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First night
4,000 attend launch of BC's Church in the 21st century project

A palpable air of expectation filled Conte Forum on the evening of September 18. As the crowd streamed in and spilled far up the stands, greetings were exchanged across rows, hands waved to friends spotted in more distant sections. "From Crisis to Renewal: The Task Ahead" marked the inaugural event of the Church in the 21st Century project, Boston College's two-year academic grappling with the implications of the recent clergy sexual abuse scandals and exploration of the contemporary Church. A majority of the audience—estimated at 4,000—seemed to be middle-aged and older, though students and young adults collected in small pockets. If fashion can be trusted, there was a diverse mix of liberals (men with shaved heads, women in Birkenstocks) and old-school Catholics (the men in blazers, the women in seasonal two-piece suits). There were local business and media chieftains, faculty and students, suburban parishioners, prominent Protestants, scholars from local colleges, nuns and priests. Heads turned as minor celebrities entered the arena. One almost expected the concession stands to be open.

The upbeat tenor of the crowd conveyed a confidence that thoughtful and honest Catholic scholars and laypeople could wrest the Church they love back from the precipices of revolt and neglect. But if the pain of the recent scandals was buffered by hope, it was still a presence in the room. When University President William P. Leahy, SJ, during his welcoming remarks, solemnly intoned, "Trust must be restored and accountability ensured," when Jack Connors, Jr. '63, the BC trustee and advertising executive, said that the leaders of the Archdiocese of Boston had become "leaders in title only," when BC theologian Roberto S. Goizueta lamented that "clerical and episcopal abuse has desecrated the Body of Christ," Conte Forum seemed to silence briefly before bursting into long and sustained applause. People were angry, and they were unafraid to show it.

If hope won out by evening's end, it was because speaker after speaker urged those in the arena, and alumni taking part by broadcast across the nation, to seize the opportunity within the crisis to renew and revitalize the Church. That won't be easy, Fr. Leahy said, but he gave comfort that it was possible. "As we strive to heal and to think and act anew," he said, "we must recall that God does not leave us orphans, and that the Spirit is moving among us always."

The Church in the 21st Century project will examine three main themes, said Leahy: "The roles and relationships of lay men and women, priests and bishops, and how to enhance them; sexuality in Catholic teaching and in contemporary culture; and the challenge of living, deepening, and handing on the Catholic faith to succeeding generations." The project will serve as a resource for the Catholic Church in coming to terms with issues that have arisen during the scandal over clergy abuse and the hierarchy's response to it. Project activities will include public conferences, seminars, and lectures, which will be augmented by publications, reading lists, and other aids.

The program, said Leahy, is for BC students, staff, faculty, and alumni, as well as for "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."

The opening event was notable for its big-tent approach, addressing all Catholics on all manner of issues raised by the scandals. But it was not just another high-caliber academic assembly, a key fact underscored by the opening prayer of Joseph A. Appleyard, SJ, BC's vice president for University mission and ministry. Fr. Appleyard reminded the audience that praying together for a moment could not just be a hasty or formal prelude to an evening of heady thoughts and polemics. Indeed, the entire two-year program of the Church in the 21st Century will fail, he said, if it is not ultimately "an act of prayer, an act of faith, and an act of hope."

But soon Kenneth L. Woodward, a contributing editor at Newsweek and the magazine's longtime religion writer, as well as the author of seven books, took the podium. Woodward seemed to take delight in casting out as many heady thoughts and polemical points as possible, on subjects from civil union for homosexuals to transparent confessionals. Woodward discussed the inevitability of a greater push to end celibacy and ordain women arising from the recent scandals, although he said that he did not see either outcome as desirable. (Digressing on the topic of all-male bastions, he added, "Come to think of it, we'll probably have ordained women sooner than we will have female ushers," to laughter from the audience.) He corrected critics who complain that laypeople have no role in the Church. He noted that the numbers of lay ministries and lay Church workers now dwarf the number of clerics; but he said that laypeople, while having much to do, "have no real voice." He also said that while he was appalled by the bishops' response to clergy abuse, he disagreed with those who call this the most serious crisis in the Church since the Reformation.

