AN OPEN LETTER TO MY FELLOW PARISHIONERS AND ADMINISTRATION AT ST. ISABEL PARISH, AND TO DIOCESAN LEADERSHIP
December 17, 2017
During our 51 years of marriage, my wife Terry and I have lived in three different countries, in eight different cities, and have worshipped in eight different Catholic parishes. In six of those, I’ve willingly served as an unpaid volunteer organist. It is therefore only after considerable reflection and prayer that I have decided to relinquish that role at St. Isabel Parish after so serving for almost 20 years.
When Terry and I arrived in Sanibel we quickly found St. Isabel to be the most welcoming of any parish we’d ever experienced. It was characterized by a true sense of community in Christ, by mutual respect, by caring for each other and for those less fortunate, and by an abiding sense of positivism and family. Participation in church life, whether it be worshipping together, giving thanks together, relaxing and enjoying a cup of coffee together, or taking part in other church-related social activities, all fostered a pervasive sense of joy and togetherness. Even in the toughest of times, our church community always reacted with generosity and a can-do attitude.
Although parishioner generosity for those less fortunate prevails, in the last twelve months that sense of joy, positivism and family that characterized St. Isabel Parish has all but completely disappeared. Opportunities for any kind of formal or informal parishioner gatherings on Parish property are now the subject of draconian rules and regulations. The church has become more of a fortress than a welcoming refuge, with locked doors and restrictive signage. Dedicated parishioners, who previously conducted church social events like the Sunday morning after-Mass coffee, without the need for staff intervention, are no longer trusted nor permitted to undertake such tasks. Even though these restrictions may have been imposed by the Diocese, there appears to have been minimal, if any, push-back from Parish administration who could have readily anticipated their negative impact. The unfortunate reality is that we now live in a Parish where adherence to form has all but obliterated substance. And recent suggestions that these changes are aimed at ensuring parishioner safety are simply insulting to the intelligence.
Symptomatic of the above restrictions was the Parish’s lack of response to Hurricane Irma. I, and many other parishioners, found it an embarrassment that, unlike at least one other Christian church on the island, rather than offer welcome and support to those impacted by the storm, our response was to post “church closed” signs. Parishioners could and would readily have staffed a help-and-support initiative in the Parish Hall without the need for any staff involvement.
During this same twelve months, our worship has also changed. The traditionalist shift of the Parish away from the values of the Second Vatican Council has led Terry and me to wonder if some members of the Parish and Diocesan leadership accept that the Council ever actually happened. One of the most powerful changes that Vatican II embraced was the role of the laity in the celebration of the Eucharist. To quote from the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy as promulgated by Pope Paul VI:
The Church, therefore, earnestly desires that Christ’s faithful, when present at this mystery of faith, should not be there as strangers or silent spectators; on the contrary, through a good understanding of the rites and prayers they should take part in the sacred action conscious of what they are doing, with devotion and full collaboration. They should be instructed by God’s word and be nourished at the table of the Lord’s body; they should give thanks to God; by offering the Immaculate Victim, not only through the hands of the priest, but also with him, they should learn also to offer themselves; through Christ the Mediator, they should be drawn day by day into ever more perfect union with God and with each other, so that finally God may be all in all.
We are collectively meant to celebrate the Eucharist as a Parish community not as uninvolved onlookers. The current periodic use of bells at the consecration and the greater presence of statues and icons in the church are reminders of a time when those attending Mass were indeed treated as uninformed spectators rather than active participants. And the routine requests to emulate the Saints and view ourselves as sinners needing forgiveness through the Sacrament of Reconciliation serve only to reinforce a glass-half-empty approach to our faith as opposed to a more positive glass-half-full and filling Christian philosophy that is constantly being enriched through the Eucharist.
The issue that has finally driven me to publicly speak out is the decision forced upon Scott McDonald to resign as St. Isabel’s Music Director. The St. Isabel Music Director’s position has never been fulltime in terms of hours worked in the office. Nevertheless, it requires a comprehensive set of skills often filled by two or three different people in other Parishes – that of pianist/organist, of cantor, and of choir director.
Scott was recently told by Parish administration that the Diocese was placing new requirements on his position. These were both onerous and unacceptable to him. He would not only have been required to work 35 hours a week but identify upfront an hour-by-hour weekly work plan which could only be deviated from with prior approval for each deviation. These are requirements more normally associated with an hourly rather than professional position, and are totally impractical for someone in Scott’s situation. For the last four years he has managed his schedule such that the church has always been his top priority but, at the same time, he has had the flexibility to accept additional assignments essential to his livelihood. There was no offer by Parish administration to intercede with the Diocese on his behalf. Rather, it was even suggested during his conversation with Parish administration on the issue that he could always fill in some of his time under the new requirements by folding worship-aid bulletins. Scott was further told that the new requirements would become effective December 17.
In his letter of resignation Scott indicated that, because of his care for St. Isabel Parishioners, it was not his wish to leave them before Christmas and he offered to play through the end of the year under his current conditions of employment. That offer was rejected, again reinforcing the reality that, under the current Parish administration, form indeed appears to be more important than substance and what matters to the majority of parishioners is irrelevant.
However, in the last several days I learned even more disturbing information through contacts in another parish. It appears that the Diocese has, in fact, exempted those involved in music ministries from the above requirements and, even if they had been applicable, the new requirements do not take effect until year-end. This new information casts even more doubt and skepticism on the position taken by Parish administration vis-a-vis Scott and suggests that there were other undisclosed motives actually targeting his removal from office.
During my tenure at St. Isabel I have worked with six different music directors. Scott McDonald is absolutely and unequivocally the best – not only does he have world-class keyboard skills and an excellent baritone voice, but he has uniquely succeeded in mounting, motivating and sustaining a seasonal choir. During his time with us, numerous parishioners and visitors alike have commented to me on the incredibly positive impact his musicianship has had on worship at St. Isabel with his pre-Mass preludes constantly inspiring spontaneous appreciation. His current treatment is yet another example of the feelings of the majority of parishioners being ignored. I find such treatment appalling and, at very best, an insult to an incredibly talented and caring man, consummate professional, and one of the finest musicians with whom it has been my privilege to work. Given all of the above, as Scott leaves his role in the Parish, I have no choice but to also resign from mine as volunteer organist. Not to do so would betray my friendship and admiration for a man who has so powerfully enriched our worship at St. Isabel and is being treated so shamefully.
The actions of some with administrative authority in the Diocese and St. Isabel are slowly but surely destroying the very heart and soul of what used to be a warm and welcoming Parish family. In all good conscience, I can no longer have my inaction on these issues create the impression that I support the direction in which the Parish is being taken nor, very specifically, that I condone what has happened to Scott. If my written words and convictions are to have substantive meaning, they must be supported by my actions however personally grievous and difficult those are to take.
With my sincere and continuing prayers that the Parish life so many of us treasured at St. Isabel will be restored
Michael J. Baldwin