Comfort and prayer were the order of the morning last weekend at a Mass at Most Sacred Heart Parish in Florissant.
Archbishop Justin Rigali celebrated all Masses last weekend at the 136-year old parish, located in a historic section of Florissant. He told the congregation he was there to offer comfort and to pray with them in the wake of recent news concerning former Sacred Heart pastor Father John Hess.
Last week, the FBI seized a computer from the church rectory in an apparent child pornography investigation. Father Hess has left the parish, and Father Edward Stanger has been appointed temporary administrator.
"I am stunned by the report that authorities have seized the computer of Father John Hess," Archbishop Rigali said in a statement last week. He added that he encouraged Father Hess to fully cooperate in the investigation.
"The events of the last few days have for many of you caused sadness or bewilderment or pain," Archbishop Rigali said in his opening remarks to a full church last Sunday at Sacred Heart. "It is precisely for this reason that I have come to be with you today. I have come to pray with you today.
"So much good has been accomplished here in his 11 years as pastor of this parish," Archbishop Rigali said of Father Hess. "With grateful and compassionate hearts, let us pray that the peace of Christ will sustain him now and in coming days."
Archbishop Rigali noted that "Sacred Heart has been a parish celebrated for its deep faith and confident trust in God," and that the parish has "distinguished itself in a particular way for its commitment to Catholic education."
During Mass, Archbishop Rigali also addressed the subject of sexual abuse by clergy, which included the removal this month of two archdiocesan priests, Father Joseph Ross, former pastor of St. Cronan Parish in St. Louis, and Father Michael Campbell, former pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows Parish in South St. Louis.
Archbishop Rigali read a prepared statement during the homily, which also was read at all parishes throughout the archdiocese last weekend. The statement is printed in its entirety in the Archbishop's column, "The Word Became Flesh," in this week's Review.
In his statement, Archbishop Rigali noted that the archdiocese is doing "everything possible to deal still more effectively with these issues" and reaffirmed the archdiocese's commitment to the welfare of children and young people as well as maintaining the trust of Catholics.
Archbishop Rigali also noted several other moves the archdiocese made, including taking "more stringent actions for the protection of children," which means "no priest with a substantiated charge of abuse of a minor will be assigned to a parish or any ministry with children even if previously deemed to pose no risk to children."
He also said the archdiocese has a commitment to be "honest and candid" about issues of sexual abuse by clergy, while at the same time protecting the rights of all involved.
"I wish to offer a profound apology for any action by any priest which has caused pain or harm to anyone," Archbishop Rigali said.
Archbishop Rigali told the Review of the strong faith of Sacred Heart parishioners and noted the need for prayer. His comments were echoed by parishioners who spoke to a reporter after Mass.
"Basically his message was, even through sad times, to have faith and trust in the Lord," Jennifer Watson said of the Archbishop. Watson, along with her husband, John, and their son, Ryan, and infant daughter, Laurel, attended the 9 a.m. Mass.
"We have a strong Catholic community here," Watson said. "It was nice to have (Archbishop Rigali) here. It made us feel better."
This is "a start of healing," for the parish, Connie Schroeder said of Archbishop Rigali's presence at Sacred Heart. "This is a very close community." Schroeder attended the 9 a.m. Mass with her husband, Ron, who served as an usher at Mass.
Greg Sweeso and his fiancee, Heather Koser, also attended the 9 a.m. Mass. Sweeso said he felt the Archbishop handled the situation well.
"As far as addressing the issue with Father Hess, I think he addressed it really well, and put ... people at ease as far as their kids," he said. "And with the overall archdiocese, the way he laid out their goals, I think those were very good."
Archbishop Rigali came to "address the difficult issue openly and directly, which people need to hear," said Rev. Mr. James Griffard, who serves as a deacon at Sacred Heart and was present at the 10:30 a.m. Mass. "Christ is our light through these difficult moments."