Saginaw Priest Removed From Parish for Traditional ‘Style of Worship’

Apostolic administrator takes issue with parish priest’s implementation of approved liturgical norms.

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SAGINAW, Mich. — A priest for the Diocese of Saginaw, Michigan, has been removed from his parish by the diocesan administrator for causing division in the parish after introducing elements to the celebration of the liturgy — elements approved by the Church — considered “traditional.”

Father Edwin Dwyer, a canon lawyer, was removed from his position Jan. 30 as parochial administrator of Our Lady of Peace parish in Bay City by Bishop Walter Hurley, who is serving as diocesan administrator for Saginaw after the sudden death of Bishop Joseph Cistone last October. The same day, Father Dwyer was also removed by Bishop Hurley from his position as chaplain for the Catholic community at Saginaw Valley State University (SVSU).

Bishop Hurley had sent a letter to members of Our Lady of Peace, dated Feb. 1 and published online, explaining his reasons for revoking Father Dwyer’s assignment, effective Feb. 8.

“For some time now I have been aware of a number of issues, particularly with the liturgy, that have divided the parish community at Our Lady of Peace Parish, Bay City,” Bishop Hurley wrote. “This is a serious concern in that our worship should draw us together, rather than divide. It is important that we seek ways to unite the parish in our common mission of being evangelizing disciples and grow in our relationship with Christ, each in our own way.”

At his final Sunday Mass at Our Lady of Peace, Father Dwyer addressed his flock in a prepared statement obtained by the Register.

“It is very important for all of you to know,” Father Dwyer said, “that it was not due to any allegation of misconduct of any nature on my part that Bishop Hurley decided to revoke my appointments as chaplain of SVSU and as parochial administrator of Our Lady of Peace Parish. My appointments have been revoked; I am not being removed for any wrongdoing.”

“At the same time,” he continued, “out of complete respect for the ecclesiastical authority currently governing our diocese, Bishop Hurley, the apostolic administrator, I cannot comment on the decisions taken, nor on any private conversations held between His Excellency and me.”

In a recent interview with a Saginaw television station, Bishop Hurley elaborated on the cause of Father Dwyer’s removal.

“He brought in a style of worship that many people found very difficult,” he said. “So there’s a great deal of turmoil in the parish. So the issue is not so much Father Dwyer; it’s more about the issue of the division in the parish.”

Father Dwyer’s removal, Bishop Hurley explained in his Feb. 1 letter, was precipitated by a series of meetings that the priest had with diocesan staff and the bishop.

“I asked that Father Dwyer step away from the parish for a brief period,” Bishop Hurley wrote, “while a senior priest serves in an interim basis and diocesan staff evaluate how best to resolve the situation. He declined my request.”

In the letter, Bishop Hurley also indicated that the diocese continues to provide salary, benefits and housing to Father Dwyer “as he awaits a new assignment.”

 

Traditional Views

The Register reached out to Bishop Hurley’s office and Father Dwyer; neither were available for comment. But Father Dwyer’s views on how he intended to celebrate the liturgy at Our Lady of Peace are well publicized.

On Jan. 21, Father Dwyer held a parish meeting to explain his celebration of the liturgy — including the use of incense and bells, the traditional black cassock and white surplice for altar boys, and Latin and Gregorian chant.

In a prepared statement he read to parishioners attending the January meeting and published online, Father Dwyer noted that these elements of the celebration were in keeping with the Second Vatican Council and the Church’s current liturgical norms. One of the most visible changes to the parish liturgy itself, he said in the statement, was a modest increase in the use of Latin.

“I do intend to use more Latin Mass parts (i.e., Agnus Dei/Lamb of God; Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus/Holy, Holy, Holy),” he said in the statement. “I will do so slowly, and with proper catechesis. This is in keeping with the call of Vatican II to preserve Latin in the liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 36.1) and the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM, 41).”

