, celebrated Mass, met with both priests and praised their work.

"Everything seemed wonderful," Beck said. Weeks later, "I’m receiving a letter from his vicar for clergy that my contract was expiring."

He said the only thing that changed between May and the letter was his June CNN commentary, leading him to believe that the appearance played a key role.

Barres declined an interview request through Dolan, who didn’t answer submitted questions from Newsday, including about Barres’ position on Beck’s comments and the issue of communion for Catholic politicians who take the same position as Biden.

Dolan, in his statement, said Beck’s tenure was always due to expire this year, per a letter dated Sept. 22, 2020.

"We understand that it is causing disappointment among many parishioners who deeply appreciate his service to their parish, as does Bishop Barres and the Diocese of Rockville Centre," the statement said.

On Oct. 17, at Joerger’s final Sunday Mass as pastor, he invited children to the altar for a blessing afterward, and held the baby of Alexandra Flaherty, 29, who has been attending for her whole life, she said. She recalled of his tenure: "it’s been a long time since you’ve seen so many families and kids in church."

"If you didn’t know to follow along, he didn’t make you feel bad about it," said Flaherty, whose son Asher, now 10 months, was baptized by Joerger.

She relished how he’d cajole her to come to Mass — even if her son would make noise: "Father Bob said: ‘I don’t care if he’s loud. I recognize that voice!’"

And so she attended more often.

Lynda Bostrom, a parishioner for 30 years, said Joerger "did so many little things, big things, to help bring our parish back to life," after a succession of priests came and went.

"You just had to listen to his first sermon, and I was sold," said Bostrom, 89.

In an interview with Newsday before the clergymen were to leave for other posts, Joerger said: "Our sufferings can make us bitter, maybe at first. But then if you move slowly as you can into a deeper place, it can also make us very compassionate and tenderhearted people, because we’ve been through something."

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