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Dialogue in Atlanta

University President William P. Leahy, SJ, (left), Karen Begelfer '95, and Jeff Capadona. Atlanta, February 28, 2004. By A. Poyo

University President William P. Leahy, SJ, (left), Karen Begelfer '95, and Jeff Capadona. Atlanta, February 28, 2004. By A. Poyo

By Paige Parvin

On the evening after a long-anticipated report on clerical abuse was released by a panel of prominent Catholics at the behest of the U.S. bishops, more than 70 Boston College alumni gathered at Atlanta's Buckhead Sheraton to hear University President William P. Leahy, SJ, speak about the state of Catholicism. The reception and talk were part of a series of some 16 events planned around the country for BC's Church in the 21st Century initiative, created in 2002 in response to the sexual abuse crisis in the Church.

The late February Saturday was balmy and spring-like in Atlanta, a far cry from the Boston chill, which may have partly accounted for the general good cheer in the Heritage Ballroom as alumni and BC visitors greeted one another. It was a young, lively crowd, mostly stylishly dressed graduates from the past decade or so who clearly came hungry for social connection with other BC alumni. The mood was relaxed and affable as guests procured drinks and hors d'oeuvres, introduced spouses, and exchanged news. Under the leadership of Karen Begelfer '95, the fledgling Atlanta alumni chapter has sprouted wings in recent months with social events and rising membership. "A growing population of young BC alumni is moving here," noted Angela Dawn Myers '99, "and I think people come to these events to find community."

But reunion wasn't the only aim for Atlanta alumni. With the somber statistics from the Church's National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People hovering in the background—more than 10,000 abuse claims in the last half-century, according to one survey [see related story]—guests were eager to learn what Fr. Leahy had to say. A number of them had not heard the president speak before.

"I'm very interested in BC's efforts to address the crisis in the Church," said Karen Stiles '75, who wore a black miniskirt and high boots and attends Atlanta's Cathedral of Christ the King, one of the city's largest parishes. "Being in Atlanta, this is a great opportunity to be here with Fr. Leahy. I have grave concerns about the state of the Church and I think it's very important to have the voice of Boston College taking this on."

Although many alumni claimed their Catholic faith remained largely unshaken by the sex abuse crisis, several said they had drifted away from the Church in recent months. Jennifer Morcone '95, a tall young woman in a red sweater, said she had become disillusioned with Catholicism since graduation and was hoping to draw inspiration from Leahy's words. "I am here to be convinced," announced Morcone, who has tried attending the Cathedral of Christ the King but has had trouble relating to the leadership there: "It's just so patriarchal. I mean, I'm not looking for drastic change."

Almost as if he had read her mind, when Fr. Leahy began his talk just a few minutes later, one of his first questions was, "What nourishes your faith?" He went on to quickly outline three of the broad issues the Church in the 21st Century initiative is trying to address: the relationship of lay men and women with priests and bishops, and how their interaction can be enhanced; the complex question of sexuality in the Church and how it should be lived out today; and how best to hand on faith to new generations of Catholics.

"For new students who come to Boston College, we find the intellectual underpinnings of their faith are not nearly as strong as the generations before them," Leahy said, as heads began to nod agreement in the audience. "I hear this so often from parents and grandparents who worry—how will [these young people] live out their faith?"

After working to respond to the pain and anger among Catholics in the immediate wake of the sex abuse crisis, this year the Church in the 21st Century has focused on renewal and revitalization. "We can't do everything, but we are trying to reach out and to respond as best we can as a Jesuit Catholic university," Leahy said. "A university should be a place for dialogue and discussion."

Leahy then started off such a dialogue with the audience, responding to their questions, observations, and personal comments for the better part of an hour. In the main, the tone of the discussion was one of openness and concern, with even occasional lightness; the audience seemed to tip slightly toward the progressive end of the Catholic spectrum.

The role of women in the Church was a topic of particularly high interest, with an equal number of men and women advocating the elevation of female influence. A young mother with long blonde hair, dressed in black, spoke early in the discussion, saying, "I do want to keep my faith. I have two young daughters and I want to raise them in my faith." But, she said, she is very concerned about bringing up girls in a spiritual community where the role of women is so limited.

"I grew up a very strong Catholic; my uncle was a priest," said Morcone. "But what do you see in the future as far as the role of women? Will there be a place for priests to marry in the future, and more of a community of men and women running our Church?"

"I think in my lifetime, married men will be ordained, given the shrinking number of celibate male priests and the need for the sacraments," answered Leahy. "As to women being ordained—I don't see that happening in my lifetime. We will always have priests and a hierarchy." Yet throughout the evening he stressed the importance of calling on all members of the laity—men and women—in order to strengthen the fabric of the Church.

A man sitting near the back who had brought his adolescent son to the event said, "Celibacy is a big issue, because the Church is sending a message to all the women in the world that they don't want to make them useful in the Church. The message is that they are second-class citizens, and we are missing a tremendous opportunity here. The laypeople don't believe it's as complicated as the hierarchy does."

A middle-aged man in glasses asked about the Jesuit position on women's ordination; his wife, he explained wryly, is not Catholic and he has difficulty defending this aspect of his faith.

