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Together again

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The crowd in Conte Forum, the evening of September 18, 2003. By Lee Pellegrini

Setting course in the second year of Church in the 21st Century

Last year, at the kickoff for the Church in the 21st Century initiative, Boston College's response to the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, trustee Jack Connors, Jr. '63 made newspaper headlines with a shocking suggestion. Connors, an advertising executive who is also one of Boston's more prominent Catholics, told an audience of more than 4,000 in Conte Forum that Catholics should consider suspending donations to the Boston archdiocese in protest of its mishandling of the crisis.

At the kickoff for the initiative's second year on Thursday, September 18, a year to the day after last year's opening event, Connors made a U-turn. He told an audience of more than 2,000, again in Conte Forum, that "much has changed for the better since we last gathered. Only the most optimistic among us could have envisioned a more productive, honest, and open first hundred days" for the city's new archbishop, Sean O'Malley, who upon arriving in Boston had quickly moved to settle abuse victims' lawsuits and begin the Church's healing. Significantly, Connors also told the audience--which looked to be divided equally between college-age and middle-age and included a sprinkling of priests and nuns--that lay Catholics should help O'Malley "with their time and money."

Connors's change in tone was emblematic of the difference between the two years' programs. Last year's opener had "seemed heavy," said Mike Fitzgerald '85 of Norwood, Massachusetts, who has been active in the lay group Voice of the Faithful. "The immensity of the tragedy lay over everything." This year's audience and speakers, by all accounts, seemed less traumatized, less angry, more reflective and more pragmatic; less focused on past abuses and more on options for the Church's future.

University President William P. Leahy, SJ. By Lee Pellegrini During its first year, the University initiative generated 75 workshops, lectures, seminars, and discussions that drew a total attendance of more than 13,000--not to mention numerous papers and journal articles by Boston College faculty. Topics ranged beyond the sexual abuse crisis to treatment of other key issues related to the future of the Church. Much was learned as a result, University President William P. Leahy, SJ, told this year's audience. For example, Leahy said, "We have learned that many individuals desire to help the Church in this time of need," but they want to be listened to by Church leaders "in ways that are more than symbolic." Leahy also reported that the initiative had uncovered a fundamental disagreement about the causes of the crisis--between those Catholics who blame "a failure of leadership" and "structural problems" and want to see a more transparent Church, and those Catholics who blame "a culture of dissent" in the Church and want to see more obedience to the Church's moral teachings. Both groups have some purchase on the truth, and both deserve a respectful hearing, Leahy said.

Leahy's comments notwithstanding, the panel discussion that took up most of this year's program was heavily weighted toward the first group, although that didn't seem to bother many in the audience, who responded to the speakers with frequent applause. "This was an audience that was up for change," explained George Slover, a retired UMass-Boston English professor who belongs to St. Paul's Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and attended last year's programs.

Meet the Press's Tim Russert. By Gary Wayne Gilbert.The evening's biggest name was panel moderator Tim Russert, of NBC News, who appeared in shirtsleeves. More relaxed and less aggressive than in his weekly appearances as host of Meet the Press, Russert nonetheless nudged the panelists toward some striking insights on such topics as women's ordination, priestly celibacy, the Church's stance toward homosexuals, the quality of preaching and liturgy, the Church's social justice teachings, and the overarching question of who wields power in the Church.

The prospect of married priests seemed well received by the panel; so too was the notion of a larger role in the Church for women, as a solution to the crisis in priestly vocations. Mary Johnson, SND, a sociology professor at Emmanuel College in Boston, pointed out, to much applause, that in midwestern parishes where laywomen or nuns have assumed pastoral duties in the absence of a priest, church attendance has increased, along with contributions to the collection plate. "Not a lot can be said against the ordination of women," added fellow panelist and theology major Elizabeth Paulhus '04, "but this is an area of conversation that has been closed by the Vatican . . . so women need to start pursuing [other] roles." In response, Peter Steinfels, a Catholic layman and New York Times religion writer, cited a tradition in the early Church of ordaining women deacons. If the tradition could be revived, he said, it could amplify women's voices in the Church.

