Ten words in black lettering hung on a sign outside a Catholic church in Buffalo earlier this week.
“Jesus had 2 dads and he turned out just fine,” read the changeable-letter sign outside SS. Columba-Brigid Catholic Church.
Many interpreted the message as supportive of same-sex marriage, which would contradict the long-held teachings of the Catholic Church.
The Rev. Roy T. Herberger, pastor of the church at Eagle and Hickory streets just south of Clinton Street, had the message taken down Tuesday.
The message was one of about 10 that he found online several months back, he said.
“I just Googled ‘funny church signs,’ ” the priest said by phone Wednesday.
Herberger said the only message behind the sign was to provide encouragement to many in the congregation who grow up outside a nuclear family, but with birth parents, stepparents or sometimes others. Children who grow up in that situation often have difficulty, he said. “My only purpose was to say, ‘Look, hang in there. People understand what you’re going through. Don’t give up on yourself,’ ” he said.
Herberger never thought about another meaning that many see in the message, which some interpret as being suggestive about gay couples raising children, he said.
There was no innuendo or hidden meaning, he said.
But that didn’t stop an outpouring of phone calls to the parish and the diocese once the sign went up last week.
Bishop Richard J. Malone of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo spent “a good deal of time Monday afternoon fielding phone calls from around the world, from callers protesting the contents of the sign,” a diocesan spokesman said.
“As soon as I learned of this sign, I took immediate action to have it removed,” Malone said in a statement. “The pastor of SS. Columba-Brigid Parish told me that the ‘2 Dads’ were meant to refer to a child who has both a father and stepfather. There are several children in his parish who have both a father and stepfather. However, given the potential for the meaning of this message to be misunderstood and even perceived in a heretical way, it was immediately removed.”
The guest book on the parish’s website got 22 of its 70 postings since Monday, nearly all of which were highly critical of the message. The posts called it everything from “an abomination” and “blasphemous” to “heretical” and “an outrageous mockery of the Catholic faith.”
Herberger has been outspoken in the past. As far back as 1987, he has called for the diocese to sell its mansion on Oakland Place, which serves as the bishop’s residence, as well as meeting and social space. Herberger stood by that position in the midst of the diocese’s closure of schools and churches that began about a decade ago.
Herberger is not one to shy away from what others see as controversial statements, said Margaret McGrath, a member of the church’s parish council and director of its Family Resource and Advocacy Center.
“Father Roy is the true spirit of the Catholic Church. He is Pope Francis among us,” she said, referring to the global leader of the Catholics whom many observers view as an advocate for a more flexible and open church.
Herberger recently gave a homily encouraging the church’s flock to be accepting of all loving relationships, McGrath said, and she saw the sign as an extension of that pulpit message.
McGrath acknowledged that her initial reaction was like that of others who viewed the message as controversial, but she prayed about it and said she believes that Herberger was encouraging people to look at relationships of other people joined in love by God.
“We all have two dads – we have God the Father, and we have our earthly father,” McGrath said.
Petra Fontanez, another parishioner, said she viewed the message through her own life experience of once being a single mother, having children by two different fathers and not feeling accepted by the church.
SS. Columba-Brigid has made her feel welcome, said Fontanez, who is now married. “I think it’s great,” she said of the sign. “That’s actually what I like from this church.”
Acceptance of the sign’s message was not universal among parishioners, however.
Esather Alfons has been coming to SS. Columba-Brigid for three years. While she feels at home at the parish – which she called “very lovely” – she found the sign’s message troubling because it differed from what appears in the Bible, said Alfons, who is originally from South Sudan.
The sign that replaced “Jesus had 2 dads” outside the church Wednesday was a lot less controversial – “Walmart isn’t the only saving place. Welcome.”
Herberger, 73, who said he plans to retire from the priesthood in two years, agreed that he’s not afraid to speak out.
“I’ll never give up on that one,” he said about the issue of the diocese’s mansion, calling it “still a bee in my bonnet.”
In a Buffalo News article in 2012 about churches using outdoor signs to communicate with passers-by, Herberger told a reporter that he hadn’t heard directly from anyone who visited his church because of any message on its sign.
“But,” he said at the time, “I’m sure there are results.”