Father Richard Sparks was ordained a Paulist Catholic priest in 1978. I’m not sure when he was first demonized; labeled a heretic but I do know that sometime in late October or November he was asked to leave his position at Old Saint Mary’s Church.
I first met him there. Since my husband and I decided to go “green” and give up the family auto I was looking for a church easily accessed by public transportation and close to the IGo spot on South Roosevelt, where we rent the occasional car. Old Saint Mary’s was convenient to bus, rapid transit and our favorite grocery store, Trader Joe.
My husband is non – Catholic so convincing him to sit through what he describes as a “regimented” service was no easy task. The original introduction to Old Saint Mary’s proved to be well…delightful. First, mass was teaming with little kids. Both my husband and I are natural baby magnet grandparent types. I don’t think the tykes would have been enough to convince my husband to accompany me to mass more than once a month or less but Father Dick Sparks sealed the deal.
Father Dick is an unassuming, sort of cherubic, scarce hair flying and eyes a twinkle kind of guy. You immediately sense an intensely intelligent mind. It didn’t surprise us to find that Father Dick is a noted speaker, lecturer and author of several books covering bio-medical ethics and morality. His sermons were thoughtful, lacked the fire and brimstone that I really detest and often were downright humorous. As far as we were concerned he was a rock star. Our perception was further cemented one Christmas Eve.
Old Saint Mary’s Church runs an elementary school. Father Dick was saying the family mass that Christmas Eve. As the time for the sermon approached he asked all the little children to come forward and join him at the foot of the altar. The children skittered up and were instructed to take seats on the floor in a big arc around Father Dick. He held up a coloring book for all to see as he explained that when he was nervous or upset he colored. This particular coloring book was about the life of Christ. He showed the congregation his works of art, pages of pictures clearly designed to entertain a child, all colored, each within the lines and thoughtfully shaded. Father Dick drew the attention of the crowd though he appeared to be talking directly to the little ones gathered at his feet. “You notice Jesus’ complexion”, he began. “You see he is brown. There were no blue eyed blonds in the middle east at the time Jesus lived.” You could hear a pin drop. The majority of the congregation is white as is Father Dick. There is a healthy mix of interracial couples, Asians and blacks (that includes my family). Don’t get me wrong. The hush was accompanied by an encircling sense of peace. I scanned the faces of those close to me, across the aisle and onto the other side of the church. There were smiles and nods aplenty. I’m certain I didn’t imagine this because at the end of his sermon there was a standing ovation.
He spoke about tolerance and inclusion and the love Jesus had for all people. Jesus used the parable of the Good Samaritan as embodiment of inclusion and tolerance. It was a wonderful sermon and very appropriate as a learning experience for child and adult alike.
This sermon was only one of many that drew my family to the parish. We were shocked when after a Thanksgiving vacation to Atlanta we attended mass to find that Father Dick had been let go. We were crushed. So far we have not been able to find out the exact nature of his dismissal. One of the parishioners told us Father Dick made a remark to one of the parents at the Halloween party that she found offensive. She was dressed as a little girl. That’s all the information we had except that the parent who spoke to us didn’t think Father’s dismissal was called for.
The Catholic Church is under siege regarding impropriety and priests. That might explain the parish “no tolerance” of Father’s remark no matter how innocent his intent. The incident did lead us to further investigate our favorite priest on the web. What we found inspired this blog and may well provoke a sequel or two.
Father Dick Sparks is a heretic! That’s what the Catholic Citizens. Org of Illinois said in an article published in February 2003. Their reasons? Below is an excerpt from a letter they sent to the bishops of California.
“We are writing to you about Fr. Richard Sparks CSP, pastor of Holy Spirit/Newman Hall, Berkeley CA in the Diocese of Oakland. His infamous history of dissent from Catholic Moral teachings, his years exporting his disparagement and rejection of Magisterium (teaching authority of the Catholic Church), his “studied ambiguity” (to use Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s term), and his repeated, scandalous, and blasphemous presentations sexualizing the Holy Family have been thoroughly documented”. The blathering continues to include some examples of abhorrent statements made by Fr. Sparks. To wit things like Jesus had to go through puberty. Maybe he had a date with Mary Magdalene, who by the way was not a prostitute. She got labeled with that moniker by Pope Gregory in 591.
The good Catholics composing this letter to the bishops were horrified that Fr. Sparks suggested Joseph and Mary finally did consummate their marriage after the birth of Christ. Why did he think that? Well there is all that mention in the bible about Jesus’ brothers and sisters. In fact, as Father Dick goes on to explain, in Jewish Cannon Law Joseph was entitled to an annulment if the marriage was not consummated.
They dinged Father Dick for commenting that he liked women’s breasts. Note he didn’t say he liked little girls or boys for that matter. He didn’t say he indulged his like of women’s breasts and dishonored his vow of celibacy. He did make himself very human.
The authors of the letter were incensed that Father did not condemn homosexuality in his address to a group of LGBT individuals. He stated, “If you’re celibate, committed to a partner in a relationship, or playing the field-preferably not promiscuously – if you’re young or old, whatever your orientation, put yourself and your gifts at the service of God and humanity” This last statement sounds to me like one Jesus would have made but I guess it didn’t cut the mustard as Catholic enough for the group petitioning the bishops to oust Father Dick.
I stopped on my way out of church the Sunday we discovered Father Dick Sparks was fired and asked one of the ushers if he had more information about why this had gone down. His reply was that Father Richard Sparks had been a problem for many years and he was relieved that he was gone. I proudly responded. “I’m not and it may be impossible for me to get my husband to come here again.” In fact, we are continuing our research about Father Dick. So far I still believe this is a man dedicated to inclusion and asking all of us to put aside petty differences and admit we are all God’s children or Allah’s or Yahweh’s.