Tim Townsend

Tim Townsend is religion writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Articles By This Author

Navy Chaplains to Receive More Training on Sexual Abuse

by Tim Townsend 10-07-2013
Photo by Christian Gooden/St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Kristen Leslie, (left), a professor at Eden Theological Seminary. Photo by Christian Gooden/St. Louis Post-Dispatch

ST. LOUIS — Kristen Leslie began her 2003 book, When Violence Is No Stranger, with a verse from Psalms, a nod to her training as a theologian.

“It is not enemies who taunt me — I could bear that; it is not adversaries who deal insolently with me — I could hide from them. But it is you, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend…”

The book’s subject was acquaintance rape, and it got the attention of a chaplain at the Air Force Academy. The school was then reeling from a Pentagon report indicating that 7 percent of its cadets reported being the victims of rape or attempted rape. Nearly 90 percent of the perpetrators were their own classmates.

Leslie, now a professor of pastoral theology and care at Eden Theological Seminary in Webster Groves, Mo., was invited to Colorado to consult with academy leaders on how to train Air Force chaplains to deal with sexualized violence on campus.

Now, a decade later, the U.S. Navy has come knocking.

Mother Searches for God’s Purpose in the Midst of Grief

by Tim Townsend 07-11-2013
Photo courtesy RNS.

Sarah Decareaux feeds her children Elise, 2, and Finn, 4, at their home in Millstadt, Ill. Photo courtesy RNS.

Sarah Decareaux was lying on the cold, concrete floor of a barn.

She closed her eyes, curled her knees into her chest, and told herself that what was happening wasn’t real.

She felt claustrophobic. She was having trouble breathing. Her vision tunneled, the same way it had when she’d been in labor. She could see only a few feet in front of her.

Gay Catholic Priest Comes Out to an Uncertain Future

by Tim Townsend 05-29-2013

Rev. Gary Meier re-published his book on being gay in the Catholic church last week. Aleksey Klints/shutterstock.com

On the campus of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, the Rev. Gary Meier addressed a congregation of sorts — people who wanted to hear what the Roman Catholic priest had been thinking since, nearly a year ago, he last stood before a flock.

That was last June, when Meier told his parishioners at Saints Teresa and Bridget Church in north St. Louis that he would take a leave of absence “to discern what ministry God was calling me to do.”

Meier, 49, had told his archbishop that he could no longer teach the Catholic church’s stance on homosexuality.

“I have tried over the years to reconcile my silence as a gay priest with that of the Church’s increasingly anti-gay stance. I have been unsuccessful,” Meier writes in his book “Hidden Voices: Reflections of a Gay, Catholic Priest.”

Is Grief a Mental Illness? New Diagnostic Changes Say 'Maybe'

by Tim Townsend 05-21-2013
Illustration of woman in despair, Vedran Vidovic / Shutterstock.com

Illustration of woman in despair, Vedran Vidovic / Shutterstock.com

Each year 90,000 parents in the U.S. confront the profound suffering that follows the death of a child or adolescent.

Some of those rely on faith to help them through their grief. Others look to psychiatrists, who offer therapy or prescribe antidepressants to help ease their patients’ pain.

On Saturday, in a move that could add to the tension between religion and science, the American Psychiatric Association changed a controversial diagnosis regarding how grief relates to mental health.

The change “will affect every single person in the country, because at some point we’re all going to be bereaved,” said Joanne Cacciatore, founder of the Center for Loss and Trauma in Phoenix and a professor of social work at Arizona State University.

At issue are questions as fundamental as how long we grieve, what clinical label we assign to sadness, and when grief transforms into mental illness.

The modification also rekindles long-standing debates about whether spirituality or medicine offers the best pathway out of bereavement.

Catholics Try Their Hand at Old-Fashioned Evangelism

by Tim Townsend 04-25-2013

Marty Scrima (left) and Jim Wedick are members of the Holy Infant Catholic Church evangelization team in MO. Photo courtesy RNS.

On a recent rainy Saturday, about 125 Catholics packed a basement conference room, many of them older, most of them lay people. Many were representing their parishes.

They gathered here to learn how to spread the faith, a concept that is both fundamental to Christianity and nearly foreign to modern Roman Catholics.

For the first hour of the conference, Kenneth Livengood, a parishioner at Holy Trinity Parish in St. Ann, Mo., detailed one way — door-to-door evangelization, a missionary strategy more familiar to Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Tax or Fee? Pastors Push Back Against City’s ‘Annual Registration Fee’

by Tim Townsend 04-15-2013
American flag and church steeple, Bobkeenan Photography / Shutterstock.com

American flag and church steeple, Bobkeenan Photography / Shutterstock.com

At issue was a new $100 “annual registration fee” that the city imposed on churches and nonprofits. Most of the fee will go toward building safety and fire inspections, and $25 toward administration costs.

