Some parents with students in Nebraska's largest Catholic grade school think their priest went too far in ordering 250 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders out of Mass because they weren't singing loudly enough.
Incensed, the parents say they're paying tuition so their kids can get Catholic instruction — not for the kids to be denied Holy Communion during Lent.
Other parents, however, back the action of the Rev. James Tiegs, pastor at St. Stephen the Martyr parish since 2004. They see him as a shepherd guiding the flock.
“If he thought that was necessary, my hat's off for his courage,” said Bob Finger, who has a daughter in eighth grade at the southwest Omaha school.
The Archdiocese of Omaha is reviewing the week-old incident as a “personnel issue” and declined to comment on what steps, if any, might be taken. Deacon Tim McNeil, chancellor of the archdiocese, did say, however, that archdiocesan policy does not support the lesson.
“Trying to get children, or for that matter adults, to fully participate in the Mass is a 2,000-year-old issue in the church,” he said. “We would never suggest that 250 children be dismissed in the middle of Mass for not singing a song.”
The incident that has the 11,600-parishioner church abuzz raises broader questions, including: How best can a person of the cloth go about inspiring young people to make the most out of pew time?
All agree that middle school kids are a tough audience. Theirs is a generation exposed to ever-expanding entertainment forms. The bar is high in holding their attention. Boys' voices squeak with embarrassing change. Girls may be focused on the next hour's science test.
“So much is going on in those heads, those bodies, that church is not their first thought,” said the Rev. Damian Zuerlein of St. Columbkille parish in Papillion. “Some of it, you just have to fall hard and say ‘They're just junior high kids.' ”
While the Catholic Mass isn't known to be particularly appealing to youths whose musical whims change quicker than fish fry oil, some approaches can raise the volume.
“The more dynamic or kinesthetic, the more involved kids will be,” said Eileen Burke-Sullivan, associate professor of theology at Creighton University.
Zuerlein noted how St. Columbkille's elementary students relaxed, sang and even danced when led recently by a pop singer from Los Angeles. Activities outside school, such as retreats, often fire up the youthful spirit, he said.
To get the most out of Mass, Burke-Sullivan said, young and older churchgoers alike should set aside their consumer mentality. One doesn't deposit a coin and pull out grace, she said.
“The liturgy calls for them to give themselves to the action in order to receive God in return.”
The incident that aroused the ire of some St. Stephen the Martyr parents occurred on March 24 during the 8:15 a.m. Mass. Parents who were present said the children's first opportunity to sing came about 10 minutes into the service. The Rev. Tiegs put his hand to his ear as if to indicate that he couldn't hear the song.
He stepped away from the altar and walked down the aisles.
Tiegs told The World-Herald he “made a judgment call that there was enough disrespect and irreverence going on to dismiss the students ... as a teaching moment.”
Lans Brown, whose sixth-grade daughter had just finished the first reading, recalls Tiegs crossing his arms and asking something to the effect of: “Is singing not cool?”
Tiegs told the principal that the children were dismissed and should go to their classrooms. The Mass continued with 30 or so adults in the church.
Donna Garrett, a parishioner for 21 years whose four children graduated from the school, was among those present.
“I am thinking, ‘Holy cow, open your mouth. If you don't like the song, fake it.' ”
Garrett described Tiegs as pastoral and good to kids. She supports how he carried out the “teaching moment.”
“Tongues have been wagging ever since,” Garrett said.
At least a few parents complained to Archbishop George Lucas.
Bridgid McCormick, who has two daughters at the 900-student, kindergarten-through-eight-grade school, said she was appalled that her daughter was denied the Mass. But she also was upset that the sixth-grader left scared, believing in her heart that she had been singing.
A week had passed, McCormick said, and her child still didn't know what she had done wrong.
“She was confused. She was scared. There was never any closure.”
Finger, also a member of the Nebraska Knights of Columbus, e-mailed leaders, asking them to defend Tiegs from any attack by angry parents.
When contacted by a reporter, Finger said he planned to retract certain parts of the e-mail that had characterized the kids' behavior and parents' response, but said he stands by Tiegs.
Brown said he respects Tiegs but believes the pastor did not set a good example in resolving conflict. Nor did Brown see value in the action as a punishment or a lesson. Some kids, he said, might have been glad to be excused.
Parents interviewed could not recall the song that prompted the exodus, although Brown didn't remember it as engaging or upbeat.
Tiegs called the action an internal disciplinary matter with students and said some parents have “blown it way, way out of proportion.”
He said he preferred not to make a public spectacle of it.
But Zuerlein sees a silver lining in the discussion that has ensued. Years ago, he said, parents might not have said “boo.”
“It reflects kind of a major change in church that parents would challenge or even question the pastor,” he said.
A goal of the Second Vatican Council of the early 1960s was to empower lay people to take responsibility for their church, he said.
“It's a headache for us in leadership,” Zuerlein said, “but it makes us better in the end.”
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