No scripture says that women can't be ordained, Fr. Leahy responded, but the mandate is Church tradition, and "tradition is to the Church what memory is to the individual. A person without memory is without identity."

Building a Church community in keeping with modern-day America is a challenge several guests pointed to, particularly in the Bible Belt, where Catholics lack the strong ethnic roots and history that anchor the Church in areas like Boston. A man in a grey suit observed, "Being in Atlanta, it's different here. As Catholics, we are the minority and we're sort of suspect. And the scandal has made us more of a minority."

A woman in a black cardigan drew knowing laughter when she agreed: "I find that if co-workers or friends not familiar with Catholicism learn I'm Catholic, they'll ask, 'Have you been saved?'"

At the same time, though, others said they find the newer, greener climate in Atlanta refreshing for Catholics. "The churches in Atlanta are great," said a young woman with long brown hair. "It's a smaller community and so it's much more cohesive. Here it's more about connecting, reaching out and inviting people in."

"We go to the Church of the Holy Cross, we have three kids and we go every Sunday," said a middle-aged man sitting in the back. "There's such a sense of community. The priests here are younger, they have a greater sense of what we are facing in our family lives. Growing up in Philadelphia, all the priests were 70 years old. They had no relevance to my life." Others nodded in agreement around the room.

Addressing the problem of creating a relevant, engaging faith community, Leahy said, "There is a fear in Rome that churches in the U.S. will become American Catholic churches rather than Roman Catholic, that they will split off . . . but again and again I hear alumni say, we feel a distance from the Church leadership." In the aftermath of the sexual abuse scandal, trust in the Catholic leadership must be re-earned, he said. "We need to tap into the skills of our lay men and women in a way we haven't before. There will always be a hierarchy, but we have to do a whole lot more. We have to have more sessions like this."

"I think our priests can take a lesson from our corporations and shine a little sunshine, get the bishops out there," said a woman wearing a colorful scarf. "The priests are not connecting with their parishioners."

"One thing that nourishes my faith is what you're doing today," another woman told Fr. Leahy. "There was so much sweeping this under the rug, not talking about it—this was the piece that was missing for me until today."

The woman in the black cardigan spoke about another aspect of the Catholic faith that many couples have trouble reconciling with the reality of their lives. "I just wanted to bring up the issue of divorce and its acceptance by the Church," she said. "I have always been a faithful Catholic. At age 47, I found a guy to marry. He is divorced, and I have two young stepchildren we are now trying to raise. . . . He's not Catholic, but he is open to becoming Catholic. There are tons of people trying to get annulments."

"Divorce has always been a hard topic in the Church," Fr. Leahy agreed. "I admire you for having such a strong commitment to your faith. Divorce is another issue the Church is going to have to address, because it touches the lives of so many people."

At one point, Leahy gently steered the topic to the Church's future generations. In 2002, he said, he asked a group of intended priests at BC whether the sex abuse crisis had turned them away from their calling. "No," they said, "this is a chance to do something great for God."

"If you had a son or nephew who said he wanted to be a priest," Fr. Leahy asked the audience, "what would you say to him?" In one of the few almost-angry moments of the night, someone immediately called out what she would say: "Why?"

The man whose son was sitting next to him answered, "I would ask my son, what is your objective in wanting to become a priest?" He went on to speak of what he called the three "C's"—credibility, communication, and celibacy—and expressed his concern over the Church's recent handling of each.

In terms of credibility, "the Church keeps asking us to believe, to keep our faith," he said. "Over the course of the last two years, the Church has communicated to some extent, but they have [characterized the crisis] as a media problem. What we haven't heard is what the Church is going to do about it. And is the plan just being hatched by the U.S. or does it have support from the parent company in Rome?"

A young woman in a red shirt raised her hand to say she was brought up Catholic and her husband became Catholic two years ago. The couple attends church regularly. "But during the homily," she said, "people talk, and laugh, and scoff. How do we deal with criticism from within?"

Fr. Leahy replied, "A lot of people have read The Da Vinci Code, but I find a lot of Catholics don't nourish their faith through reading and study. We need to do a massive amount of public education in the Catholic Church."

After the talk, Jennifer Morcone remained unconvinced the Catholic Church could keep pace with her spiritual needs as a young, single woman. "As much as the Church has been open to change," she said, "there is such a resistance to embracing the content of that change. The American ideal is innovation, moving forward, and I just don't see the Church as open to that enough to keep the American audience engaged."

For the most part, though, alumni response after the dialogue was positive: Leahy's appearance was pronounced "enlightening," "fantastic," and "very brave."

Paul Dunbar '51, one of the few silver heads in the room, said, "It was not what I anticipated, and I am pleasantly surprised. I thought it would be just a lecture. I thought Fr. Leahy was a world-class pro. People got him right into the meat of the problem of the Church."

"It's great that BC is taking these steps," agreed Meghan Schubert '01. "It reaffirms my faith in the school, but also in the Church. It made me proud to be a Boston College alumna."


Paige Parvin is a writer based in Atlanta


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