Catholic Laity Group Draws 100 at Suburban Meeting

By Ken Goze
Pioneer Press [Winnetka MN]
Downloaded June 24, 2004

Among the crowd of Catholics packed into folding chairs in the basement of Winnetka's Saints Faith, Hope and Charity Church last week, it was clear that many were angry enough to at least consider walking away from their faith entirely.

They spoke of friends and adult children who have done just that, alienated by autocratic leaders who ignored and enabled decades of sexual abuse by priests and who still seem out of touch with the concerns of rank-and-file Catholics.

This group of more than 100 say they are just as frustrated, but they plan to stay and fight for an institution which they say belongs to them as much as any pope or bishop.

Voice of the Faithful, a national church reform group launched two years ago amid the Boston abuse scandal, is gathering membership throughout the North Shore and northern suburbs. The organization, which claims 30,000 members nationally, has become a watchdog group in the church's ongoing abuse-related reforms, but the broader agenda is to win a real place at the table for lay Catholics in the day-to-day decisions that affect them.

"Voice of the Faithful is not dedicated toward changes in church doctrine; it is to correct the flaws this very human institution has," said John Iberle of Winnetka, one of the organizers of a new north suburban chapter. "Our goal here is to create a legitimate and effective means for the laity to be heard in the institutional life of the church."

Since holding its first meetings in October, the new chapter has worked with other chapters in the Chicago area to lobby Cardinal Francis George for support and certain reforms; has held services in remembrance of abuse victims; and has begun work on a long-term agenda, Iberle said. He and several other organizers are based in Winnetka and Wilmette, but the group has about 300 supporters from an area that includes Evanston and Chicago and parts of the northwest suburbs.

Future plans

In trying to outline plans for the future at the June 15 meeting, many in the audience vented their frustrations with what they see as misguided priorities from the archdiocese all the way up to the Vatican. They said the pope and archdiocese seem to be more interested in cracking down on dissenters than in solving fundamental problems.

In a meeting with American bishops last month, Pope John Paul II warned that American society was slipping toward a "soulless vision of the world." His statements came out shortly after Cardinal Bernard Law was appointed to head St. Mary Major Basilica in Rome. As the archbishop of Boston, Law was blamed for covering up years of abuse and quietly transferring offending priests to other jobs.

"I felt a little bit of outrage after the pope said American lost its soul and then gave Cardinal Law that post," said Maureen Ryan, a parishioner at Faith Hope and Charity and organizer of the group.

More recently, George instructed pastors to deny communion to members of a gay rights group wearing rainbow sashes and to fire lay ministers who disagree with church teachings. Although he framed them as reminders of existing policies, they struck others as unnecessary and divisive.

Marguerite Delacoma, a longtime Evanston resident who now lives in Chicago, said she was struck by photos from a recent Mass at Holy Name Cathedral, when some sash-wearing members were turned away from communion.

"Everyone in the picture looked so sad. I'm wondering if this really is a way of saying it's gone too far," Delacoma said.

Withering support

Many of those in attendance were approaching or past retirement age, and they fear that without meaningful reform, the church in the United States will wither to the point it has in Europe, where only a small fraction attend Mass.

Maggie Cambria, an attorney from Arlington Heights and one of the younger audience members, said she grew up Catholic and wants to raise her children in the church also, but has serious doubts about whether it will be a safe environment for them.

Like many American Catholics, some Voice of the Faithful members favor allowing women or married men to serve as priests, but the organization is not advocating any of those issues or anything in conflict with church teachings, Iberle said. The right and obligation of lay people to get involved in church matters is well-established in Catholic tradition, he said.

The three main goals are supporting abuse survivors, supporting the vast majority of priests who do live their vows and getting structural changes to prevent such scandals in the future.

Archdiocesan progress

In terms of dealing with abuse and financial matters, the Chicago Archdiocese is in many ways ahead of the curve, Iberle said. So far, George does not appear to have wholeheartedly endorsed the group or its goals, but he has met with representatives and some reforms announced by the archdiocese mirror what the group lobbied for last year.

Iberle said the group hopes to organize a conference or synod and define issues and strategy for the Chicago area.

"In Boston now, whenever the hierarchy is trying to make a decision, they always try to calculate what the reaction of Voice of the Faithful will be," Iberle said. "That's the kind of place we want to get to, that our point of view is always considered. Will it always be followed? Not necessarily, but it will always be considered."

Terry O'Connor, who serves as coordinator for the Chicago area of Voice of the Faithful, said pressure from the many ordinary Catholics who make up the church is needed to persuade the leadership to make difficult decisions and also to defend those decisions before their peers and superiors.

O'Connor said he met with George in March.

"I asked him about bishop accountability. He said it has to go to Rome. I gave him high marks for being honest and forthright. He's not willing to take a leadership role in taking on Rome," O'Connor said.

One of the group's challenges is to find appropriate tactics. Withholding donations is one possibility, but that often ends up hurting people who have nothing to do with the dispute, he said.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.