WAYNESVILLE, N.C. (ChurchMilitant.com) - After two years of serving the parishioners of St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Waynesville, North Carolina, the pastor is claiming he is "worn out" and is stepping down.
Since his appointment in 2015, Fr. Christopher Riehl has been attempting to instill a sense of authentic Catholic identity in his parish in the remote western region of North Carolina. Instantly met with resistance from parishioners who refused to accept his pastoral care, Fr. Riehl has been in a two-year battle over the parish. In a personal message to his parish on Facebook posted June 4, he wrote, "I have found that I am worn out or burned out and for my own well being need to take a sabbatical."
Father Riehl continues, "There was no incident or event, just a feeling that I need some time away from full parish ministry. I have absolutely no questions or doubts about my vocation to the priesthood of Christ."
For the parishioners that have remained, most are saddened by Fr. Riehl's resignation and wish him well. Anne Trachtenburg posts, "God bless you, Fr. Riehl. Thank you for the spirituality you brought to our parish and the Mass."
Thomas Raffo posted on the parish Facebook page, "This is sad and quite disturbing. It is my belief that Father Riehl was run off by some snooty Liberals who didn't care for his traditional approach to the Mass."
Isabel Gonzalez Valuja, one of the former parishioners, disagreed with Raffo over the claim that she and her husband were liberal, posting, "We are not LIBERALS, we are 'conservative republicans' [sic]."
Church Militant spoke with David Hains, director of communications for the diocese of Charlotte. He confirmed that the most recent numbers, including Mass count and religious education for Fr. Riehl's parish, were "up significantly." Hains did admit there was a lot of turmoil in the parish and that it was of a "personal nature" he was not at liberty to discuss. He explained there is a rapid growth in the diocese from an influx of Hispanics and that reports of "a split" were false. He claimed the priests of the diocese are faithful to the Magisterium and most of them are more traditionally minded.
Church Militant reported on the situation in December 2015, obtaining an exclusive interview with Mark Zaffrann, a parishioner and supporter of Fr. Riehl. He stated that the National Catholic Reporter (NCR), a heterodox publication, inaccurately portrayed the disagreement.
"What really happened, I believe, is that a small group of people convinced others to just reject him and convinced them — or tried to convince them — that if we just band together we can get a new guy," he remarked. Zaffrann recalled this occurred "because obviously they chose not to like him from the day he walked in the door."
Father Riehl attempted to restore Gregorian chant and implement a more reverent Mass, angering a small group of parishioners who claimed the priest was refusing to "respect" Vatican II. This small group circulated a petition against Riehl, gaining 140 signatures to present to Bp. Peter Jugis of the Charlotte diocese. The bishop, however, supported Fr. Riehl and refused to remove him.
Two years later, a small band of former parishioners calling themselves the "church in exile" began to meet regularly. They continue to be vocal opponents of all attempts at restoration of a real sense of Catholicism in the parish. In January, the NCR profiled the group, documenting their continued defiance of the priest and ignorance of true Catholic teaching. The NCR sympathized with the group and applauded their efforts at "fighting back" against the "restorationists," painting traditional priests in a negative light.
"They have what some perceive as a fetish for elaborate liturgical vestments and other externals, such as the routine wearing of cassocks and birettas," the article claims.
The article lists their complaints:
Their de facto pastor told the mostly cradle Catholics they had been doing everything all wrong. The liturgy — overwhelmed with popular contemporary hymns and such standbys as "Amazing Grace" — was not deemed Catholic enough. Veteran catechists were told they weren't teaching traditional Catholicism. A blind parishioner, holding her guide dog with one hand and seeking Communion with the other, was told she lacked proper reverence. The host was stuck into her mouth.
The self-professed "exile" group have compiled their grievances into a binder and have sent copies to Pope Francis, Bp. Jugis, Cdl. Blase Cupich of Chicago, Papal Nuncio Abp. Christophe Pierre. They have said their attempts to meet with Bp. Jugis have been "rebuffed" and requests have gone "unheeded." The bishop responded to the NCR in January, claiming, "All have been listened to."
Hains did alert Church Militant that Fr. Riehl was on loan from the diocese of Knoxville and did not have any information as to where he would be taking his sabbatical or what his next assignment would be.
Parish staff at St. John the Evangelist told Church Militant that cards and spiritual bouquets could be sent to to the church and that the Facebook page was open for comments and prayers for Fr. Riehl.