Rogue Priests Are No Match for YouTube

These priests get busted for going beyond what’s acceptable in altering Mass. The lesson? Don’t change the Word of God.

Learning to become a Catholic priest, unsurprisingly, takes a long time—you have 2,000 years of history to cover, not to mention philosophy, theology, and a foreign language to learn before you can be ordained. The first few years of coursework are introductory, but by the end, seminary students are getting deep into the practical aspects of being a priest, including counseling and the sacraments. The ultimate goal: Educating someone to be a philosopher, theologian, teacher, counselor, and businessman.

This past spring, while reporting “Resurrection,” my story about the Archdiocese of Boston's recovery from the 2002 sex abuse scandal, I had the chance to attend a few classes for aspiring priests at St. John's Seminary in Brighton. It was pretty interesting for a lay person. The first-year course on “Metaphysics” felt like college-level philosophy—with the very funny Father Joseph Scorzello using baseball analogies to explain philosophical definitions—while the final year course of the “Sacraments of Healing” taught soon-to-be priests, including the story's subject, Eric Cadin, how to deliver the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick.

The most interesting and entertaining class I attended, though, was the one that covered acculturation, which is how the Church interacts with and adapts to a local culture. As the professor, Monsignor James Moroney, told his students, “The Roman Catholic Church adapts herself so that the United States might be leavened with the Gospel. The Gospel remains the same—the truth endures. But the form is adapted to achieve its end: leavening of the United States of America.”

But while adaptation to a local culture is a good thing, it can sometimes go too far. Monsignor Moroney, who's now the rector of St. John's, talked to his students about the history behind Church's involvement in the quinceanera—the celebration of a girl's 15th birthday in many Latin American cultures—as well as the unity candle, which is often lit by the bride and groom (and/or their families) at Catholic weddings. “The unity candle,” Monsignor Moroney said, “was largely invented by Hallmark 25 years ago. Wedding photographers love the moment.”

I wouldn't count on the unity candle being around forever, though. Eventually, Church anthropologists will study the history behind it, and a cleric will make a ruling whether it can stay or not. The gears of the Catholic Church move slowly, but once they get moving, the result is usually decisive.

The best part of class, though, were the YouTube videos of rogue Catholic priests. These priests, in saying Mass in their various churches, had gone well beyond what was acceptable in variation to the Church. For Catholics used to a highly ritualized Mass—like, say, seminary students—these are bizarre adaptations that are clearly beyond the bounds of the Church. Highlight No. 1 was Father Michael Pfleger, who made some unsanctioned adaptations to a Holy Thursday Mass:

“He's very charismatic,” Monsginor Moroney said. “But he's changed the liturgy. (Pfleger was later suspended.)

Also changing the liturgy are the giant puppets below. As one student muttered under his breath, “What does it even mean?”

The class favorite, though, was “Isaiah saying Mass,” which features a very serious 3-year-old doing a surprising solid rendition of a service, complete with communion.

Decades ago, a priest could probably get away with changing the Mass as he saw fit, especially if he was in an isolated area. After all, who was really there to challenge him? Today, though, if you start changing the liturgy around, someone's going to tape it on their phone and upload it to YouTube. Then, it's only a matter of time until the bishop comes knocking.