Catholic priest whose style split NC mountain parish is leaving

One Facebook poster wrote: ‘It is my belief that Father Riehl was run off by some snooty Liberals who didn't care for his traditional approach to the Mass.’
One Facebook poster wrote: ‘It is my belief that Father Riehl was run off by some snooty Liberals who didn't care for his traditional approach to the Mass.’ The Charlotte Observer

The pastor of a Catholic church in the N.C. mountains whose conservative leadership style split the congregation and drew national media attention has resigned.

In a Facebook post, the Rev. Christopher Riehl of St. John the Evangelist parish in Waynesville wrote that he was “worn out or burned out” and for his own well-being needed to take a sabbatical.

He did not mention the rancor at the parish, where he’s been pastor for nearly three years, or the petition by more than 100 members to have him removed. It was sent to Bishop Peter Jugis, who leads the 46-county Catholic Diocese of Charlotte.

The National Catholic Reporter published a January article on the clash between Riehl and many parishioners in the church of about 250 families. Some of those members have left St. John’s.

The article cast the divide as one of a new pastor who preferred traditionalist approaches to the liturgy and church governance versus parishioners who cherished what had been St. John’s post-Vatican II style of a greater role for the laity and more modern worship and music.

Vatican II refers to the Second Vatican Council of the early- to mid-1960s, when the Roman Catholic Church, for example, permitted the use of local languages for a Mass that had traditionally been celebrated all over the world in Latin.

According to the National Catholic Reporter article, Riehl threw out popular hymns and replaced them with the ancient Gregorian chant. When the music director was relieved of her duties, the article said, most of the choir resigned.

A group calling itself Appalachian Catholics in the Smoky Mountain Region said in a statement earlier this year that Riehl and some other conservative priests assigned by Jugis to small parishes in the mountains “seem to be more intent on taking the church back to pre-Vatican ll days rather than minister to the people. They seem to be steeped in doctrine and theology, but are unwilling to participate in ecumenical activities, and are lacking in compassion, love and mercy. They are doing the job of the theologian, but not the job of the pastor. This is directly opposed to what Pope Francis and Vatican II are teaching us.”

But Riehl and like-minded priests had support from conservative Catholics.

“This is sad and quite disturbing,” Thomas Raffo wrote on St. John’s Facebook page, below the news about Riehl’s resignation. “It is my belief that Father Riehl was run off by some snooty Liberals who didn't care for his traditional approach to the Mass.”

In his June 4 Facebook post to members of his “parish family,” Riehl wrote that his leaving was not prompted by anything other than his own need to take some time away from parish ministry.

“It is with a heavy heart that I must inform you that I have decided, of my own free will and my own instigation, to resign my position here at St. John’s,” he wrote. “I have found that I am worn out or burned out and for my own well being need to take a sabbatical. There was no incident or event, just a feeling that I need some time away from full parish ministry. I have absolutely no questions or doubts about my vocation to the Priesthood of Christ.”

It seems likely that Riehl will leave the Diocese of Charlotte, too. Asked if Riehl, who had previously been assigned to a diocese in Tennessee, will get another assignment from Jugis after his sabbatical, Diocese spokesman David Hains said, “I don’t think so.”

Hains was also asked whether Jugis had directed Riehl to resign. “What (Riehl) has in the statement is self-explanatory,” Hains said.

Besides the petition sent to Jugis, critics of Riehl also wrote to Pope Francis and to Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the pope’s representative in the United States as Apostolic Nuncio of the Holy See.

Ann Simmons, who left St. John’s because of Riehl and has been attending a Catholic church in Maggie Valley, said in a statement Tuesday that “As a prayerful people, we pray (Riehl) is restored to good health and the reconciliation of current and past parishioners of St. John’s will begin to take place.”

But parishioner Christine McQueen Ryan, who stayed at St. John’s, thanked Riehl in a Facebook comment: “Sending Love, Prayers, and thankfulness for all of your efforts to draw us closer to our Lord and our God. May your journey be filled with the peace of our Lord. Pax Christi.”