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Married priest celebrating Mass in Saginaw: parish cites canon law, invites priest.

Parish cites canon law, invites priest

SAGINAW, Mich. - The priest was married, the parish closed, but the Mass went on.

With his wife, Judy, in attendance, Father Leo Lynch, a priest in the Saginaw diocese until he opted for secular life in 1969, wore no vestments over his blue business suit and red-plaid tie. Just the same, he was priest aplenty for the St. Rita remnant gathered that icy Saturday evening in the church they said the diocese was taking away from them piece by piece.

Last August, with closure round the corner for St. Rita and four other inner-city churches, rebellious parishioners called upon Lynch to celebrate a protest Mass in a parking lot._ABC-TV's "20/20" was there, no doubt savoring the moment during the sign of peace, when Lynch went over and embraced one of his grown sons.

No such hoopla surrounded the Feb. 6 Mass, only the third Lynch has celebrated publicly since 1969, but it was a public challenge to progressive Saginaw Bisbop Kenneth Untener. Lynch said it might cost him his part-time job as choir director for another Saginaw parish.

When members of Saginaw's Save the Churches approached him last summer, armed with the canons they said allowed him to celebrate Mass, Lynch accepted but appealed to them to ask him not because canon law said so: "Ask me because Jesus said, |Break the bread.'"

"I have no addiction to be priest (in terms of celebrating the Eucharist)," he said, doodling at the kitchen table during a recent interview in his comfortable culde-sac home. "But these people have a right to the Eucharist."

Although St. Rita closed officially Nov. 15, there has been a Mass the-re every Saturday or Sunday since then. Usually the Masses draw 40 to 50 people who say they refuse to sacrifice their close-knit community to the larger joint parish the diocese has asked them to merge with. Married or not, Lynch is welcome.

"Anyone who was bothered by it left," said Leonard LaDronka, a retired GM car salesman whose wife, June, is parish organist and a Save the Churches founder. "If there's a priest shortage, now is the time to use them (married priests). He is just as priestly as the priest that's celibate."

Others agreed. Despite his 61 years, arthritic limp and sparse white hair, Lynch's look is as enthusiastically youthful as his outlook. His homily revealed him to be a natural teacher rather than preacher. He was unassumingly erudite as he drew his "students" out until it was they, not he, who built the homily and discovered what they knew about the gospel's call to be the salt of the earth.

That same interaction held through the liturgy of the Eucharist, as the people circled the altar and participated in nearly every step. "We know it's ours" said parishioner Gloria Patko after the Mass. "It's not a boring old Mass anymore."

Relegating rubrics to the same back seat he gives to canon law in Christian life, Lynch, ironically enough, is a former protege of conservative Washington Cardinal James Hickey. He was ordained in Rome in 1956, earned his doctorate there a year later and taught Latin and Greek in the Saginaw diocese for five years. In the mid-1960s, responding to signs of the times, he quit teaching and turned to community organizing among inner-city blacks and Hispanics.

Francis Reh, Lynch's bishop at the time, chastised him for his anti-Vietnam War activism and the two also disagreed on other matters, including birth control. By 1969, Lynch had decided that he wanted to be free to work out his own life. A year later, be married Judy, who had been with a Dominican teaching community since 1951. (They met when Lynch presided at the 1969 marriage of her best friend, also a former nun.)

Lynch emphasized that he did not leave the active priesthood to be married. "I was happy as a priest," he said. "It was painful when I left. I paid a very high price for my freedom, for managing my own life."

Much of that life was devoted to raising the couples two sons, both college students now. Apart from running a job-training program for the Saginaw Public Schools, Lynch directs what some say is the best church choir in the area. That is the job from which Untener threatened to remove him if he continued to celebrate Mass publicly, Lynch said.

Untener denies threatening to have Lynch fired. He said that he thinks the question of who is allowed into the active ordained ministry has to be reconsidered, but that during a wide-ranging conversation with Lynch after the August protest Mass, he told the priest that celebrating the Mass had been inappropriate because the people involved had just left a Mass at the new united parish, where they had been picketing, and had "no urgent need" to celebrate the Eucharist elsewhere.

"I can't allow it to go on" Untener said he told Lynch. The priest asked him what be could do about it. Untener said he didn't know, but he could not see how Lynch could continue as a public minister both for and against the church - for the church as a legitimate music director and against the church as unauthorized celebrant of a breakaway liturgy.

"I told him that if it happened again I would have to do something," Untener said without elaborating on what he might do now that it has happened. "I'm a little disappointed to find out about it this way," Untener said during a telephone interview.

Lynch was aware that going public in the Feb. 6 Mass would challenge the bishop. "Good people have to be confronted, too," he said. "He's got to face up to it."

Lynch does not intend to stop celebrating Mass publicly. "After this, I may have more free time weekends," he said. "We got to stop asking permission to be Christian."
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Title Annotation:Saginaw, Michigan; Father Leo Lynch
Author:McCarthy, Tim
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Feb 26, 1993
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