Montana Bishop criticizes priests who attended Trump rally as VIPs

In this July 5, 2018, photo, President Donald Trump turns to the cheering crowd as he arrives for a rally at the Four Seasons Arena at Montana ExpoPark in Great Falls, Mont. A Roman Catholic bishop in Montana has criticized four priests who attended President Donald Trump's rally in Great Falls last week for wearing their black clerical garb while prominently seated in the front row directly behind the president. The priests are seen in the audience wearing VIP badges. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A Roman Catholic bishop in Montana has criticized four priests who attended President Donald Trump's rally in Great Falls last week for wearing their black clerical garb while prominently seated in the front row directly behind the president.

The priests could be seen in the audience Thursday wearing VIP badges. They clapped as the president joked about the #MeToo movement against sexual assault, called Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts "Pocahontas" and questioned former President George H.W. Bush's use of the phrase "a thousand points of light" to promote volunteerism, Lee Newspapers of Montana reported .

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Two of the priests, Father Garrett Nelson and Father Ryan Erlenbush, are from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Great Falls-Billings, which serves central and eastern Montana. The other two, Father Kevin Christofferson and Father Christopher Lebsock, are from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Helena, which covers western Montana.

Bishop Michael Warfel of the Great Falls-Billings diocese was not aware the priests would be in attendance and was shocked to see them in a prominent location in clerical attire, he said in a letter posted on the diocese's Facebook page.

Warfel said he spoke with Nelson and Erlenbush and told them that they should not have been in clerical attire at a partisan event. The priests said they didn't know they would be seated directly behind Trump and that they were uncomfortable with the location. Warfel said they should have moved to different seats.

"I have received apologies from the two priests for any misunderstanding or any hurt their presence caused," Warfel wrote.

The bishop added that he updated the diocese's policy on political involvement, which says in part, "Supporting or not supporting a particular candidate as a representative of the diocese is not permitted."

Warfel said the restriction is only on partisan politics, and not on the church's involvement in larger political issues. He gave as examples Pope John Paul II, whose visit to the Gdansk shipyards in Poland is credited with helping spark the end of communist rule in Eastern Europe, and Pope Francis' public stances on issues from climate change to immigration.

On Saturday in Chicago, the Rev. Michael Pfleger, a Roman Catholic priest, was at the front of a march he organized to protest gun violence. Thousands of anti-violence protesters participated in the march, shutting down traffic along the northbound lanes of Interstate 94, to draw attention to the violence and pressure public officials to do more to stop it.

Among the demands the protesters listed were more resources, jobs and better schools for their communities as well as stronger gun laws.

The Helena, Montana, diocese does not have a bishop after Bishop George Leo Thomas left earlier this year. The diocese's administrator, Monsignor Kevin O'Neill, said that he has sent a letter to all personnel seeking their cooperation with the political activity policy set by the Montana Catholic Conference in 2011.

Those guidelines say that religious leaders should avoid taking positions on candidates or participating in political party maters even while acting as individuals. "Although not prohibited, it may be difficult to separate their personal activity from their public role as a Church leader," the policy says.

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Lisa Weber
2 months 2 weeks ago

I am glad Bishop Warfel made it clear that the priests from his diocese were appearing at this rally without his approval. The kindest interpretation that can be given for the priests' attendance in clerical garb is that they are clueless. As a former resident of Montana, I was disappointed that anyone supported this rally. As a Catholic, I was angry that priests would appear to lend the support of the Catholic Church to a criminal like Trump.

George Obregon
2 months 2 weeks ago

Of course the VIP status of priests at left-wing rallies, or at left-wing churches (Obama's pastor, Rev. Wright's church) is of no concern to many. Why? ... It's merely convenient unethical hypocrisy. /But, it feels good.

Steve Newton
2 months 1 week ago

I presume you have examples of VIP status of priests at left wing rallies? I'm not sure what a left-wing church is, but it would make sense that if one had a pastor, he might occasionally be present!

Jerome Stack
2 months 2 weeks ago

Clergy of any political persuasion should not be in the position of endorsing candidates. We should be helping people inform their consciences, speaking about Gospel values and looking at how well a party or candidate embodies those values in their platforms or statements. One can only look at history to see the trouble the Church has gotten into when endorsing a candidate or government. In Italy, for example, many priests -- and even Pius XI -- backed Mussolini because he gave the appearance of wanting to support the Church. The pope changed his tune later when it became apparent that il Duce was using his apparent support of the Church to further his fascist agenda.

Nancy Walton-House
2 months 1 week ago

I was very concerned about these priests' actions. I am glad Bishop Michael Warfel of the Great Falls-Billings diocese updated the policy to read "Supporting or not supporting a particular candidate as a representative of the diocese is not permitted." I am also glad he stated "the restriction is only on partisan politics, and not on the church's involvement in larger political issues." America is so dangerously divided now. We need to address the moral issues of our times without further damaging our democracy. Official representatives of the American Catholic Church need to help people resolve these conflicts rather than intensify them.

Phillip Stone
2 months 1 week ago

Not a good call by the bishop, in my opinion.
Just as some bishops in the first world have erred grossly in their neglect of proper action against child abuse perpetrators, it is highly likely some are erring on the issues of assigning righteousness to one political party and neglecting the other.

When alive, John Paul 2 hauled some priests over the coals for being central to a left wing government.

Jesus was not a socialist, not a communist, not a revolutionary even though that was the charge connected to his death penalty - he was counter-cultural where the culture was evil and endorsed aspects of the culture which are good and traditional.

Caesar has put another Catholic in the Supreme Court, now the tide of the slaughter of the unborn has a chance of being slowed to a trickle - such a leader is appropriately supported both publicly and privately.

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