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"Dear Fr. Mike"

By Laurence O’Donnell ’57

Alumnus Larry O’Donnell occasionally writes “epistles” to his pastor, Rev. Michael J. Shaheen, regarding Church matters, large and small. In November, O’Donnell attended the College’s colloquium on “Renewing the Church” (see Page x). The event left a powerful impression—one that he shared with his pastor and, now, with the Holy Cross community.

Dear Fr. Mike:

When I told you that Joan and I would be heading to Holy Cross for a colloquium on renewing the Church, I knew you would be interested—and you were. You study the “big picture” issues and encourage new initiatives in our parish. It was no surprise when you asked me to bring back copies of the talks and other handouts.

Right after the conference, you asked, “How was it?” and I told you—“It was the best single event I’ve attended at Holy Cross since graduating in 1957.”

This event was spectacular, its stars exploding all over the place. There were 14 presenters, some—such as Rev. Donald Cozzens and Dolores Leckey—well known in Church circles as circuit riders in the Church reform movement, each addressing different aspects of the many problems threatening the Church. Most of them spoke for an hour and then fielded questions for 15 or 20 minutes. The cumulative effect of these presentations was a remarkable mosaic of the Church today.

The weekend was organized to be an “Ignatian discernment,” seeking to ask hard questions about today’s Church and its troubles: the sex abuse scandal; the declining number of priests and religious; fall off in church attendance; parish closings; resignations of bishops; unprecedented financial strain; squabbling among lay Catholic groups; and public argument over the relation of faith to political life. Plus: Confusion over the exercise of authority in the Church and Church governance, and over the credibility of Church leaders. Not much cheer in this list!

The intention of the conference was to help participants increase their knowledge of the “challenges and opportunities the Church in America faces” and then to map out ways for participants to use their gifts and talents “to shape the Church and pass on a lively Catholic faith to future generations.” Specific areas of need were identified: evangelization, education and healing.

The colloquium did better at plugging gaps than laying out clear options for action. Much needed was a Tom Brokaw-type anchor, constantly connecting the dots among speakers and prodding Church complainers to make their points.

The possibility that this colloquium would turn into another dump-on-the-bishops fest was huge. Eastern Massachusetts and other parts of nearby New England are still smarting from the sex abuse disclosures in recent years, ironically starting with the tragic and tawdry tale of John Geoghan, defrocked and convicted of widespread sexual abuse among children while a Boston priest—and a member of my class at Holy Cross. People from this area are still angry and came to the colloquium wanting to vent.

Rev. Michael C. McFarland, S.J., president of Holy Cross, warned that despair and resentment among Catholics and “self-serving individualism” among Church leaders and laity, posed serious roadblocks to renewal and reform within the Church. But he found encouragement in the history of the Church: “The Church has faced far worse crises in its history and has come through them stronger than before,” he said. “We have had corrupt and venal popes, bishops and clergy, intense confusion and conflict over leadership, outright warfare over doctrine and power, murderous opposition from governments, widespread indifference and apostasy among laity and clergy, and just about every other problem imaginable.” Yet, he added, “We have always managed not only to survive, but to use these occasions for reform and renewal. … There is no question that our God wants to bring healing and restoration to the Church. The only question is whether we want to join in and be part of the process.”

There was no meltdown at the colloquium. Perhaps the Spirit intervened. As the weekend unfolded, the focus shifted to how lay people can be more effective in their own backyards, starting with their parishes but also including contact with their bishops.

“I believe it is the laity’s moment,” said Fr. Cozzens.

Sister Catherine Patten, an authority on changing roles within the Church, asserted: “It is already happening.” She reported that the number of parishes with lay ecclesial ministers now exceeds 30,000—up from less than 22,000 in 1992—and that the total of lay ministers far exceeds the current number of “active” diocesan priests (under 20,000) and permanent deacons (14,000). “Seventy percent of parishes have lay participation, including volunteers,” said Sister Patten. “The changes are rapid and major. We are already living in the ‘era of declining priests.’”

As participants compared notes on their parish life, many discovered an encouraging trend. Alive-and-well parishes, such as ours at the Church of the Annunciation here in Paramus, aren’t isolated and exceptional. Increasingly, they are becoming more typical. Moribund inner-city parishes are in the news as dioceses close empty churches. But missing are stories scrutinizing crowded and vibrant parishes.

