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Deacon Applauds but can't Say “Out of Iraq”  Church Visit #12

By Nick Mottern

On Sunday, March 30, 2008, Martha Conte, Margaret Eberle, Gayle Dunkelberger and I attended St. Bernard’s Roman Catholic Church in White Plains NY in our bannering campaign to encourage clergy to speak out against the US occupation of Iraq.

This was the first time in our visits to Westchester County churches to which we had not been invited that we received applause from the leader of a service, Deacon Dan Pellegrin. This happened not during the service but afterward, as we stood in front of the church with the banner. But we found that although he feels free to condemn the Iraq War from the pulpit, he believes that he is not free to call for US withdrawal. That, he said, would be seen as partisan politics.
We visited the large, brick church, built along the lines of Tuscan architecture, with red tile roofs, on a bright, sunny but chilly morning, attending the 10 a.m. service.

Inside, the place felt vast, a square space at least two stories high with no pillars or other obstructions. It appeared to have a capacity for about 300 parishioners, and although some 120 people attended, they sat throughout the place, making it seem quite full.

The congregation was of all ages, including a crying baby, mostly white and Hispanic with about 10 African-Americans. 

The message for the first Sunday after Easter focused on the disciple Thomas who, the Bible says, would not believe that it was if fact Jesus who reappeared after being crucified until he physically touched Jesus’ wounds. God’s mercy, Deacon Pellegrin said in his sermon, “heals our wounds of disbelief.”  

Deacon Pellegrin showed himself to be a man of openness and good humor, beginning his sermon with a joke about a doubting young man who, visiting his grandfather, expressed concern that the plate he used for breakfast didn’t seem quite clean; and his lunch plate seemed to have a little of breakfast left on it. He asked about this, to be told both times that the plates were “as clean as cold water can get them.” As the boy left the house, his grandfather’s dog started growling at him. His grandfather said, “Be quiet Cold Water.”
The day was also the “Sunday of Divine Mercy”, the deacon said, and “God loves all of us. His mercy is greater than our sins.” He counseled the congregation to extend mercy to others even when this may not seem deserved. “There are people in our lives who need mercy from us.” “Accept mercy from Jesus,” he said, “and pass it on.”
After communion, at the end of the service, during the announcements period, we stood up at the left front corner of the church with a banner that read:

3,800+ U.S. Soldiers Killed - Thousands Wounded
1 Million Iraqis Killed - Millions Displaced

Much of Iraq and Its Culture Have Been DESTROYED
The U.S. has spent $456 billion - $3 Billion from Westchester (County)


There was no utterance of objection from the deacon or the congregation, and the announcements continued. But within about two minutes an usher, a man in his fifties, forcefully grabbed the top edge of the banner and pulled us along the side isle and out the church, saying: “Stay out of the church with that.”

We walked down the long front steps and waited at the bottom, holding up the banner to greet parishioners as they departed.  
After a few minutes, a man in his late 40s or early 50s came out and gave us a guarded thumbs up. As he came down the steps toward us he said that people in “the Administration” don’t have children in Iraq. Another man in his fifties also expressed approval.
A woman, probably in her early 50s, who was smiling in support of our action, said we should know that the Vatican has spoken about the need for peace in Iraq.
But another man, tall with white hair and probably in his mid-60s told us we that while we have a right to hold the banner outside the church, bringing it into the church is a misdemeanor for which we could be arrested. He acted like policeman - who would have liked to arrest us. Another man, walking away with his family, said to us over his shoulder that we should stay out of the church with the banner. He seemed not to want to show us the respect of addressing us directly.
At that point, Deacon Pellegrin came out of the front door and, smiling, applauded softly. He then went back into the church.
We decided to go in to talk with him, folding the banner. We were told at least once as we passed through congregants, heading back to the sacristy, that we shouldn’t have come in with the banner.
Deacon Pellegrin, who is known in the church as “Deacon Dan”, was cordial. In response to our questions, he said that he had spoken from the pulpit a number of times about the need for peace in Iraq. The Pope has also called for peace, he said, so he feels on solid ground. However, he said, going to the next step of calling for US withdrawal would raise the issue of Democrat versus Republican. He implied that this would not be approved by the clergy above him.
Martha asked if the church had a social action committee, and he said it did not, but if we wanted to join the church we would be welcome to start one.
I asked Deacon Pellegrin, who is 60, how he came to be opposed to the war, and he said that it is probably in part because he studied at the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers seminary in the late 1960’s. A number of Maryknoll priests, sisters, brothers and lay missioners have been outspoken on behalf of people in former colonial nations struggling for independence. Some have been killed for it. 
We left the church observing that perhaps because the Pope has spoken for peace in Iraq parishioners think that is sufficient and possibly all that can be done. Certainly this seemed to be the implication of what the woman told us as she was leaving church.
On March 16th, Pope Benedict XVI said:
 “…I make an appeal to the Iraqi people, who for five years have endured the consequences of a war that has provoked upheaval in its civil and social life: Beloved Iraqi people, lift up your heads and let it be you yourselves who, in the first place, rebuild your national life!
“May reconciliation, forgiveness, justice and respect for the civil coexistence of tribes, ethnic groups and religious groups be the solidary way to peace in the name of God.”
The message, as reported by Zenit.org, obviously ignores the roles of the United States, the United Kingdom and other “coalition” members in Iraq from the 2003 invasion forward. In this regard, Pope John Paul II, in his State of the World message in January 2003, dared to be somewhat more on point:
“...what are we to say of the threat of a war which could strike the people of Iraq, the land of the Prophets, a people already sorely tried by more than twelve years of embargo? War is never just another means that one can choose to employ for settling differences between nations. As the Charter of the United Nations Organization and international law itself remind us, war cannot be decided upon, even when it is a matter of ensuring the common good, except as a last option and in accordance with very strict conditions, without ignoring the consequences for the civilian population both during and after the military operations.”
On March 1, 2003, less than three weeks before the invasion of Iraq, BBC reported:
“The Vatican’s peace-making efforts have included recent papal audiences at the Vatican with UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, Tariq Aziz, Iraq’s deputy prime minister, and also the Spanish prime minister, who supports Mr. Bush.

“Now the Pope is sending Cardinal Pio Laghi, a retired Vatican diplomat who was for many years Papal Nuncio in America, with a personal message to Mr. Bush appealing to a peaceful solution to the crisis in Iraq.”