At her religious community back home, UC Berkeley senior Mosa Tsay saw priests come and go.
Nonetheless, Tsay was one of eight parishioners who signed a letter to the new Oakland bishop in January when he told them his decision to remove the Rev. William Edens, the current campus priest, and the Rev. Bernard Campbell from Newman Hall, their church in Berkeley. The priests had served there for five and seven years, respectively, and the letter-writers wanted an explanation.
“It’s not like a change had been coming, so it was a very abrupt thing for most people,” said Anna Costello, a UC Berkeley sophomore who is on the student ministry team at Newman Hall.
When the news was delivered to the parish at large in February, responses ranged from surprise to outrage. In early March, Bishop Michael Barber explained in a statement that he wanted to reach out more vigorously to UC Berkeley students and announced the two new priests, the Rev. Ivan Tou and the Rev. Dat Tran. Now, parishioners have some more clarity — but the controversy has shaken the democratic sensibilities of the church community, creating sudden uncertainty for some about the future of the parish.
A student-focused approach
“I believe we need to do more, to totally reinvigorate our evangelization efforts for the university community at Cal Berkeley,” Barber wrote in a March 7 letter to the parish. “There is a reason the doors of your parish face north, toward the Cal campus: to welcome the students.”
This explanation of the bishop’s decision gave an answer to previous speculation, including the idea that the replacement of Edens might have to do with his being openly gay. Campbell denied that Edens’ sexual orientation had anything to do with the bishop’s decision.
Student attendance at Newman Hall mass has been declining, according to the bishop’s letter, and some parishioners have noted that Tran, 34, is significantly younger than Edens and Campbell.
Frank Ngo, a student ministry team member at Newman Hall, expressed support for this direction, noting that students themselves also ought to reach out more to one another.
“The biggest change that we need to happen … is a change in the students — for us who have been here for a long time to go out and reach out,” Ngo said.
Some have wondered, however, what the bishop’s focus will mean for Newman Hall’s nonstudent population. Newman Hall does have a liberal lean, which might differ from the more conservative home parishes of some students.
The letter Tsay co-signed touches on this worry.
“The older community has happily supported Newman’s ministry to UC Berkeley and other students, both financially and otherwise, for generations,” the letter states.
Newman Hall is not the only college-town parish faced with such a change. In January, it was announced that the leadership at the University of New Mexico’s Aquinas Newman Center would be replaced with new, young priests, causing unsettlement among hundreds of parishioners.
A call for transparency
Some parishioners remain concerned, however, about the bishop’s way of delivering the decision. According to Campbell, Barber visited the church in November and then dropped the news without any warning.
“There was no preparation, no consultation whatsoever,” Campbell said. “It wasn’t as if we were robbing the bank or doing something scandalous.”
Edens declined to comment, except to say that he hopes for a positive transition.
Barber could not be reached for comment, but according to Mike Brown, spokesperson at the Diocese of Oakland, the bishop was simply doing his job by arranging church leadership as he saw fit.
Some parishioners have acknowledged that the Roman Catholic Church is not a democracy. Nonetheless, the abruptness of the bishop’s decision is inconsistent with the church’s democratic spirit, according to Matt Werner, a UC Berkeley alumnus who has attended Newman Hall since 1998.
“There’s a lot of dialogue and conversation around any kind of change,” Werner said. “So (church members) felt it was real backhanded to have this new bishop … to go and to fire these guys. They’ve done excellent services for years.”
Still, this kind of top-down decision-making has been common throughout Catholicism’s history, said David Decosse, a religious studies professor at Santa Clara University who has attended Newman Hall. According to Decosse, the bishop ought to be more transparent moving forward.
“This kind of thing happens way too much within Catholicism,” Decosse said. “It’s, to me, really reflective of a kind of profound change that needs to happen from the top in terms of dealing respectfully with people in the church … being upfront, transparent, being consultative in how decisions happen.”
Turning over a new leaf
Parishioners may get a more conclusive explanation when Tsay and the other seven letter-writers meet with Barber on Saturday.
“When we go to the meeting, we’ll be bringing a lot of the questions that the parishioners have,” Tsay said.
Tsay noted that she’d never felt a need before to write to the bishop — so this dialogue, for her, is something new.
Despite the turmoil of recent weeks, she and other student leaders in the parish remain hopeful for the future. The new priests — whom Campbell described as “very nice fellows” — will start in July, after which Campbell and Edens will move on to new assignments, as per the direction of the Catholic order to which they belong.
“It’s turning over a leaf,” said Costello, who also signed the letter. “There are good things about rebirth and revitalizing.”