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Wedding tape doomed Father John Cunningham who allowed Anglican priest

Posted by on June 28, 2006 – 2:49 pm

The video camera never blinks, and what it records can sink even a good priest. Amid the swirl of concurrent controversies in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix in recent years has been the case of the Rev. John Cunningham, a very learned pastor and scholar, who tried to be too accommodating at a wedding in Gilbert and found himself caught on tape.In a pluralistic world of marriages between people of diverse faiths, its very common for clergy of different religions to participate in the ceremonies to satisfy couples and families and their faith traditions. Father Jack, well-known as an erudite, liberal-thinking priest, coulda, woulda, shoulda not taken the chance when Lowell Pester and Jacqueline Payne asked him to conduct the nuptial Mass set for April 24, 2004, at borrowed facilities, St. Annes Catholic Church in Gilbert. Cunningham should have nixed, on the spot, allowing the brides longtime friend, the Rev. Robert Haux, an Anglican priest from Georgia, to participate in the wedding, which included the consecration of the Eucharist.

Cunningham had founded St. Bridgets Catholic Church in 1985 and then was appointed to launch a new parish in the Gilbert-Higley area, St. Mary Magdalene, in July 2002. That new parish was holding its services in a school gym and the couple wanted a beautiful church setting for their nuptials. So St. Annes in the neighboring parish was booked.

On the wedding day, the videotape rolled, and a Catholic wedding was consummated. But four days later, Cunningham was out of his job and suspended by his boss, Bishop Thomas Olmsted, pending a diocesan investigation. Throughout it all, the priest insisted he had followed canon law, that the Anglican priest stood primarily off to the side and Haux did not participate in the consecration of the Eucharist, nor did he say any words to mimic the words of consecration of the Eucharist. Those are words from a slander lawsuit Cunningham would file almost a year later against to St. Annes employees for turning him in to the diocese.

Cunningham was in limbo for two years as the bishop consulted with the Vatican for advisement, then opted to put two monsignors from Catholic University with good credentials to work investigating the wedding incident vis-a-vis Catholic regs, namely

Canon 908: It is forbidden for Catholic priests to concelebrate the Eucharist with priests or ministers of churches … not in full communion with the Catholic Church. In the end after forwarding, backforwarding and putting the tape in slow motion, Msgrs. Ronny Jenkins and Brian Ferme felt confident they had found 15 specific violations, most importantly that the Anglican priest was engaged in the Eucharist rites. They said Haux was wearing a chasuble — the priestly garment (not some business suit) — meaning some serious business. They determined Haux extended his hands over the bread and wine before it was consecrated, that he, indeed, spoke words of consecration, lifted up chalices of wine and received communion at the altar as a Catholic priest would.

And so it fell to the bishop to mete out punishment according to the monsignors’ recommendations. In simple terms, there were four: removing him as priest (previously accomplished), suspension for a time period (he had already been suspended for two years); spend time in a retreat; and make a public statement of apology. Text of that four-paragraph letter of apology of June 20 to the bishop is in full view on The Catholic Sun website (www.catholicsun.org). Cunningham has now apologized unconditionally for his conduct and included the then-pastor of St. Annes and its two employees whom he sued for slander.

Olmsted has reinstated Cunningham as a priest in good standing and granted him early retirement after 30 years as priest. He has been teaching religion at Arizona State University Polytechnic, writing and interacting with his considerable faith community of colleagues and friends. Retired priests rarely quit, so many wonder what he will now do.

Cunningham was a regular writer for our Clergy Corner columns in the Tribune for many years. What he said was compelling, courageous, provocative, thoughtful. He demonstrated deep scholarship. He came across always as a thinking-Catholics priest. He was one of nine priests with enough moxie to sign the Phoenix Declaration calling for church and society to be fully tolerant of gay and lesbians — only to be ordered by Olmsted to remove their names. A single retired priest in Phoenix refused and had his priest faculties stripped. It deeply pained priests like Cunningham to have to remove their names from such a document for justice. And it only underscored how some faiths limit freedom of expression.

Among the comments I received from the initial article on June 28 about the disposition of Father Jacks case was this from Julie and Jim Flynn, founding members of St. Mary Magdalene: We are now just happy he is now allowed to do what he does so well — serve his Gods people … Father John helped us to feel good to be Catholic — something that hasnt happened for a long time.

Thomas Schildgen, ASU Polytechnic professor and chairman of technology management, said he wasnt shocked by the outcome, but this form of public humiliation was very predictable. In my opinion, this had nothing to do with the teachings and life of Christ, he said. Rather it evolved around the perceived enforcement of canon law by a select few that was clearly fearful of Johns ability to embrace diversity. We can only hope there are more John Cunninghams in this world.

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  • Margaret Kelly says:

    It is amazing how quickly the Catholic church can remove a priest for this type of action that hurt no one and represented the essence of Christianity and ecumenicalism. However, after years of pedophilia, others are protected and moved to new “hunting grounds” and this is continuing to happen. How does one feel good about being a Catholic with this type of priority?

  • Barbara Struna says:

    When I moved from Kansas to Arizona almost 20 years.now. The first year here my husbad passed. It was Father John who helped me get it all together. His masses were so inspiring. Than we lost him to another church. At the time I lived in Ft Hills it was a distance. The next thing I hear they removed him. I have been since lost with my faith .I have tryed different catholic churches but I could not get my faith restored. I have even visited other faiths but I am a catholic and will remain one. However still looking for what we lost in father john.

  • Justine says:

    Father John is at Holy Spirit Church in Tempe on Most weekends…just wanted to put that out there…he really is an incredible teacher…

  • George Castillo says:

    John Cunningham is a man who has belief in all faiths/religions and fights for what he believes is right. Yes the Catholic Church did removed him from priesthood for doing something that could have easily been forgiven, but that doesn’t make Catholicism a bad religion nor should it make anyone feel bad for being a devoted Catholic. Even Cunningham himself did not turn his back on the religion and he takes pride in his faith while respecting any other religious views. He is a great man and a great teacher and knows that it is not Christian like to judge another religion.

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