Monday, March 31, 2003

TROY - A priest took preaching too far for some parishioners at Sacred Heart Church over the weekend when he used his homily to voice displeasure over the war in Iraq.

The Rev. Gary Mercure told the congregation at four Masses Saturday and Sunday that the war in Iraq was evil, immoral and contradictory to Christian doctrine.

According to those who attended any of the services, Mercure called for parishioners to not support President Bush, and said the U.S. should work closer with the rest of the world.

As many as 60 congregants responded by leaving the church at one of the masses, several yelling comments in the priest's direction and heckling him on the way out.

Clem LaPietra, a Troy resident attending a mass for his father, was stunned when Mercure began the homily.

"Father Gary, I think he went a little bit over the edge," LaPietra said. "He said how morally wrong the U.S. was. He told us to remember the Germans, and the English, and the Roman Empire. A lot of the older gentlemen got up and left. Someone stood up and told him he was out of line. There was some heckling."

Rose Romano, a Wynantskill resident, attended the 8 a.m. mass on Sunday, the third time the homily was given. She claimed that Mercure called Americans bullies, and said the people shouldn't support the president.

Romano said the comments were so shocking she had to catch her breath. Three people directly in front of her left the Mass immediately.

"I was stunned. After a few minutes I was numb," she said. "I'm going to church for my own welfare and a place to pray. That's no place for a political platform."

Mercure said about three people walked out of that service, and said between 50 and 60 walked out of the following Mass at 11 a.m. on Sunday.

Mercure said he was talking about the Ten Commandments, particularly, "Thou shalt not kill," and knew that some of his parishioners might not be of the same opinion. At that point, Mercure said, he offered everyone a chance to leave.

He said he also prefaced the homily by saying that, "we love those serving and want them out of harm's way."

While the war is a political matter, Mercure said it is a moral issue as well. He insists he was not using the pulpit as a platform for his own views, but as a servant of God.

"They don't have to think the way I think," he said. "But as a preacher of God, it is my role to enhance life, to bring more life, and God's life, to people."

He also dismissed the idea that he preached anti-American sentiments or judged the morality of the president. He said he used the phrase "our government" several times, but stopped short of making moral judgments on anyone.

He said it was also his privilege as a patriot to speak out against the war, and his duty as a priest to do so. Mercure said he received many calls Monday, most of them positive, thanking him for the sermon.

Troy resident John Browne was one of those who thanked him.

"I'm a veteran of the Philippines and was a prisoner of war for three-and-a-half years in Japan," Browne said. "The reason we fought over there is so people could do what they did in church yesterday. I went up to him afterward and said, 'I'm proud of you father.'"

News of the homily traveled fast, as calls were made to The Record Monday saying kids were being taken out of the Sacred Heart School by angry parents. Mercure said he was unaware of any children leaving the school.

The school principal sent a letter home to parents Monday explaining the issue to parents. While the letter was vague, it did say that all the school teaches is for the children to pray for peace.

Albany Roman Catholic Diocese spokesman Rev. Kenneth Doyle said he had heard of Mercure's homily, but did not want to address it specifically. He did repeat the church's stance on the war.

"I don't know exactly what Father Gary said," Doyle responded when asked for comment. "The position of the Vatican and American Bishops has been very clear against the war. In the church's mind there has not been the sort of imminent threat that would justify a preemptive and unilateral strike.

"Now that the war has begun," Doyle added, "I believe the important thing is to pray that it ends quickly, and with as few casualties as possible and that innocent lives be spared."

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