Note: I am truly surprised, and not in a bad way, by the volume of responses, all within about a 4-hour period, to this post. It sets some sort of record. I'm probably not going leave comments open forever - I don't know how much more can be said until more details come to light, if this story finds legs and starts running.
For my part, I would like to know exactly what Deacon McDonnell said. The synopsis in the article says that he referred to the 1/11 vote in Congress on embryonic stem-cell research, pointed out that the Congressman had voted for it, and (in the words of the article)
McDonnell noted that Higgins was in attendance and suggested that congregants could talk with him about his vote.
I'm not a homiletics person, but my initial sympathies are with Fr. Stanley, who posted below:
Old navy rule: praise in public, dress down in private. We were taught in homiletics not to criticize anyone by name, especially someone attending Mass. It is not the purpose of the homily in the Eucharist to single people out for public criticism.
The deacon could have talked about politicians' responsibilities, criticized specific votes on bills or passage of particular legislation, explaining how Catholic doctrine is to be upheld, particularly by those politicians professing to be Catholic. The point attempted by the deacon could have been made without singling out anyone.
But the reaction to this makes me wonder how often the topic broached by the deacon in his homily is addressed by the bishop of Buffalo or the pastor of this parish.
I take exception, however, to the pastor's notion stated at the end about the experience being "painful." There will be times when such pain will be and should be unavoidable, i.e., truth hurts. I am not for delivering "pain-free" homilies. Discipleship is challenging, and acceptance of Christ's invitation to follow Him means the Cross. If preaching is merely to be a recitation of Hallmark Card aphorisms and self-congratulation, etc., then this has no place in the liturgy, and serves no real purpose except the preacher's on-going popularity campaign. I commend the deacon's willingness to challenge his listeners. However, the homilist should never mention "problem children" by name, for the reason of the avoidance of giving scandal.
Also note what commentor Ed posted below:
Just so the record is clear. Mr. Higgins has been a Congressman since 2005. In the 2005-2006 Congress, there were 9 votes on pro-life issues (according to National Committee for a Human Life Amendment). He voted anti-life on all 9. He voted for embryonic stem cell research, for allowing abortions in military hospitals, for funding to organizations that promote abortion, and against making it a federal crime to transport a minor across state lines for an abortion to evade parental notification laws. He was endorsed and rated 100% "pro-choice" by NARAL and Planned Parenthood in 2006.
My intution - and this is all it is, and I would really love to hear from Deacon McDonnell himself (and I tried to find an email, to no avail. All I could find is the fact that he is on the parish staff, of course, and, in another context, that he does prison ministry) - is that what we have here is a great deal of frustration bubbling to the surface, and the fact that the pastor and even the bishop apparently fall all over themselves apologizing to "Brian," with never (at least as reported) any kind of, "Well, you know, this was probably imprudent, but the man does have a 100% pro-choice voting record and we probably need to talk about that...." might be an even further indication that this is so.
A deacon upbraided Rep. Brian Higgins during Sunday morning Mass in St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church for voting in favor of embryonic stem cell research, prompting the congressman and his family to walk out during the sermon.
The Rev. Art Smith, pastor of the South Buffalo church, said he felt "horrible" about the Higgins family's departure on "Respect Life Sunday" and offered an apology from the pulpit after the congressman had left.
Bishop Edward U. Kmiec of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo later issued a statement also criticizing Deacon Tom McDonnell's action.
"I can't tell you how terrible I felt," Smith said Tuesday. "While we have to always uphold the church's teachings regarding life, I don't think it's ever fair to publicly criticize someone who serves our community and our parish so well."
Added Kmiec: "The pulpit is not the appropriate place for confronting a member of the congregation. It is my belief that in situations like this, we are more effective when we have substantive, one-on-one conversations with individuals outside the context of the Mass."
Higgins, who was baptized and married in that church, apologized for walking out with his wife, Mary Jane, and son John.
"I want to apologize to the good people of St. Thomas Aquinas Church," Higgins said. "They should not have been subjected to that, and they deserved much better."
Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat, said the family was on hand primarily because the Mass was being said in memory of Shirley Higgins, the late wife of close friend and former Erie County Sheriff Thomas F. Higgins.
"People were there because of Tom and his family and his wife," Higgins said. "And to use this as a forum to ruin that remembrance Mass was very, very unfortunate. I apologized to his family."
The congressman was less conciliatory toward the deacon.
"What he was doing here was trying to drive a wedge, and it was a cheap shot," Higgins said. "But it's what I do. I take hits [as a politician], and I accept that."
McDonnell declined to comment on the incident.
Noreen Curr of South Buffalo was among the congregants who considered the criticism out of bounds.
"I thought what was said was inappropriate, because [Higgins] was there for other reasons," Curr said. "I felt bad that he left."
McDonnell's sermon called attention to a Jan. 11 vote in Congress, which Higgins supported, that would authorize research using embryonic stem cells. McDonnell noted that Higgins was in attendance and suggested that congregants could talk with him about his vote.
The bill would allow federal funding for research involving stem cell lines derived from surplus embryos created in fertility clinics, of which 400,000 are frozen and otherwise would be thrown away as medical waste, Higgins said. Instead, he said, they can be used to promote potentially lifesaving research.
Smith, pastor of the Abbott Road church, said that there have been several phone calls expressing "disappointment and embarrassment" over what happened.
Smith said he spoke with McDonnell and planned to talk with him again. "I'm hoping the deacon will somehow express his regret," Smith said. "He could have done the whole [sermon] without publicly embarrassing Brian."
However, the deacon also took a swipe at Higgins over the same stem cell vote the day before in a 4 p.m. Mass, with Smith in attendance.
Smith said he felt uncomfortable over the deacon's remarks then, too. But he said he didn't expect McDonnell to repeat his criticism with Higgins in attendance Sunday.
"This is not my way of doing things. It really isn't. I feel caught in the middle, because I want to be supportive of both [Higgins and McDonnell]. I just feel so bad that it happened."
At a reception in Thomas Higgins' house after Sunday Mass, Smith was turned away at the door. "What happened was atrocious," Thomas Higgins said. "It wouldn't have done any good for him to come into the house, because people's feelings were so hurt." Smith said he regrets that the congressman was not treated the way Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., was when she attended a Labor Day Mass in the church in 2001 and was warmly welcomed by Bishop Henry J. Mansell despite her pro-choice position on abortion.
"What happened is so painful, so hurtful," Smith said. ". . . I wish that [spirit] would have prevailed on Sunday."