As for making marriage available to priests, Fr. J. Bryan Hehir, the president of Catholic Charities USA and former head of the Harvard Divinity School, said it could be done with relative ease. While the ban on women priests arises from Catholic theology, he said, priestly celibacy is only a matter of Church law, and the law in this matter is already being bent for Eastern Rite priests and married clergy from other denominations who convert and serve as Catholic priests. Steinfels, the evening's fount of workable ideas, suggested that, as a first step, the Church mount a study of married clergy in other churches to "look at the problems and the practical questions."

On another topic, panelist Patrick Downes '05, a human development major in the Lynch School of Education, said in response to a question from Russert that the Church hierarchy's quick reaction against state-recognized gay marriage was "very scary" when juxtaposed with its slow reaction to the problem of clerical sexual abuse of children. Downes spoke of homosexual friends who "feel very Catholic" but "don't feel they have a home in the Church." Why does he stay in the Church, then? asked Russert. "Because it's such a large part of who I am," Downes replied, praising the campus worship services and the feeling of community among Catholic students.

Several panelists also spoke out for increasing the power of laypeople vis-à-vis priests and the Church's hierarchy. Downes advised lay Catholics to say, "This is my Church. . . . You can have a priest up there," he said, "but if there's no one to hear God's message, our faith is lost." Catalina Montes, principal of the Thomas Gardner Elementary School in the Allston section of Boston, said that those Catholics who have left the Church "are not going to come back to the same thing." In the parishes, she said, "we have to have good preaching, we have to have good music, we have to present on Sunday morning that our Church is vibrant . . . that we're there to support each other."

Added Sr. Johnson, "We have to help the bishops understand that there is some wonderful teaching going on in the Church, but you have to listen before you teach." Johnson referred back to the opposing Catholic stances described by Fr. Leahy in his introduction and said that the "notion of personal holiness" and allegiance to the Church's structure have been "teased apart over the last 20 or 25 years," particularly among young Catholics, who now think in terms of "liberal" Catholicism and "conservative" Catholicism. "We've got to talk about who and what are Catholics," she said.

Fr. Hehir pointed out that the Catholic Church in the United States now has the most educated laity in its history. "As a simple principle, we've got to treat adults as adults," he said, adding that people who get respect in their work and civic lives won't put up forever with being treated as children when they go to church.

Later in the program, Hehir also reminded the gathering that they "live in a country whose decisions have a direct impact on the lives of people around the world. . . . It's crucial in this time when internal [Church] issues are so overwhelming" that American Catholics remember "we've got to make a difference in this society." Shortly after that plea, the discussion ended, to general applause. Russert soon left the stage for home (traveling by overnight train, it was announced, Hurricane Isabel having closed both airports in Washington), but hundreds of audience members lingered behind for up to an hour, milling around near the stage and talking in small groups. Rehashing the evening, Norwood church member Mike Fitzgerald said, "You had a sense that some things were possible that didn't seem possible last year--about Church healing, about the Church paying attention not only to its internal affairs but also to its outreach to the wider world."

Retired professor George Slover pronounced himself impressed with the level of the dialogue and the panel's suggestions about marriage for priests and women's ordination. "There was nothing concrete like that in last year's program," Slover said. "Everybody thinks sexual abuse is terrible, that bishops looking the other way is terrible, that Rome sweeping it under the carpet is terrible. There's no argument about that. But now people are saying what has been forbidden to talk about." Echoing this point, theology major Brendan Moloney '04 said, "Ordination of women, homosexuality, married priests--the panel had the courage to bring them up."

Betsy Brink of Duxbury, Massachusetts, who belongs to a United Church of Christ congregation but also attends a Catholic church with her husband, who is Catholic, said the tension between lay leadership and clericalism, raised by President Leahy as well as by the panel, "is something we grapple with in the Protestant church, too--the question of ‘Whose church is it?'" Like the others, she said she was impressed with the program. "There are so many thoughtful, caring, smart people in the Catholic Church," she said, but then she offered a caution: "All their good ideas will be for naught if the hierarchy doesn't listen."

David Reich


David Reich is a writer based in the Boston area.



Photos (from top):

 

The crowd in Conte Forum, the evening of September 18, 2003. By Lee Pellegrini

 

University President William P. Leahy, SJ. By Lee Pellegrini

 

Meet the Press's Tim Russert. By Gary Wayne Gilbert.

 

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