Two Local Lay Activists Get a Rare, Eye-Opening Look at Their Church

By Ron Goldwyn
October 23, 2003

ROME - Maureen Brennan-Miller and David Miller are not your typical pilgrims.

The couple came to Rome for a close-up inspection of the church they love - and want to change.

The Millers, members of St. Norbert's Church in Paoli, are also active in Voice of the Faithful, a national reform movement of lay Catholics who seek more accountability, power-sharing and candor about church operations from their bishops.

The movement, which sprang up in Boston in the wake of the priest sexual-abuse scandal last year, vows fealty to church teachings but has been viewed by church officials as trouble - a group that wants to overturn the basics of Catholicism.

"People have that picture, but Voice of the Faithful also draws on people who care very deeply about the church and think of themselves as the church," Brennan-Miller said.

She grew up in Cleveland, and said Midwestern Catholicism seemed more open to change than that of Philadelphia. She noted how Cleveland allowed girls to be altar servers much earlier, and with less fuss, than Philadelphia.

"I feel personally the effects of being in a much more conservative diocese."

"I feel an opportunity to understand better where they're coming from in governing the church, guiding the church. We all have to work together."

That makes her optimistic about Philadelphia's new archbishop, Justin Rigali, because he comes from a Midwestern diocese, St. Louis.

Voice of the Faithful leaders in Philadelphia have written Rigali twice, welcoming him and requesting a meeting. The archdiocese generally has ignored the group, and Rigali had little to say about it as archbishop of St. Louis.

At St. Norbert, Brennan-Miller is treasurer of the women's club. Both she and her husband are active in the Stewards of St. John Neumann, established by Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua to tap into the talent and resources of lay Catholics.

The trend in the U.S. church has been for major lay involvement on finances, management and some liturgical roles at the parish level, as the number of priests has dwindled. But the hierarchy has been much less open to power-sharing.

"We need to see more [lay involvement] at the hierarchy level. I want to be a visible presence to the hierarchy," she said.

That lies at the heart of the couple's journey. Brennan-Miller said she would like to serve as a bridge between those who share her views and the archdiocese, based on her experiences and contacts on this trip.

The Millers were among those Philadelphians who greeted Rigali with a handshake and quick word of congratulations after the cardinals' consistory Tuesday.

The universality of the church, as shown by the dozens of nationalities in Rome this week, was eye-opening to David Miller.

"I feel like the church is vibrant, alive, growing," he said. "Sometimes we go to church on Sunday, and we go through the motions, and we think it's boring."

Brennan-Miller said, after a week dealing with top archdiocesan officials, priests and laity, "the church seems more flexible than I would have anticipated."

"The average parishioner has no exposure to that."


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