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BY WILLIAM P. LEAHY, SJ


Tonight's program, From Crisis to Renewal: The Task Ahead, marks the beginning of Boston College's initiative, The Church in the 21st Century. All of us know how devastating sexual misconduct by priests and bishops has been to victims and their families, the Catholic community, and wider society. So many have been left confused and angry, feeling betrayed, and asking serious questions about the Church and their relationship with the hierarchy. In response to the scandal and to the wounds it has caused, especially in the Catholic community, I announced in mid-May that Boston College would undertake a special academic initiative during the next several years. I did so for three reasons. First, the current situation calls for healing; and healing requires not only work of the heart, but also work of the mind. As a Catholic university, Boston College has a special responsibility to help the Catholic community and wider society better understand Catholic perspectives on critical societal problems, and also to assist the Catholic Church in appreciating and responding to contemporary issues—doing so is part of our mission. Second, Boston College has scholarly and pastoral resources that can assist lay men and women, priests, and bishops engage the complex issues facing them, and help them learn from one another. Third, Boston College can be a meeting place, an intellectual and religious resource that can assist in the revitalization of the Church and individual members of the Catholic community.

Audience membersThe Church in the 21st Century program is intended for the Boston College community, BC alumni and friends, the Catholic community of Boston and beyond, and for all people, Catholic and non-Catholic, who are concerned about the present crisis in the Catholic Church. Our initiative will focus on three broad issues: on the roles and relationships of lay men and women, priests, and bishops, and how to enhance them; on sexuality in Catholic teaching and in contemporary culture; and on the challenge of living, deepening, and handing on the Catholic faith to succeeding generations.

Obviously, Boston College alone cannot resolve all the hurts and challenges facing the Catholic Church today, nor does it seek to supplant bishops or others in the Church who must eventually respond to pressing issues. Our initiative intends to be respectful of the Church and its teaching and tradition, to strive for balance and fairness, and to promote healing and understanding in the Catholic Church.

I realize that at times our initiative may generate disagreement and controversy, but faithful Catholics hold different opinions about many important matters, and it may well be at times that views and positions will be controversial or disputed. Should that happen we need to remind ourselves that Boston College, as a university, is committed to open discussion and to the objective consideration of the wide variety of opinions that can be reasonably argued.

Our approach is based on the conviction that the essence of a university is the search for truth, and that in the end truth will prevail. At Boston College, this search for truth is enriched by the acknowledgement and exploration of spiritual and religious truths influenced by our Jesuit Catholic educational and religious traditions. Stated simply, we seek to link faith and culture, especially the Catholic Church and American society.

Finally, I want to say a word about goals. The Church in the 21st Century initiative seeks to engage issues and topics critical to the healing and vitality of Catholics in the United States in the aftermath of the sexual abuse crisis. All should contribute to that task, but it is especially urgent that younger Catholics—so often enthusiastic, generous, and interested in volunteer service and in the spiritual life—be enlisted in the renewal of the Church. Much of the future of Catholicism is in their hands, but younger Catholics need the inspiration and encouragement of older Catholics who know, appreciate, and practice their Catholic faith. Our goal is to help Catholics become more informed about core teachings and traditions of the Church, and clearer about what they believe and the reasons for their beliefs. This educational and religious effort should enable them to live up to the demands and responsibilities of their faith more authentically and effectively.

Our initiative seeks to help revitalize the Catholic community to move from scandal and crisis to renewal and greater hope. Offending priests and bishops betrayed their commitment to the Church and to Catholics who trusted them. Church leaders made serious errors in the way they dealt with victims, their families, and abusers. Trust between lay men and women and the hierarchy has been severely eroded in recent months. And many priests who have served faithfully all their lives, especially those in parishes, feel beleaguered and discouraged. Trust must be restored and accountability ensured.

Part of our initiative will focus on the reinvigoration of parish life—for example, by striving to develop model structures and practices that are built on trust and accountability, and that encourage and support the talents and responsibilities of laity, priests, and bishops. Many lay men and women want to use their gifts to help the Church, and we need them to do so, just as we need priests and bishops to live up to their responsibilities and commitments.

The challenge for us is to renew our vision: a vision built on trust and accountability, a vision nurtured by faith, knowledge, and conversation—faith in God as revealed in scripture and human experience; knowledge of basic Catholic teachings, beliefs, and tradition; and conversation with people of both similar and different perspectives.

I know that these goals and other needed steps will not be realized without a commitment to dialogue, a willingness to seek forgiveness and healing, prayer and study, and leadership from laity and clergy. But I also know that during the past 2,000 years, the Catholic Church has adapted and changed to meet a variety of challenges. So as we strive to heal and to think and act anew, we must recall that God does not leave us orphans and that the Spirit is moving among us always.

Tonight is a beginning, and much needs to be accomplished. I remain confident that together we can help renew the Catholic Church and the Catholic community in our day.

William P. Leahy, SJ, is in his seventh year as president of Boston College.

Photos: William P. Leahy, SJ (top) and audience members. By Lee Pellegrini

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