BC Seal Boston College Magazine Winter 2001
current issue
Linden Lane
Q and A
Works and Days
Letters to the Editor
BCM Home
Contact BCM
Coming Events
Answering the call.  The Church must change

photo of Jack Connors, Jr. '63


During the early days of this calendar year, when the abuse scandals first appeared in the news, I was asked by a reporter if my faith had been shaken. I answered him then as I tell you now: It has taken me 60 years to get my faith where it is today, and it is unshakable.

I did not come here this evening to dwell on the past. I have been openly critical of the manner in which the Archdiocese of Boston has handled the sexual abuse of young boys. The leadership of the archdiocese made a conscious decision to protect priests who were preying on innocent children over a period of many years. Those Church leaders who have made a series of bad judgments may continue to hold onto their titles, but they will be leaders in title only.

A majority of Catholics are moving forward—witness this crowd. Our Church is 2,000 years old, and, like most things that have been closed up for a long time, it's gotten a little stuffy in here. When theologians are silenced, when innocent priests are ousted without an opportunity to defend themselves, when the laity is kept from substantive participation, the Church fails to pursue the truth. We need to open the windows. We need to let some fresh air in, and we need to stop sweeping our secrets under the Orientals.

We need to listen to the priests, the pastors, the nuns, the brothers, those on the front line. We need to hear the faithful. We need to close the one-way streets and build two-way streets. The Church exercises great power, but that power must be directed to serving, teaching, and healing, as opposed to intimidating or silencing.

Those in power need to be more thoughtful about dealing with those who have little or no power. We must create a culture of freedom. I'm reminded of the often-quoted scene from the movie A Few Good Men, where Tom Cruise, playing Lieutenant J.G. Daniel Kaffee, faces off against Jack Nicholson, playing Marine Colonel Nathan Jessep. "I want the truth," Cruise yells. "You can't handle the truth," Nicholson fires back. Well, I believe we can handle the truth. Our Church has survived 2,000 years of good times and bad, of saints and sinners, and I believe there is no problem we cannot resolve if we, the leadership and the laity, work together honestly and in the spirit of the teachings of Jesus Christ. As St. Francis of Assisi said, "Leadership does not require ordination."

When I was growing up in nearby Roslindale, I studied the Baltimore Catechism in Sunday school at the Holy Name Church in West Roxbury. In the Baltimore Catechism, the definition of the Church is very simple. It says the Church is the congregation of all those who profess the faith of Christ, partake of the same sacraments, and are governed by their lawful pastors under one visible head. In short, the Church is the people—the congregation of all those who profess the faith, you and me. It is not a building. It is not a piece of real estate.

Audience memberI was also taught that the mission of the Church is to serve, not to be served. Perhaps the most powerful example is in the Gospel of John when Jesus washes the disciples' feet, and he says, "I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth. No servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him." My heart aches for the 98 percent of the clergy who have been wounded and embarrassed by the acts of a minority. The best of them are exemplified by a quote from Fr. Peter Knott, an English Jesuit and past chaplain at Eton, about 20 miles west of London: "Some may think of a priest's work in terms of what can be measured by attendance at Mass and the number of people knocking on his door. In fact the real value of the priest is something hidden and has more to do with the kind of person he is rather than anything that can be quantified. Nothing much happens most of the time. He's just around, available, trying to listen. For a priest there is no such thing as success. Success belongs to the world of sport, to banks, and to business. It has no place in the precincts of the sacred. The priest is sowing, never reaping. So there can be no trophies. His work is to plow the furrow, open up the earth to the seed, trusting that in God's good time the harvest will come in. This is the poetry and privilege of the priesthood."

Coming from the world of business, I think in terms of goals and objectives and strategies. One very simple goal, a goal that reflects Fr. Leahy's decision to convene these sessions, is to make the world, your world, our world, a better place, with justice and kindness toward all. We need to get back to work. But we need a model for the leadership of the Church and the members of the faithful to use as a basis for working together.

