SAUK CITY -- At a recent Mass at St. Aloysius Catholic Church, the Rev. John Blewett urged parishioners to emulate their savior and stand firm on matters of church doctrine.
"Jesus does not back down," he said.
The same could be said for Blewett and his fellow members of the Society of Jesus Christ the Priest, a religious group based in Spain. Beginning in 2006, Bishop Robert Morlino invited priests from the society to serve in the Madison Catholic Diocese, and in the ensuing years, they have thrilled some and dismayed others with their staunch Catholicism and tough-love approach.
Five of them now lead a five-parish cluster in the Sauk City area, with three more priests from the society expected this fall. They have brought considerable change in the way the parishes approach worship services.
The priests no longer let girls be altar servers, and they have dispensed with the common Catholic practice of using trained lay people to assist with Communion. They have greatly increased opportunities for confession - some complain they nose around too much - and added many Masses celebrated only in Latin, which some parishioners find divine and others alienating.
Supporters say the priests have brought richness to the faith and much-needed discipline to followers who too often water down church teachings.
"They tell us what we need to hear, not what we want to hear," said Kay Ringelstetter, a St. Aloysius member who calls the changes beautiful. "We see their love for Jesus Christ and the joy in everything they do, and we desire it."
Others are upset over what they consider a hard-line approach that leaves little room for shades of difference.
"You get the impression they only want to be a shepherd for the people who agree with them," said Troy Jacobson, who left St. Barnabas Parish in Mazomanie last year over his disappointment with the priests. "It's almost like they've restricted access to God."
Critics contend that scores of parishioners have left, but others disagree and say new members have filled any voids. The Rev. Jared Hood, a society priest and the administrator of the five-parish cluster, said membership numbers were not available.
Morlino said any time parishes change priests, some upheaval is inevitable. He said the priests follow a different course from many in the diocese, but that diversity is good and everything the priests do falls within the accepted practices of the church.
"They are not in any sense renegades," he said.
Societies are a special designation within the Catholic Church. They are groups of lay people, consecrated women and priests who live in common and come together around a specific mission, such as aiding the sick. The mission of the Society of Jesus Christ the Priest is to increase the number of boys entering the priesthood.
"If we can manage to get the young people to fall in love with Jesus Christ, then they will not but want to be like him and to share his life and mission," wrote the society's founder, the Rev. Alfonso Galvez, in a 1994 book on the society's formation.
The Catholic Church officially recognized the society in 1980. It is based in Murcia, Spain, but has members from other countries, including the U.S.
Hood, a New Jersey native, said the society has 25 priests, 13 consecrated women, two laymen and 12 seminarians studying for the priesthood. This puts it on the small side as far as societies go, he said.
In his book, Galvez, now 77, criticizes the quality of priest training, saying seminaries often fail to instill obedience and genuine Catholic values. This is indicative of a post-Vatican II church in the 1960s that "found herself invaded by liberal Protestant theology and by various currents of Marxist ideology," he wrote.
Many good candidates for priesthood have been turned off by the lack of demanding training, exacerbating the priest shortage and forcing bishops to either go without priests or accept anybody who walks through the door, according to Galvez. "That explains why young men of weak spirit, incapable, effeminate and - why not say so? - even homosexuals have been admitted to seminaries," he wrote.
In 1991, Galvez founded a middle and high school, currently in Murcia, to provide young people with "a total formation based in Catholic values and tradition," according to the school's Web site. Plans are in the works to move the school next year from Murcia to Sauk City, where it would reopen as a middle school.
The relationship between the society and the Madison diocese dates to the spring of 2006 when representatives from the society visited several U.S. dioceses to gauge interest in their priests serving here.
"Very simply, Bishop Morlino was the most inviting," Hood said. The only other place in the U.S. where priests from the society serve is the Diocese of Metuchen in New Jersey, where there are four.
Morlino, who has sought to increase the number of young men from the Madison area going into the seminary, said he "could see from the very first moment they were holy, happy and very hard-working. I was very receptive to them."
Because societies are not connected to any one Catholic diocese, their seminarians can be ordained into the priesthood by any willing bishop. That's how Morlino came to ordain three society priests July 31 in Madison.
The Society of Jesus Christ the Priest seems to hew to a theologically traditionalist line that is in favor today and indirectly encouraged by the Vatican through a renewed emphasis on Latin Masses, said the Rev. Steven Avella, a history professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee and a Catholic priest.
"Priestly formation in general today seems to be harkening back to older models of clerical identity," Avella said. At some seminaries, for instance, the educational environment is exclusively male and seminarians and lay women don't mix, he said. Still, removing girls as altar servers is "unusual" in the U.S., he said.
Hiring foreign priests, however, is not uncommon - many U.S. dioceses are recruiting from "priest-rich" areas such as the Philippines and Nigeria to address a shortage, Avella said. Even if there were no priest shortage, Morlino said he would want the society priests here.
"There is no watering down, no ambiguity, just straight," he said of their Catholicism.
Removing girls as altar servers was one of the initial changes the priests made. (The Vatican began allowing female servers in 1994.) Hood said that if the society is to succeed in encouraging more young men to enter the seminary, it must give boys as much time around priests as possible. Girls can distract and intimidate boys, he said.
Carol Schmitt, a member of St. Barnabas Parish in Mazomanie for 15 years and the mother of a female altar server, was among those who took offense. "We sit there and are told that we're all equal in the eyes of God, and then they do this. I was just insulted."
Schmitt said she left the parish and no longer attends a local church.
Others saw the change not as sexist but as critical to the Catholic Church's long-term viability.
"I don't think giving preference to one gender means you're denigrating the other," said Margie Watson, a St. Aloysius member and the mother of three boys and two girls. She said she has seen boys more drawn to being altar servers now that the role is reserved for them.
Dropping lay people as Communion assistants - called Eucharistic ministers - also irked some Catholics. The priests have said that having only their hands handle the wine and wafers, which Catholics believe become the blood and body of Christ when consecrated, brings greater reverence to the practice. Others say the change is an example of a rigidity that erects barriers.
"The people are not considered the church, only the priests are," said Sister Mary Francis Heimann of Madison, a Catholic nun who has been critical of Morlino and has been attending Masses by society priests to check them out. She says the Masses lack joy and are "regressive and depressing."
But Mary Fabian, a St. Aloysius member, said she's found greater meaning and joy in the Eucharist. "We consider it kind of an extra gift that we are always able to receive the sacrament of the Eucharist directly from a priest," she said.
Range of responses
Catholicism is not an easy faith, and those who sign on must be Catholic in everything they do, said Laura Breunig, a St. Aloysius member who praises the priests.
"The people who have left need to do a gut check and ask themselves why they are leaving," she said. "Nothing our priests have ever said or done goes against our Catholic teaching."
Others say the priests have made them feel boxed out of the religion.
"It's Catholic with a capital 'C,' but it's not Christianity," said Joan Weiss, a former member of St. Aloysius. "It's all the rules and rituals and fancy garments, but it's not 'take care of your neighbor' or 'love one another.'"
Dennis Doyle, a Catholic theologian at the University of Dayton in Ohio, describes the society as having "a dynamic spirit." But this spirit comes with risks, he said. Morlino and the society's priests are willing to fight against cultural trends in the name of purity of doctrine, an approach that is "difficult, at times painful, and pastorally questionable," said Doyle, adding that he hopes the priests "continue to grow and change along with their parishioners."
Morlino remains a fan. Asked whether other priests in the diocese should emulate the society priests, he said, "It's not necessarily that every priest must be like them, so I wouldn't even want to hint at that. Yes, they are exemplary, but many others are, too."