Father Dwyer also indicated in his prepared statement to the parish that he had hired an individual to provide Gregorian chant at Mass, a decision that is also in accord with Sacrosanctum Concilium, which states, “The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services” (SC 116). 

Since the debut of chant at the parish during Advent 2018, Father Dwyer said, “no less than five young adults have asked me about learning this chant. Younger Catholics have told me how much they enjoy that music and look forward to its regular use.”

These elements, Father Dwyer said, were being reincorporated into the ordinary form of the Mass, the only form celebrated at Our Lady of Peace, and he added that he had no intention of celebrating the extraordinary form (the Mass celebrated in Latin according to the Missal of 1962) “in the near future.”

“I do not know how to offer it, and I do not see a pastoral advantage to learning it at the moment,” the priest said. “I have only been to three of these Masses in my life thus far. I have stated publicly that I do believe it would be advantageous of this diocese to permit this Mass somewhere on a weekly basis. I have also made it clear that I am not the one to offer it.”

If Bishop Hurley took issue with Father Dwyer’s liturgical style, the diocesan administrator acknowledged that the substance of the traditional liturgy was appropriate for the faithful of Saginaw.

In his February update to the diocese, Bishop Hurley acknowledged “a need to make available on a regular basis to the people of the diocese in a central location a more traditional celebration of the liturgy,” but stated that addressing such a need was not “a matter of reversing the challenges and opportunities made possible by the Second Vatican Council. Traditional practices can enrich our liturgies. It may be useful to provide a central location that embodies traditional practices in a way beyond what many parishes find acceptable and enriching in their prayer life. The challenge is always to find the balance. This is an issue I hope to address without delay.”

 

Critical Response

In changing the way the parish liturgy was being celebrated, Father Dwyer said, during a Dec. 1 homily at the parish that was also published online, that he hoped to address the declining Mass attendance at the parish.

He cited a 7.3% reduction in Mass attendance in 2018 for the Diocese of Saginaw, a 23.7% reduction since 2013, and a 45% reduction since 2005. He also noted that Our Lady of Peace, “down a bit over 5.3% from last year,” while “better off than every other parish in Bay City percentage-wise,” still indicated to the priest a necessary call to action.

“While that may be better than our neighbors, it is still a decline,” he said in his homily, “and it is my responsibility as your shepherd to replenish the pews, and do so with your help.”

Father Dwyer laid out a plan in his homily that would draw younger Catholics back to the faith and also increase overall participation in Mass at Our Lady of Peace.

“I have not been here long, but folks tell me they’re noticing more young families and crying babies. And if the church ain’t cryin’, the church is dyin,’” he said. “My goal is to hear a chorus of crying babies before my time here ends. To do that, however, we need to embrace what works with the young. We need to more greatly embrace timeless traditions. We cannot keep the status quo.”

Such timeless traditions, Father Dwyer said in his homily, include those elements of the liturgy that remain at the heart of the Church’s liturgy today.

“Believe it or not, tradition works,” he said. “So-called ‘old ways’ are quite popular among younger Catholics. Smells, bells, classic hymns, chant, prolonged silence, and, hold on for this one, Latin are all largely embraced by the younger generations of the Church. Furthermore, when younger non-Catholics experience these traditions, they are struck by how different they are from everything else they experience in a noisy, secular culture. These ‘old ways’ are beautiful to them, and beauty is a great place to introduce young folks to Jesus Christ.”

 

Last Mass

In his Feb. 3 statement at Mass, Father Dwyer said that he was being assigned residence at Holy Family parish in Saginaw and that he retained all of his priestly faculties.

“Our time together was short, but I appreciated it dearly,” Father Dwyer concluded in his statement. “This was a shock to me, and I’m sure it is to most of you. But Scripture teaches us ‘The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord’ (Job 1:20). I simply ask you to pray for me, my family, this parish, and His Excellency, the apostolic administrator.”

Joseph O’Brien writes from Wisconsin.