Conference Addresses Church at ‘Crossroads of Anger and Hope’

By Terence Hegarty
Jobserve [Chicopee MA]
March 20, 2004

CHICOPEE — The title was changed at the last minute to reflect the feelings of area participants in the wake of accusations that have hit close to home. “At the Crossroads of Anger and Hope, Parish Social Ministry in Difficult Times” was the theme of a daylong social ministry conference held at Elms College here March 13.

Scheduled months in advance, organizers were unsure how to proceed with the conference after the Feb. 11 retirement of Springfield Bishop Thomas L. Dupre and subsequent allegations of abuse made against him.

“I welcome you to this gathering at a very difficult time in our diocese,” said Msgr. Richard Sniezyk, diocesan administrator. “The thought crossed our minds when this all happened (developments surrounding Bishop Dupre’s retirement) that maybe we should cancel this, but perhaps this is all the more reason to have a gathering like this.

“We are certainly, as a diocese, experiencing our Lenten season as we’ve never experienced it before,” Msgr. Sniezyk continued. “Our eyes must constantly be on Jesus Christ. He is the head of the church, and as long as we keep that in mind, we will always have hope.”

Addressing recent events in the Springfield Diocese, keynote speaker Msgr. Ray East of the Archdiocese of Washington told those gathered in the Veritas Auditorium how important it is to keep doing the work of the church.

“We have to be here,” he said. “Jesus didn’t say, ‘Put the cross down just ’cause you’re tired.’ Jesus didn’t say, ‘Put the cross down because you’re angry.’ Jesus said, ‘Pick up your cross every day and follow me.’”

Msgr. East serves as director of the Office of Black Catholics and is vicar for evangelization for the Archdiocese of Washington.

Many participants were struck by the dynamic presentation of Msgr. East, as he alternated between speaking and singing, getting his audience to stand and sing and clap several times.

He sang of a man, so busy doing God’s work that he didn’t have time to die. “This is not dying time for Springfield, for Boston, for Worcester,” said Msgr. East. “This is getting up time, this is healing time,” he said to enthusiastic applause.

Myrta Colon, a resident of Longmeadow and parishioner of St. Michael’s Cathedral Parish in Springfield, said many of her fellow Catholics are looking at the current crisis in the church as something to learn from. “It’s something we need to face, something we cannot hide anymore. We need to be really strong about it and stay together.”

She said she understands that people are angry. “But, I have the hope that all these people who are angered can see the light and can see the life of Jesus and just follow Jesus.”

Similar conferences are held biannually. Co-sponsored by the Springfield Diocese’s Catholic Charities Office and the Elms College Institute for Theological and Pastoral Studies, they address ways in which those working in the social justice field can better reach out to their parishes and communities.

“Recent events have changed the landscape of our diocese,” said Jan Denney, director of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Springfield. “As Catholics, we need to acknowledge and respond to the crisis in our local church and reflect on how we can do social justice ministry in these difficult times.”

This year’s conference hosted nearly 200 people from throughout the diocese and some from as far away as Worcester and Boston. Events began with a 9:15 a.m. prayer service immediately followed by the keynote address. Several workshops, addressing issues such as hunger and homelessness, urban evangelization and parish social ministry followed.

Colon said she attended the conference because she feels a need to reinforce her beliefs in the church. “The way I can do that is socializing with other people and being part of the (Catholic) community.”

“I’m hopeful that something like this will bring people together to focus on the good that is happening throughout the diocese,” said Kathleen Ryan, a conference participant from St. Anthony of Padua Parish in North Adams. She said her feelings since the departure of Bishop Dupre have involved “mostly sadness.”

Following the workshops, a luncheon was held which provided the backdrop for the presentation of the first Sister Annette McDermott, SSJ Social Justice Ministry Awards. The newly created awards were presented to four area Catholics and two organizations in recognition of their service to their church and communities.

The award recipients were Allan Adie, of St. Mary of the Assumption Parish in Turners Falls; Albert DiPietro, of Springfield’s Holy Cross Parish; Eugenie Phillips, a member of St. Mark Parish in Pittsfield; and Deacon Ray Velazquez of Holy Family Parish in Springfield. The St. Vincent de Paul Society from St. Mary Parish in Orange and the Inter-parish Social Concerns Committee in Northampton were the two groups recognized.

Sister McDermott helped to develop and promote Catholic social justice programs and teaching during her tenure as director of the Springfield Diocese’s Office of Social Concern. Under her leadership, the office expanded the mission of the Catholic Church into the community.

Several organizations set up tables at the conference and had representatives pass out information to attendees. The lay groups Voice of the Faithful and the Survivor’s Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) had a joint booth prominently displayed. Msgr. East said he was impressed that the Diocese of Springfield invited the victims’ advocacy groups to the conference.

“Voice of the Faithful and SNAP, welcome,” said Msgr. East. “You’re not shut out, you’re shut in today,” he told his audience.

“We hope that people have found this conference to be, not only a place to have a discussion about recent events in our church, but also an opportunity to look at ways to heal and strengthen their faith,” said Denney.

In an effort to provide further such opportunities, Denney said her office will offer two courses later this year regarding the Catholic faith and Catholic social teaching. For more information, call Denney at 452-0606.

(An upcoming edition of the diocesan television program “Real to Reel” will feature coverage of this conference. Tune in to “Real to Reel” Saturdays at 7 p.m. on WWLP-TV22.)


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