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Into the future


Boston's archbishop and laity trade concerns

Archbishop O'Malley delivered the keynote lecture at Boston College's "Handing on the Faith" conference, on September 17, at St. John the Evangelist Church, Wellesley, Massachusetts. Photo by Justin Knight

Archbishop O'Malley delivered the keynote lecture at Boston College's "Handing on the Faith" conference, on September 17, at St. John the Evangelist Church, Wellesley, Massachusetts. Photo by Justin Knight

By William Bole

On the night of September 17, all was not calm in the Archdiocese of Boston.

Defiant parishioners were encamped in two of the 82 churches officially shuttered by the archdiocese for lack of cash or clerics, and a third parish marked for closure seemed likely to also become occupied ecclesiastical territory. New allegations of clergy sexual abuse were surfacing with new lawsuits, as the archdiocese pleaded empty pockets. On that Friday evening, at the invitation of Boston College, Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley, OFM Cap, addressed a largely lay audience in the sanctuary of St. John the Evangelist, a thriving parish in the suburban town of Wellesley.

The possibilities for high drama notwithstanding, there were no demonstrators yelling slogans outside the church. Inside the church, the archbishop was greeted by polite applause, and the scene was more suggestive of a keynote presentation at an academic conference—which is exactly what it was. Archbishop O'Malley's lecture was the public portion of a scholars conference entitled "Handing on the Faith," presented by the Church in the 21st Century, Boston College's initiative launched two years ago to explore issues emerging from the abuse scandals. The conference was otherwise meeting on campus, but so were 42,564 football fans that Friday night, which is why the keynote was offered elsewhere. The parish venue was fitting nonetheless, since the Church in the 21st Century strives to promote a hearty exchange among Catholics in different institutional settings, from parishes to chanceries to universities.

And a hearty exchange there was.

Not just any parish, St. John's is where the lay reform organization Voice of the Faithful was born in spring 2002, in the depths of the abuse crisis. A little more than 350 people turned up for the archbishop's public lecture, filling not much more than half the pews. It seemed like a Voice of the Faithful crowd, more or less: The questioning from the audience following the archbishop's presentation was close and confrontational. And the questions were applauded more eagerly than were the answers.

Wearing his simple brown robe, the Capuchin Franciscan prelate initially disarmed his audience. The archbishop's welcome, to "all of you who were unable to get tickets to tonight's game," earned congregation-wide laughs. Then he told a joke about a young man who caught sight of two priests coming down the street, a Franciscan and a Jesuit, and asked them which novena he should pray so as to secure a BMW. The Franciscan inquired, "What's a BMW?" The Jesuit: "What's a novena?"

After that joke, Archbishop O'Malley landed right on topic. As he spoke, it was possible to detect common ground among the archbishop, his reform-seeking audience, and certainly the 21st-century initiative. It was also impossible to miss the unshared ground.

What lecturer and lecture-goers seemed to share was apprehension over whether the faith will be successfully relayed to the next generation. ("Look at my hair. You probably recognize that I represent a lot of the people here tonight," one white-haired man told the archbishop, waving at the gray heads above the pews.) The archbishop said that he was troubled by surging religious illiteracy and waning religious observance, especially Mass going, among young Catholics. Though he struck brighter notes: Catholic university presidents have assured him, he said, that there is a deep longing for spiritual nourishment on campus, a craving not seen in quite some time.

O'Malley's message that evening was about the need to instill essential truths and mysteries of the faith, most importantly that the faithful are called to eternal union with God through Jesus Christ. He upheld the life of prayer and prayerful communities, the Gospel of Life and the Social Gospel, all of which, he underlined, are crucial to handing on the faith.

"Today the Church is attacked for what it says about the human person and teaches about the dignity of human life at all stages," O'Malley declared. He cited the abortion issue, yet for an extended consideration he turned to another challenge to the faithful and to the faith: poverty. He told of visiting an El Salvadoran refugee camp where children's bellies were bloated by malnutrition. "I asked one of the nuns who was working there why [the owners of a nearby cattle field] didn't slaughter some of the cattle and feed the people in the camp," the archbishop related, bringing his voice to an emotional pitch. "Sister explained to me that that would be impossible because the cattle were being raised to be used as dog food in the United States." He commented, "All too often, human life is devalued in our contemporary culture. The most basic right to life is subordinated to an exaggerated individualism."

More was said about mysteries dwelling within the Body of Christ, little said about the external, visible structures of that mystical communion, particularly those that might invite broader collaboration within the Church. Judging from the question-and-answer segment that was mediated by BC Law School Dean John Garvey, the audience was singularly interested in the structural-institutional side of that spiritual equation. The confronters held the floor.

As to who or what might be the biggest barrier to handing on the Catholic faith, Elizabeth Donnelly, parishioner and CCD teacher at St. Peter's in Cambridge, rose to "humbly submit" that it was the Catholic hierarchy. Then she cheerfully informed her shepherd, "There's a joke among kids in religious education. How many sacraments are there? Seven for boys, six for girls," excluding ordination. Her question was, if Jesus were here tonight, wouldn't he call for women priests?

Calm and composed, Archbishop O'Malley at first played with the hypothetical thought. "Well, if Jesus were here, you would be able to ask him yourself and that would settle the dispute once and for all," he replied, cracking a smile. All he would say about the male-only priesthood was that the Church could do a better job communicating the teaching, but the teaching itself is "part of our faith." The archbishop seemed to have a notion of how the six-sacrament joke had crept into class at St. Peter's, as losing the smile, he added, "If we simply make fun of [the teaching], we're doing a disservice to our young people. We're alienating them from the faith."

Rhetorical questions drew brisk applause, such as when St. John's parishioner and Voice of the Faithful stalwart Frank McConville asked, "When will the dialogue begin?" Chatting over coffee at a reception afterward in the church basement, McConville said the dialogue between hierarchy and laity could have "started" right there in the basement where Voice of the Faithful had been conceived in small-group discussions. The archbishop did not stay for the decaf and cookies, though he did greet a short receiving line upstairs before slipping away. In two hours of public talk about handing on faith, not a word was said about shutting down parishes.

Two mornings later, the Boston Globe gleaned from the event "stark" differences between the institutional Church and not just the crowd, but also the Church in the 21st Century initiative. Fr. Robert Imbelli, who coordinated the weekend scholarly discussions together with fellow BC theologian Roberto Goizueta, saw things differently. In an interview, he enumerated "underlying resonances between what [the archbishop] was saying and what was coming out of our conversations" at the full conference. (Apart from the archbishop's talk, the press was not invited to the conference; the 11 papers presented were under wraps, pending publication.) Convergences, said Imbelli, included the importance of religious practices, namely prayer, in handing on the faith, and the equally important role of beauty and aesthetics as experienced in music, liturgy, and architecture (through which the believer can "glimpse the beauty of God," in the archbishop's words). Also reverberating was concern over the cultural obstacle of excessive individualism.

And then there was the ground everyone seemed to share, the common ground of catechetical angst. As Fr. Imbelli expressed it, "If we don't succeed in passing on the faith to the next generation, there just won't be a faith."


William Bole is a freelance journalist whose articles have appeared in the Washington Post, Commonweal, and other publications. He lives in Andover, Massachusetts.


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