But East St. Louis pastors say Mayor Alvin Parks is playing a game of semantics, using the word “fee” where “tax” is more accurate.

They say they only learned about the new fee when they began receiving letters from the city, warning that the churches would be turned over to a collection agency if they didn’t pay. Nonpayment, the letter said, “may reflect negatively on your credit record, lien on property and other remedies that the State of Illinois allows.”

Those building new churches pay fees for licenses and permits, just like anyone else putting up a new structure. But churches and nonprofits don’t pay taxes.

Newtown ‘Debacle’ Reopens Old Wounds for Missouri Synod

by Tim Townsend 02-14-2013
RNS photo courtesy LCMS.

The Rev. Matthew Harrison, president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. RNS photo courtesy LCMS.

ST. LOUIS — A decision by the leader of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod to censure a pastor for participating in a prayer service for victims of the Sandy Hook school massacre has reopened old wounds for an often politically divided denomination.

The Rev. Matthew Harrison asked the Rev. Rob Morris, pastor of Christ the King Lutheran Church in Newtown, Conn., to apologize for participating in a public interfaith vigil with President Obama two days after a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at the town’s elementary school.

Morris apologized and Harrison accepted, but the exchange sparked a media firestorm with charges that the 2.4 million-member denomination was intolerant, insensitive or both. On Sunday, Harrison said he made a bad situation even worse.

“As president of The Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod, I take responsibility for this debacle,” he said. “I handled it poorly, multiplying the challenges. I increased the pain of a hurting community.”

Catholic Priests Pushed to Become Better Preachers

by Tim Townsend 11-26-2012

ST. LOUIS -- As Drew Burkemper got up to preach, the weight of his task was evident. His classmate at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary, Adam Maus, had just pretty much killed it.

Like Burkemper, Maus and other Catholic seminarians were told to prepare and deliver to his class a homily for an imaginary event.

Maus’ scenario had been a wedding between a 42-year-old bride with four children and her groom, who had recently returned to the Catholic Church. The nine other seminarians in the room loved his approach, showering him in glowing feedback.

Burkemper was up next, faced with a preaching scenario that would challenge any 23-year-old priest-to-be. His homily was for a marriage between a Catholic man and a Jewish woman.

As he began, he worked hard on his delivery, as his professor had taught him. "Father Wester is big on delivering the homily,” Burkemper said later. “Not just reading it.”

The Rev. Don Wester, pastor of All Saints Catholic Church in St. Peters, Mo., is Kenrick’s lecturer of homiletics -- the art of preaching.

Vatican Lifts Suspension of Priest who Altered Prayers at Mass

by Tim Townsend 09-28-2012

An Illinois priest who was forced out of his parish by his bishop for improvising prayers during Mass has had his suspension reversed by the Vatican.

The Vatican decided in favor of the Rev. William Rowe on one of three counts, saying Bishop Edward Braxton of Belleville, Ill., had not followed the proper procedure.

The Vatican's reversal means he can celebrate Mass in another diocese, Rowe said, as long as he has the local bishop's approval. Others, however, disputed that interpretation of the decree. 

In a letter that accompanied the document, Monsignor Antonio Neri, an undersecretary of the Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy, said Rowe could only return to celebrating Mass “when you shall have acknowledged your error and formally promise to dispose yourself to adhere to the rights and rubrics of the sacred liturgy set down by the lawful ecclesiastical authorities.”

The Vatican sided with the bishop on two counts: upholding his removal from the parish, and agreeing with the bishop's withdrawal of the priest's "faculties" — or his license to practice ministry under church law.

Missouri Remains Land of Religious Promise for Mormons

by Tim Townsend 09-21-2012
RNS photo by J.B. Forbes/St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The Missouri Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. RNS photo by J.B. Forbes/St. Louis Post-Dispatch

In 1831, Mormon founder Joseph Smith declared that the righteous would gather in Independence, Mo., to greet the Second Coming of Jesus Christ — just one of the prophecies that estranged his faith from traditional Christianity.

Thousands of converted Mormons moved from Ohio and upstate New York to claim their New Jerusalem. Disputes with Missourians led to a bloody Mormon War that ended only when the state's governor issued an "extermination order" to expel Smith's followers.

Today, few places are better to contemplate the evolving — but still uncertain  relationship between Mormonism and the country where it was founded.

On the one hand, Missouri symbolizes how far Mormons have come. At least 66,000 Mormons now live in the state, more than triple the number of just three decades ago. Most recently, the LDS church has built a temple in Kansas City, Mo., near the epicenter of the Mormon War.

But Missouri also serves to highlight the intractable differences between mainstream Christianity and Mormon theology.

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