Two Illinois Parishes Live on Either Side of a Catholic Divide

— As the pope and church leaders meet in Rome to discuss the Roman Catholic Church’s future, they face a chasm between conservatives and progressives in the pews.

An exterior statue of Jesus Christ, right, reflected in glass near a prayer niche, left, at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Libertyville, Ill.

By Ruth Graham< When the Rev. John Trout heard that Pope Francis wanted feedback from parishes before a major Vatican gathering this month on the church’s future, he decided that his suburban Chicago congregation would go all in.

St. Joseph Catholic Church hung banners about the meeting, distributed surveys, and invited an expert from Loyola University Chicago to speak to parishioners. The parish hosted sessions in person and on Zoom to discuss questions offered as prompts by the Vatican: What are your hopes and dreams for the Roman Catholic Church? What about the church breaks your heart?

Less than an hour south of St. Joe’s, the Rev. Anthony Buś of St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish in Chicago said he viewed the gathering in Rome not as an opportunity but as a potential threat, or at the very least an irrelevance.

“Our voices are not going to be heard in the halls of the Vatican,” he said. “It’s ‘dialogue,’ but only if you toe the party line.”

Father Buś has barely mentioned the synod to his parishioners, and he said that few people at St. Stan’s filled out the archdiocese’s open survey about the meeting.

The Synod on Synodality, the sprawling meeting in Rome, has become a flashpoint among different factions of the church’s leadership. Women and laypeople are participating in the meeting for the first time. Attendees have a broad mandate to discuss the future of the church, including ordaining women as deacons and outreach to L.G.B.T.Q. people.

Relatively progressive leaders, including those appointed by Pope Francis, see the synod as a hopeful moment that could lead to much-needed changes. Conservatives fear that the meeting will decay church standards and unleash chaos. They have compared it to Pandora’s box, and warn that it could cause a schism.

Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago, a close ally of Pope Francis, is among the 14 American bishops attending the meeting. He strongly encouraged his parishes to contribute their thoughts. But in a moment when the American church is especially polarized at the top, the synod is also laying bare the divide in the pews, and the scale of the challenge facing the pope.

Men and women standing and kneeling in wooden pews.
Some women at St. Stan’s wear veils during Mass

A spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Chicago said in a statement that the archdiocese’s synod process “was a meticulous and impartial effort to collect and report on the thoughts of its clergy, religious and faithful.” She said the archdiocese’s report to the Vatican was “an honest reflection of their contributions.”

St. Stan’s and St. Joe’s both belong to the archdiocese, the nation’s third-largest. But their spiritual emphases and even their aesthetic sensibilities are worlds apart: St. Stan’s adheres strictly to tradition, with an emphasis on confession; St. Joe’s has embraced Francis’ emphasis on environmental causes and adapting to the changing world.

St. Joe’s 1960s-era sanctuary, with curved pews arranged around a simple altar, was inspired by the Second Vatican Council’s emphasis on the church as the “people of God.” “You don’t have a church if you don’t have people,” Father Trout likes to say. He has celebrated Mass in parishioners’ backyards, at a local park, and at drive-in services in the church parking lot. The parish is active on social media and has been experimenting lately with contemporary music and podcasting. One of its four confessionals was recently turned into a snug production studio for streaming services online.

A priest faces a parking lot of cars.
The Rev. Martin Luboyera celebrated a drive-in Mass at St. Joe’s in mid-October. The parish started offering drive-in Masses during the Covid pandemic.

St. Joe’s fall parish calendar includes a solar-panel workshop and a screening of a documentary about the pope’s environmental encyclical, as well as an anti-abortion prayer event and community volunteer opportunities. “We’re a big tent, and the sides are open,” Father Trout said.

Kathleen O’Connor, who was raised in the parish and has served on its leadership council, said, “Our role is just to love each other where we’re at.”

In the city, St. Stan’s, built in the 1880s, features an imposing gilded altar and a spectacular monstrance — a vessel that holds a consecrated eucharistic host for veneration — that the parish says is the largest in the world. The church is open 24 hours a day.

The Kennedy Expressway, one of the major highways connecting Chicago with its suburbs, was originally planned to cut through St. Stan’s church property. Construction would have required the demolition of the sanctuary. But the parish’s large Polish population protested until the planners relented, and curved the road to barely miss the church complex, with cars speeding by just a few feet from some of the windows. St. Stan’s calls itself “the parish that moved an expressway.”

The highway clash illustrates something deeper about the character of St. Stan’s: It asks the world to bend to it, not the other way around.

“The notion in the popular culture is that we’re going to accommodate the spirit of the world and then they’re going to come in droves,” said Father Buś, who describes himself as a traditional orthodox Catholic. “But it’s just the opposite.”

Young people in particular often turn to the church because they are disturbed or disillusioned by secular culture, he said. The church should stand firm in its doctrines on matters like sexuality and the sacredness of the eucharist, rather than watering down its dogma in hopes of fitting in with the outside world’s values.

A large catholic church with large paintings.
St. Stanislaus Kostka, a 19th-century church in a historically Polish neighborhood of Chicago, offers masses in English, Polish and Spanish.

“When you start compromising on doctrine, you run the risk of pushing people who really believe in the doctrine away,” said Zach Morris, 29, who attended a recent Mass at St. Stan’s and described himself as someone who approaches change with caution.

Father Buś has clashed privately and publicly with Cardinal Cupich, who has reined in traditionalist parishes, especially those that continued to celebrate the traditional Latin Mass that was standard in the church before the Second Vatican Council. Some traditionalists in the archdiocese are wary of speaking publicly about Cardinal Cupich’s leadership, for fear of attracting his attention. When Father Buś requested special permission in 2021 to celebrate the Mass facing East, toward the altar — rather than facing the congregation, which is the style of the newer form — he was denied permission and then disciplined for his public statements on the matter. (The archdiocese did not respond to a request for comment on Father Buś’s characterization of these events.)

Father Buś described his congregation as “the little people” — the faithful who work and worship in near-anonymity, far from the elites in Rome. “The church will survive through these people,” he said, “not through the people that are in the synod, but through the people who are on their knees praying and trying to just navigate through life and take care of their families.”

St. Stan’s is in an historically Polish neighborhood that has gone through several transitions. Father Buś now offers 11 Masses each week, in Polish, Spanish and English. St. Stan’s offers seven hours of open confession time a week, in contrast to many more progressive parishes like St. Joe’s, which typically offers one hour on Saturday mornings and by appointment.

At a Mass on a recent Tuesday evening, Father Buś acknowledged the presence of a reporter from the pulpit, and led a prayer for the participants in the synod in Rome, “that they be deeply infused with the spirit of God, and that the spirit of the world or any Luciferian spirit be eradicated from the halls of the Vatican.”

A large cross near an expressway.
The busy Kennedy Expressway passes close by the grounds of St. Stan’s.

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