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Newman Center’s discontent

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” Leo Tolstoy famously wrote in his Russian saga “Anna Karenina.”

The Russian novelist’s observation applies as well to the spiritual family at the Aquinas Newman Center on the University of New Mexico campus. It is a family beset by division and unhappiness by some longstanding parishioners at the changes Archbishop Michael Sheehan has ordered.

That the contemporary characters are good people doesn’t make it a happier place.

There are the much-loved Dominican friars, spiritual pastors at the center since 1950, dismissed from their post, they say, without the due process of a hearing on why they were told to leave. They departed, if sadly, with a quiet dignity befitting of their storied spiritual history.

There’s the archbishop, the spiritual leader of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, who among other things sought to mine more religious vocations from the UNM campus. He had every right to order the change he deemed best.

There are longtime parishioners, many of them who were students decades ago and some who work for the university now, who chafed at the change, gathered protesting petitions and unsuccessfully sought an audience with the archbishop to plead their case. They leaked the story to this newspaper long before the formal announcement had been planned. The newspaper did its job.

There is Father Michael DePalma, the archdiocese’s vocation director, who did his job, too. After four good years as pastor of San Ysidro Parish in Corrales, a church building expansion paid for or nearly so, he told parishioners it wasn’t his choice to leave but would do what the archbishop wanted.

He was sad. Parishioners were sad. But parish priests come and go in the Catholic Church. This month, he packed his bags and headed across town to the Newman Center.

You can endlessly argue the merits of the archbishop’s autocratic style and the changes Father DePalma made at the Newman Center – the rearranging of pews to a more traditional setting, the removal of artwork and books (Although, he says, “no books were actually taken; just rearranged”), no more women altar servers – all merely the trappings of faith.

But what’s been muddied in all the uproar – some parishioners leaving and others simmering in a spiritual stew in the back of the church – is the gospel message and the miracle of faith Father DePalma will certainly bring whether or not a pound or more of flesh is extracted from him in this the summer of the center’s discontent.

It’s well documented that the Catholic Church, a divinely inspired institution uniquely populated by flawed human beings, has had its share of creeps and crooks in the priesthood over the years, just as they’re found in every walk of life, in every denomination on every corner of the earth.

But the thousands of others worldwide are men who faithfully heed God’s calling to a hard, sometimes lonely life that is not for sissies or the faint of heart. What is beyond reproach is Father DePalma’s character, his dedication and desire to fulfill his priestly vocation as preacher and teacher of God’s word. Those whose path he comes across will be the better for it.

Meanwhile, some will leave the Newman Center, maybe even the Church. Where will they go on their odyssey of discontent, splintering their community to find the perfect fit? The infamous Vietnam War oxymoron comes to mind, “We had to destroy the village to save it.”

Sad.

“Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” For some, it’s sad that way at the Newman Center. But the bet here says it won’t be sad for long.

Tim Coder, a retired journalist and a former seminary student, is author of the novel “War Without End, Amen: A Vietnam Story.”

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