In July, a new associate pastor arrived at Our Lady of Sorrows Church in downtown Santa Barbara, a routine occurrence in the life of any Catholic parish throughout the U.S. and the world. This new priest, Fr. Juan Carlos Gavancho, Peruvian by birth, was a priest of the Chicago Archdiocese seeking incardination in Los Angeles. There seemed to be nothing particularly special about him.
Nonetheless, as people began to hear him say Mass, a small ripple of excitement ran through the ranks of Santa Barbara’s more traditional Catholics. (Yes, there are a few.) Fr. Gavancho was something new. He celebrated the liturgy with piety and even chanted parts of the Mass. His homilies were orthodox and helpful, drawing practical steps for advancing in the moral and spiritual life from the gospel of the day. There is nothing special in any of this—it is the ordinary work of a Catholic priest—but for the Catholics of Santa Barbara, Fr. Gavancho was a novelty. Here was a priest who was obviously not in headlong flight from the Church's traditions and teachings.
This past Sunday, the parishioners at Our Lady of Sorrows learned from their pastor, Fr. Cesar Magallón, that he had asked Fr. Gavancho to leave. The parishioners were assured that this sudden removal had nothing to do with the sexual abuse crisis in the Church. Nothing more was said.
But already more was known, because a layman had witnessed Fr. Gavancho’s dismissal. On the evening of Tuesday, August 28, the pastor had given Fr. Gavancho less than an hour to pack his bags and get out. No reason had been given for this uncharitable treatment.
On Monday morning, new details were offered. The parish website posted a statement indicating that, “Contrary to rumors and reports, Father Gavancho was asked to leave not due to the content of his homily on Sunday August 26, but rather because of issues with his interpersonal relationships with parish staff and parishioners.”
That homily of the previous Sunday had already been much discussed locally. It has now made its way onto the Internet, and is being widely discussed, not least because of Fr. Gavancho’s abrupt dismissal. He gave the homily on the Sunday when the world awoke to the Viganò testimony, which ripped aside the veil of Vatican secrecy to reveal what seems to be truly wicked behavior on the part of the Church’s highest officials. All this, coming after the McCarrick revelations and the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report, made for an awful Sunday.
Fr. Gavancho’s homily was “unfiltered.” He spoke with urgency and abject anguish about the corruption in the Church and the agenda-driven machinations of those in authority. He recounted in general terms Archbishop Viganò’s claims that the corruption reaches the top levels of the Church. But Fr. Gavancho exclaimed that he would not give up on the Church, his mother, and he echoed Bishop Robert Barron in calling upon the laity to fight for the Church, their mother too.
It was a stirring and very pastoral homily—for the words from the pulpit expressed the feelings in so many hearts. The congregation also recognized at once the grave risk Fr. Gavancho was taking in speaking so plainly. They gave him an ovation in support. (Audio of the homily can be found here.)
As anyone with much experience of the world knows, when it comes to “employment issues,” there is always more to the story. In the case of Fr. Gavancho, some have suggested that he does not relate well to parishioners and parish staff (perhaps including the pastor himself). The Internet also offers stories of this priest's difficulties in previous assignments. But for dozens of the local laity, there is no doubt that it is the homily which precipitated Fr. Gavancho’s defenestration.
This is not an unreasonable assumption. It would take a true monster to so alienate people in six weeks of summer parish work as to merit dismissal. And if he truly is an interpersonal monster in this age of the “triumph of the pastoral,” how did he get ordained in the first place? So far, none of those whom Fr. Gavancho putatively alienated has actually come forward—while many laypeople who welcomed Fr. Gavancho’s ministry have come to his defense.
In fact, some of the people at Our Lady of Sorrows are organizing an appeal to Archbishop Gomez to seek justice for this priest—though they know already that nothing will come of it. They will be told that it is a personnel matter unrelated to Fr. Gavancho’s theological views, and that responsible parties have made the decision on the basis of information that must of course remain confidential.
Perhaps this is true. But I cannot help but be skeptical. For years and years, the Church reassigned priests credibly accused of sexually abusing minors. Only ruinous lawsuits and exposure by the secular press forced change. Now we know that Theodore McCarrick was raised to the highest offices of the Church, even though his sexual predations were widely known but carefully wrapped in a tissue of lies. Meanwhile, in many parts of the same Church, a way is always found to sideline priests who are deemed too “rigid” or “unpastoral” (whatever that means).
This bears emphasizing. For my entire adult life, heated complaints about the poor treatment of orthodox priests were routinely heard from the traditionalist fringes of the Church, from those who espied a vast clerical conspiracy against the traditional doctrines of the Faith. From those same fringes came wild tales of clerical sexual misconduct reaching even to bishops and cardinals. Those tales beggared belief. Unsettled mainstream Catholics were urged to keep away from those crazies. Well, now we know that the crazies’ wildest tales of sexual misconduct were often correct. Were they also right about the fate of the orthodox priests?
How are faithful Catholics to relate to a Church when those once deemed crazy are shown to be more right than wrong and those in charge more duplicitous than courageous? Trust those in charge, we’re told, yet again. But that’s exactly what we were told for the decades during which McCarrick pursued seminarians and then paraded around the world as a celebrated clerical eminence. Now, in 2018, when that betrayal of the trust of faithful Catholics is known to all the world, are we really supposed to trust the ecclesiastical system to discern the unfitness of a seemingly orthodox Peruvian priest for his pastoral position? To be frank, I cannot. Indeed, for a layman to trust the present clerical culture and those who sit atop it seems irrational, even irresponsible.
Bishop Barron called upon the laity to fight for the Church. How, exactly?
Mark C. Henrie is a Santa Barbara Catholic layman.