Priests’ presence at Montana Trump rally causes online stir among Catholics

Posted at 9:19 PM, Jul 09, 2018
and last updated 2018-07-09 23:19:48-04

President Donald Trump’s Montana campaign rally has come and gone, but it’s still generating plenty of online interest, especially among Treasure State Catholics.

The President touched on topics ranging from immigration to tax reform during his more than an hour long speech at Montana ExpoPark on July 5.

After the dust settled, it was some attendees who were seated in the glare of the television cameras who got much of the attention.

Trump came to Great Falls to rally support for Republican U.S. Senate candidate Matt Rosendale. His speech energized a packed house, while also stirring up social media with the presence of four prominently-placed Catholic priests.

“I in no way intended my presence to be a full-fledged endorsement from the Catholic Church for the president,” said Father Garrett Nelson, vocation director for the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings. “I don’t even stand by all he President’s policies. The purpose for me being there is I’m pro-life.”

Nelson was one of two priests from the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings at the rally. The other was Father Ryan Erlenbush of Corpus Christi Parish in Great Falls. Also in attendance were Father Christopher Lebsock and Father Kevin Christofferson of the Diocese of Helena.

Bishop Michael Warfel of Great Falls said he was not aware the priests were attending and that the diocese has a clear policy on political activity.

“We’re not supposed to be involved in partisan political activity,” said Warfel. “Its allowable to be involved as a private citizen, but not in a partisan nature.”

Nelson has known Rosendale for two years. When he got the call about getting V.I.P. passes, he said he had no idea the priests would be so strategically displayed.

“When we got in there, the event organizers said, ‘Follow us’ and so we went up to the front and they seated us right directly in the front row,” said Nelson.

In a statement on Facebook, Warfel said the priests understand they should not have been dressed in clerical attire and they apologized for upsetting anyone.

“My priesthood is my identity, it’s not just a job, it’s who I am,” said Nelson. “I was kind of weighing back and forth ‘Do I try and hide that or do I just be who I am?’ In hindsight that was probably a foolish decision because it could be used for political advancement or political gain on the part of somebody else.”

Warfel said upon review by him and others, he doesn’t see the priests clapping at what many perceived as disparaging remarks by the president. Both the Bishop and Father Garrett would like to see less social media backlash and more civil discourse.

“Name calling, misrepresenting people doesn’t help us move forward as a country,” said Warfel.

“There needs to be the curbing of emotions and the actual engaging in what the ideas are and the proper solution comes through the exchange of ideas, not just digging into our trenches,” said Nelson.

Warfel said Father Nelson is doing an excellent job.  

Monsignor Kevin O’Neill, the administrator of the Diocese of Helena issued a statement Saturday, citing the guidelines for pastors and parishes on advocacy and political action from April of 2011.

The document states: “Religious leaders should avoid taking positions on candidates or participating in political party matters even while acting in their individual capacity. Although not prohibited, it may be difficult to separate their personal activity from their public role as a Church leader.”

To read Bishop Warfel’s full response, please visit the Roman Catholic Diocese of Great Falls-Billings Facebook page

Reverend Kevin Christofferson addressed the backlash in a statement posted on the Lake County Roman Catholic Facebook page.

Msgr. Kevin O’Neill issued a statement, which can be viewed at the Roman Catholic Diocese of Helena Facebook page.

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