Let me offer one for your consideration. There was once a 110-year-old Catholic institution that served its local community very well. Governed by the clergy, with no lay representation, its endowment was $4 million. In 2002 that same institution continues to serve its community. Only now, that community has grown to include the entire United States and several foreign countries as well. Today it is governed by 42 trustees, only eight of whom are clergy. Its endowment has grown from $4 million to $1.1 billion, and it has become one of the premier Catholic institutions in America. That institution is Boston College. For the past 30 years, this University has been governed by a predominantly lay board of trustees, who were given the opportunity to share their expertise to help the University become more successful. Does anyone believe that Boston College was better off in the 1950s? Does anyone believe that it is less Catholic today? Does anybody believe that its impact is smaller? I would suggest that this 30-year work-in-progress provides all of the data we need to model our future journey.

To adapt this model of governance within the Church would, I believe, transform the Church's ability to carry out its mission in modern society. It would not be us versus them, it would be all together, for the greater good. This needn't seem a painful necessity. Rather, it should be viewed as an opportunity.

I once heard a distinguished Jesuit speak of the autonomy of nature. We're all familiar with the power of nature. We all know "that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." We all know water runs downhill. When a child is born, in addition to the pleasure parents reap, a mother and father also have the responsibility to protect and raise that child—to feed it, to nurture it, to clothe it, and to teach it, understanding that someday the child will leave and have a life of his or her own. If a parent imposes too many restriction, or is otherwise overbearing, that child's development into adulthood could well be impaired. Control, at a certain point, is unhealthy.

The Church, or at least some of the hierarchy, is trying to effect too much control in too many instances. We need to trust. We need to respect. And we need to allow people to exercise good judgment so that people can learn. Maybe they will make mistakes. But one of the best ways to grow is to learn from our mistakes. It is the autonomy of nature.

At a Sunday service this summer in Brewster, on Cape Cod, a priest said during his homily, and I'm paraphrasing, "You and others like you have been listening to me give homilies for 45 years. It's time for you to take back your Church. You sit and you listen. It's time for you to stand up and to speak." I heard this as a call for help. As the Church moves forward, some very difficult decisions have to be made. The world has changed. If the Church's mission is to serve, then the Church must change as well. The Church needs to decide how we will replenish the ranks of our seminaries—whom we will select and how we will train people for the priesthood. The Church needs to decide about more meaningful roles for women. Making difficult decisions is the first responsibility of leadership.

A few months ago I received a powerful letter from a parish priest. He shared with me how difficult his vocation had become. He wrote, "It's not easy being a priest today, then again He never said it would be, did He? It wasn't easy for Him. Look at what He had to put up with. And didn't He promise much the same for those who would follow in His footsteps? Who was it that said that we're not expected to love suffering but we are expected to love Christ's suffering, and that the value of the cross isn't measured by what we see of it, but what we bear of it? Easy to say, hard to live."

Our faith has lasted 2,000 years and today we, you and I, are its stewards. We are the future. I am passionately optimistic that we can build a better Church, a more effective Church, in the 21st century. A Church that rejects the arrogance of power and embraces humility. A Church that welcomes new thinking. A Church that is accountable and a Church that will have more than enough resources to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, care for the sick, treat the elderly with dignity, and help the poor and the innocent. It's time to get back to work.

A trustee of Boston College, Jack Connors, Jr. '63 is founding partner, chairman, and chief executive officer of the marketing communications firm Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos, Inc.

Photos: Jack Connors, Jr. '63 (top) and audience member. By Lee Pellegrini

Top of page


. . .
. » Flight Plan
  »  The once and future Church
. .
Terms of engagement
. .
An unsettled realm
. .
The challenge of sex
. .
Answering the call
. .
The new American Church
. .
  »  Gasson confidential

Special Section:
The Church in the 21st Century

. . .
  » The Church in the 21st Century
Alumni Home
BC Home

© Copyright 2002 The Trustees of Boston College