Fr Charis Piccolomini has been evicted from his church even though Rome has yet to rule on his case. Freddy Gray reports on a titanic row AFTER A LONG and bitter standoff, Cardinal Cormac MurphyO’Connor has finally expelled a priest from a large parish in central London.
The Archbishop of Westminster this month told Fr Charis Piccolomini, a long-serving diocesan priest, that he must leave the church of St Anselm and St Celia, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Holborn as soon as possible.
Fr Piccolomini promptly packed his bags and flew to Cyprus for a holiday – he is halfItalian and half-Cypriot – but he is expected to return to London to fight his case.
Fr Piccolomini was appointed to St Anselm’s six years ago by Cardinal Basil Hume. But his aristocratic and occasionally prickly manner has not endeared him to the new regime at Archbishop’s House.
Last summer, the archdiocese told Fr Piccolomini to leave St Anselm’s, and offered him another Westminster parish. The priest, however, steadfastly refused to abandon his flock, and in October appealed to the Vatican against the decision to remove him.
It had been thought that Westminster would wait upon the verdict from Rome before forcing Fr Piccolomini out of his parish. In the event, Westminster officials have pre-empted Rome’s decision by insisting that the priest left this month.
In theory, the Cardinal is perfectly entitled to remove a parish priest from any Westminster parish.
The difficulty is that, until the Holy See rejects Fr Piccolomini’s appeal, he officially remains the parish priest of St Anselm’s according to canon law.
The reason for Fr Piccolomini’s expulsion is uncertain. “The decision to remove a priest is always taken with great care,” said Sir Stephen Wall, the Cardinal’s senior adviser on public affairs. “The reasons are a private matter between the priest and his bishop. This is the case with Fr Charis Piccolomini.” Austen Ivereigh, the Cardinal’s press officer, said: “The Cardinal, in consultation with the other priests of the diocese, took the view that there was sufficient reason to believe it was not appropriate for him to continue as the parish priest of St Anselm and St Celia’s.
“There has been strong effort to find Fr Piccolomini a suitable alternative.” Critics of the archdiocese have accused Westminster officials of inverse snobbery and even “racism” towards Fr Piccolomini, who was educated at Eton and is descended from a distinguished Italian family. Pope Pius II (reigned 1458-64) was a Piccolomini.
It is understood that Fr Piccolomini has many enemies in the archdiocese. He is accused of offending parishioners by berating them in front of the congregation, and is said to be generally unpopular with his fellow priests. One complaint is that he is too fond of reminding people of his papal ancestry.
But parishioners who spoke to The Catholic Herald showed themselves to be strong supporters of their expelled priest.
Jane Elliot, a worshipper at St Anselm’s, was saddened by the loss of Fr Piccolomini. “We have always regarded him with much love and respect and we don’t want to lose him,” she said. “Certainly if we are going to lose him we want know why.” Mike O’Neil, who began attending Mass at St Anselm’s because he was unhappy with his local parish, also showed distress at the priest’s departure. “I am upset to lose him,” he said. “He was a person I wanted to listen to, who gave a good interpretation of the Gospels, and was down to earth.
“He was a priest whom I wanted to follow. I think there is something wrong at root level within the diocese. The guy may have made a few mistakes, but don’t we all?” Another parishioner, who did not wish to be named, described Fr Piccolomini as “a wonderful and holy man”. She said: “I shall always miss him and hold him dear to my heart.” It is said that the choir of St Anselm and St Celia’s, which flourished under Fr Piccolomini’s guidance, is struggling under the new regime.
The acting parish priest of St Anselm’s is Fr David Barnes, a former Anglican clergyman.
Fr Piccolomini has refused to comment because the Vatican has asked him not to talk to the press while his appeal is under consideration.
Fr Alfred Xuereb, a Maltese Jesuit who served alongside Fr Piccolomini in the parish, was also asked to leave St Anselm’s last summer. He returned to the Jesuits in Malta, but is now based at St Mary’s, Croydon, south London. He refused to comment to The Catholic Herald because he said the situation was delicate and he did not want to jeopardise the chances of a his friend’s appeal.
In 2003, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor forced Fr Piccolomini to apologise for comments he made to the press following the discovery of pornographic magazines and images of children in a Catholic primary school.
Fr Piccolomini is reported to have to suggested that the archdiocese tried to cover up the scandal. This infuriated senior figures in the diocese, and may have contributed to the decision to remove him.
Additional reporting: Bess Twiston-Davies