Letting Their Voice Be Heard
By Rita Ciolli
Newsday [Long Island NY]
September 28, 2003
The sexual abuse scandal has given Catholics a historic opportunity to change the structure of their church, a noted theologian told an audience determined to do just that at the first convention of Long Island's Voice of the Faithful.
"Jesus did not leave a precise blueprint of the church's structure for the rest of its existence," the Rev. Richard McBrien, a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame and author of many books on Catholicism, said at the conference Saturday in Melville. He said moral teachings, such as love, forgiveness and justice, were the divine law Catholics must follow.
"In almost every other matter, the church is free, free to do what it must to fulfill its mission," said McBrien. While the Catholic Church will always need a strong structure to function, McBrien said rules on who can be ordained, the methods of selecting church leaders and the role of the laity in governance can be changed. The abuse scandal has awakened ordinary Catholics to the fact that they can pressure the church to make those changes, he said.
Those changes would be welcomed by Long Island Catholics, according to a survey the Voice of the Faithful released Saturday that showed an overwhelming desire for reform.
The conference attracted a sellout crowd of more than 650 people, surprising organizers who had only ordered 550 lunches. "Remember the parable of the loaves and fishes," said Phil Megna, a conference coordinator, as lunch was served. Many of those in the audience then shared their chicken and vegetable wraps.
For the organizers, the event showed the strength of the movement, which started in response to the abuse scandal with 30 people in a South Shore church in July 2002. The activist group has grown to almost 1,600 members on Long Island and raised $10,000 to help underwrite the cost of the meeting. After two meetings on church property that summer, Bishop William Murphy of the Diocese of Rockville Centre banned the group from meeting on church property and from using any parish facilities to promote its cause.
However, Dan Bartley, co-chairman of the lay group, told the audience they were the people who filled the pews: Of the 700 local Catholics responding to the group's recent survey, he said, 80 percent went to Mass weekly. Of that group, 25 percent attended daily services.
"If we are dangerous, radical people, our church needs a whole lot more of us dangerous people," said Bartley. But he and many others in the mostly older crowd pointed out that more young people were needed.
In his hourlong talk, McBrien said if any good came from the 20 months of controversy that has enveloped the church, it was "the awakening of many caring Catholics to your own responsibilities in the life and ministries of the church."
McBrien said the time has come to discuss the ordination of women and allowing priests to marry or there would not be enough "good priests" in the future to say Mass. "You have to be blind not to see that, you have to be in utter and complete denial not to see that," he added.
But it seemed unlikely that dialogue would come soon. He noted recent reports from Rome that the Vatican was considering eliminating or restricting the use of girls as altar servers. "Can you believe that? In this environment, you almost want to say, 'No more altar boys,' " said McBrien, drawing laughter from the audience.
McBrien told the group that demands for more involvement were not a new idea, but something promised four decades ago by the Second Vatican Council. "You are resurrecting rather than creating a tradition," he said. However, McBrien said that those who take a leadership role must be "informed and measured" and knowledgeable in church teachings. He said the church could never become a "poll-driven community."
The results of the Voice of the Faithful's admittedly unscientific survey showed an overwhelming concern about church leaders. Ranking 18 areas they felt needed to be changed, the respondents cited the scandal cover-up, the abuse itself and abuse of power by the hierarchy as the most pressing issues.
In discussing the results, speaker after speaker called on priests to be more active in asking Murphy to recognize their group and concerns of the laity. "We would like a courageous clergy," said Anne Kerrigan of Our Lady of Lourdes in West Islip. "We would like a clergy that would join together and speak out as a group."
The day ended with a witty talk by Sister Pat Duffy, a member of the Dominican religious order in Amityville, who urged the group to take on its mission "not with bitterness, but with love." Acknowledging the difficulty of the task and drawing a loud laugh from the majority gender in the room, Duffy said: "If you are a woman in the church, you have never been listened to. We're OK with this. It's you guys who have to work on it."
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