Woodward was emphatic and well-received by the audience on one of his main points: that diocesan management should be in the hands of competent professional laypeople in order to free priests to be spiritual shepherds. "I'd rather a bishop with a knack for holiness than a head for business," he said.

Lisa Sowle Cahill, a BC professor of theology and the first respondent, faulted Woodward for being complacent in accepting the Church's "grand, phallic pyramid" power structure and its divisions of labor by gender. She spoke to the mutable understanding of sexuality in Catholicism, noting changes in Church teachings on divorce and the place of procreation in marriage, going back to St. Paul. Goizueta, a theology professor who specializes in the Latino Church, struck a poignant note as he reflected on the "inviolable dignity" of children, "not just our children but all children." The crisis of clerical sexual abuse, he said "pierces to the very heart of the Body of Christ."

But it was Connors, the marketing executive and self-described "local boy," who galvanized the crowd with his simple, plainspoken, and powerful condemnation of the laissez-faire attitude that some bishops have taken toward the abuse crisis. Turning his status as a businessman to his advantage, he said to applause that one did not need to be a theologian or scholar to know right from wrong. Without mentioning Cardinal Bernard Law by name, he took aim at the cardinal by calling it wrong to "sweep [abuse allegations] under the Orientals" at the archdiocesan chancery and wrong to treat alleged victims of priests with silence and intimidation.

Connors faulted the Catholic hierarchy for trying to retain "too much control," and he offered Boston College's evolution into a largely lay-administered university that nevertheless remains Catholic in identity and mission as an example for the broader Church. His simple message, "the Church must change," resonated deeply with the audience, and the crowd repeatedly interrupted his remarks with applause. Indeed, regular gusts of applause, more than 50 in all, rolled through Conte Forum during the event, applause that mostly signaled hearty agreement with a speaker's point but that at times seemed to indicate gratitude and relief at hearing someone speak truth to power.

Martha Gill of Westwood, whose daughter Lisa graduated from Boston College in June 2001, and who describes herself as an "old-school Catholic," said she came to Conte Forum with many questions. They were not all answered, but she said the openness encouraged her. "It was very encompassing, with no holds barred, which I think is good," said Gill.

Another audience member, Alice Campanella '59, of Wellesley, agreed. "Some people were asking why Boston College would host such a thing. My feeling is, how could they not host it? There were things said tonight that were exactly what we needed to hear."

Recognizing that feedback was essential, the evening's organizers, Robert Newton, special assistant to the president, and Mary Ann Hinsdale, IHM, director of BC's Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry, had arranged for cards to be distributed on which audience members could write questions. As moderator, Hinsdale read a handful aloud. A Boston College undergraduate asked how the Church could improve the ways young Catholics are educated. Woodward responded that he believed the Church could do more to make people "earn" their identity as Catholics, confirming people at a later age, requiring service to the aged or the poor. "We're running walk-in, drive-in congregations, and while lazy people like me like it, we're going to have to be much more demanding" in order to build up a firmer Catholic membership, he said.

A parishioner from a local church wanted to know what lay Catholics can do, beyond meeting, talking, and offering critiques, to push for change. "The laity controls the oxygen for most of the activities of the Church—your money, our money," replied Connors, to applause. While ceasing financial support of the archdiocese made him uneasy, Connors said he believed that "redirecting that support to your parish, to your hospital, to your parochial school, to your social service" means sending it to "where it's going to do the most good. For the moment, that may be at the local level."

A priest asked how the growing numbers of Catholics in America will participate in the celebration of the Eucharist if married men and women are not ordained. Cahill replied that more lay-people, including religiously vowed women, are already assuming responsibility in the liturgical and spiritual lives of parishes. Catholics must not assume that the sacramental future will look like the sacramental present, she said. "The important thing is to begin to act to change in cooperation with many of the wonderful pastors and leaders that we have, with the pastoral associates and ministers. . . . The chance is ours, the time is here, and the power is to be taken."

Hinsdale expressed gratitude for the audience's questions and said all would be read carefully and all views given consideration as new events and programs are added to the Church in the 21st Century project.


Richard J. Higgins

Richard J. Higgins is a freelance writer based in the Boston area. His interview with David Hollenbach, SJ, "A Public Affair," appeared in the Summer 2002 issue of BCM.

Photo: Full houseConte Forum on September 18. By Lee Pellegrini

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