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WATCH NOW: Father Mark White of Martinsville and his supporters hold vigil in Richmond outside Mass from which he was excluded

WATCH NOW: Father Mark White of Martinsville and his supporters hold vigil in Richmond outside Mass from which he was excluded

Father Mark White was not invited by Bishop Barry Knestout to attend Mass of renewal for all priests.

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Father Mark White in front of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Richmond.

RICHMOND -- Father Mark White of Martinsville, along with about 50 supporters, traveled to Richmond on Friday where Bishop Barry Knestout celebrated the ministry of his priests at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart without him.

White was not invited to this annual event because his priestly duties have been suspended by Knestout based on a high-profile difference between the two about White's criticism of church hierarchy in his blog.

And after Friday's trip to the home of the Diocese of Richmond, White said his next stops could be Washington and perhaps even Rome as he continues his fight to resume his priesthood.

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One of the vans leaving for Richmond where supporters for Father Mark held a vigil outside Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Richmond.

Some of White's supporters made the trip Friday in vans, others in their personal vehicles, and after everyone arrived, they gathered at the entrance to the cathedral with signs that read "Justice for Father Mark."

"Usually there is a procession of the priests, and they are greeted by the bishop as they enter," White said. "It doesn't look like that's going to happen this year."

Maybe the presence of White and his supporters caused a change in the way the celebration was carried out. White surmised it may have been because of restrictions required by the coronavirus.

Regardless, the sidewalk that is normally lined with more than a hundred priests, White among them, was empty, and a tent had been erected in front of an opened back door to provide a means of entry that was mostly out of sight.

"We go to Richmond today because we hope and pray that our church could live as a loving family, not a cruel and faceless bureaucracy," White wrote in a blog that is at the core of the contentiousness between priest and bishop. "We will keep a peaceful vigil of Christian love, hoping for a good outcome.

"We focus on justice and openness in our beloved Church."

White has been removed by Knestout as priest of St. Francis of Assisi in Rocky Mount and St. Joseph in Martinsville because of White's personal blog, to which White has been contributing for almost 12 years. It has drawn a million eyeballs to commentaries on a variety of topics, including highly critical comments about how the Catholic Church has handled cases of sexual abuse by priests.

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Father Mark supporters holding vigil outside Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Richmond.

Late last year Knestout insisted White take down the blog from the web and cease his contributions to it. White complied, but when the coronavirus pandemic hit, he asked to be allowed to resume his online writings as a means of keeping in communication with his parishioners.

When Knestout failed to respond to White’s request, White returned his blog to the web and began writing again.

As a result, over the next few months Knestout removed White as the priest, and, when White failed to relocate to Abingdon for a new assignment serving in the prisons, Knestout stripped White of his priestly duties.

Message from the bishop

Bishop Barry Knestout

Bishop Barry C. Knestout

Knestout responded late Saturday to a request for comment on White's uninvited presence in Richmond:

"During this Mass, I ask the lay faithful to pray that our priests become more like our High Priest and Good Shepherd, the teacher and servant of all, and so be a genuine sign of Christ's loving presence among you.

"I ask those who have joined Father White to pray for him and for all priests and bishops that they recommit themselves to be a genuine sign of Christ's loving presence."

White hired a canon lawyer and made his complaint known to the Vatican, only to have it dismissed without being considered because White failed to name his lawyer the “procurator” in the process.

White has personally appealed to the Vatican to reconsider his complaint, but the letter of dismissal he received states the allowed window for registering a proper complaint has closed.

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Joe Kernan, parishioner at St. Francis of Assisi in Rocky Mount drives one of the vans with supporters for Father Mark to Richmond. 

'Going to be a martyr'

Joe Kernan is a parishioner, and on Friday this 82-year-old logging truck driver was driving one of the vans headed to Richmond.

"I used to be an airline pilot," Kernan said. "I retired in '92, and several years ago a neighbor told me he knew someone that needed a logging truck driver.

"I said, 'I can do that.'

Kernan has lived in Washington D.C., not far from where White grew up, and said he feels a kinship with White. He also has a unique understanding of White's predicament.

"Father Mark is going to end up being a martyr," Kernan said. "That's all there is to it.

"The older priests in the Richmond Diocese are sympathetic to Father Mark, but the younger ones won't do or say anything that will displease the bishop."

On to Rome?

The event held on Friday in Richmond is the Chrism Mass, a time when the priests are invited to renew their commitment of service during Mass and receive the prayers and support from the faithful.

Only those invited were allowed to enter the cathedral and witness the event, but the website of the Richmond Diocese described what was to occur:

"Bishop Knestout will bless three oils that will be used throughout the diocese in the coming year; the oil of the catechumens … the oil of the sick … and the sacred chrism, or consecrated oil,” which is used during the confirmation and the ordination of priests."

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Priests invited to Friday's Mass at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Richmond walk past Father Mark White. 

While Knestout was inside the cathedral blessing the oils, White was outside blessing his flock.

"Do not disrupt this service," White said. "There is nothing to be accomplished by being disruptive."

White spoke to the group of supporters in front of the majestic Cathedral of the Sacred Heart late Friday as the sun beamed through the trees casting shadows along the steps leading to the entrance of the church where the sounds of Mass could be heard wafting through the air outside.

"I've been asked, where do we go from here?” White said. "We will petition the bishop again to sit down and talk about this, and if he does not agree, then we will go to him, to his office.

"And if he doesn't see us then, we will go to Washington [to see Papal Nucio Archbishop Christophe Pierre].

"And if he refuses to meet with us, then we go to Rome."

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The Mass celebrated at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Richmond was by invitation only.

UPDATE: This article was updated with comments from the Bishop.

Bill Wyatt is a reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. He can be reached at 276-638-8801, Ext. 236. Follow him @billdwyatt

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