Participants did get a performance review, of sorts: Implied criticism that too many educated Catholics are unread on Church history, especially since Vatican II. The Council ended nearly 40 years ago after issuing 16 documents. Many of us have yet to read a single one top-to-bottom. The complete and much-praised report on the crisis in the Catholic Church by members of the National Review Board is also collecting dust. “There is no need for Vatican III,” remarked Christopher Bellitto, a Church historian at Kean University in New Jersey. “We haven’t finished Vatican II yet.”

Bishop Matthew Clark of Rochester, N.Y., who attended Holy Cross in the late 1950s, underscored the need to read the Vatican II documents. “There is need for people to know the documents—need for the documents to ‘sink into the heart.’”

Fr. Joseph Komonchak, a professor of theology and the history of Vatican II at The Catholic University of America, wondered how many of the 220 Catholic colleges and universities in the United States still require courses in religion and theology, as C.U. does. (Holy Cross dropped the requirement years ago but does require hours of “religious studies.” Additionally, large numbers of students are active in outreach programs in Worcester, other parts of the country and overseas.)

The more than 50 participants, with help from facilitators, presenters and students, defined in personal terms what they could do to help renew the Church. Most of the ideas were humble, down-to-earth and deeply moving. “Stay informed. Write a letter. Host a dinner. Hang in there.”

Others agreed on the importance of lay people reaching out to the embattled, isolated, sometimes-embarrassed bishops. Rev. Kevin Donovan ’83, serving in the Hartford Diocese, stressed the importance of prayer: “Pray for each other, for parish priests and for your bishop, especially when you don’t want to.”

“Don’t underestimate the power of chicken dinners!” declared Professor Leckey, citing a lesson she learned during Vatican II when she stayed in a small hotel filled with bishops from all over the world. “Bishops are human.”

Michael F. Collins, M.D., ’77, chair of the Holy Cross Board of Trustees, described the need for educated, ethical Catholics to serve on boards of hospitals within the vast $60 billion Catholic Health Care system, the largest in the country. Professor David O’Brien, who teaches the history of Catholicism in the United States at Holy Cross, urged participants to avoid the language of division that is “poisoning our Church” and to seek to be bridge-builders within the Church and “across religious, racial, cultural and economic divides” the world over.

The colloquium didn’t ignore the mismanagement and blunders at the top in handling the sex abuse scandal and other related problems. Fr. Cozzens, an expert on the topic, said priests, themselves polarized, “are too reluctant to speak candidly to bishops.” If the Church had apologized right away for the cases of child abuse, there would have been fewer lawsuits, he said.

At the end of the day, people seemed more hopeful. Instead of getting an executive summary on the Church’s troubles, they apparently received something more personal, emotional and spiritual. For many it was a retreat.

If there are further colloquiums, organizers might consider two suggestions. First, give the participants time to breathe, instead of planning 12 hour days without interruptions. Second, consider dropping the title colloquium. It may be an accurate word to describe an event where experts do most of the talking and participants get to ask questions at the end. But colloquium isn’t a household word and suggests something academic, highbrow and dense, which the November event was not.

Father Mike, having plowed through all this, what do you think? I must tell you that I compared our experiences at the Church of the Annunciation with life in other parishes I heard about over the weekend. Our modest-sized parish with its 75 tiny “ministries,” most of them active, stacks up well. The parish commitments you have encouraged help us to have a clear vision, which has generated serious involvement by many lay people to make the vision a reality; and has created a general sense that we are making headway.

Thanks, Father Mike. We are blessed.

Fr. Shaheen had studied to be an Xaverian brother before becoming a priest in the Newark Diocese. He has been pastor of the Church of the Annunciation in Paramus, N.J., for the past eight years. Larry and Joan O’Donnell, who live in nearby Ridgewood, N.J., joined Annunciation three years ago. O’Donnell served on the Holy Cross Board of Trustees from 1982-1990.


NOTE: The weekend was organized to be an “Ignatian discernment,” seeking to ask hard questions about today’s Church and its troubles: the sex abuse scandal; the declining number of priests and religious; fall off in church attendance; parish closings; resignations of bishops; unprecedented financial strain; squabbling among lay Catholic groups; and public argument over the relation of faith to political life.


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