Annals of Religion
The Reformer: A Priest's Battle for a More Open Church

By Paul Wilkes
The New Yorker
September 2, 2002

In 1993, when the head of the Boston archdiocese, Cardinal Bernard Law, appointed Father Walter Cuenin the pastor of Our Lady Help of Christians, a Catholic parish in Newton, Massachusetts, the church's spire was corroded, the Celtic cross that topped the spire was badly tarnished, and the shabbiness of the interior was mercifully muted by poor lighting. Today, after a four-million-dollar renovation, the soaring, twenty-five-foot reredos is sparkling white, the intricate patterns of grapes and vines winding about the church's Moorish arches have been faithfully restored, and the crowning cross is a glistening gold. But the changes at Our Lady's, as the parish is popularly known, are more than cosmetic.

As Catholics in other parts of the United States drift away from an institution that many find increasingly irrelevant to their lives, Our Lady's congregation has grown, from about ten thousand faithful but somewhat unenthusiastic parishioners a decade ago to more than twelve thousand active members today. A parish in which a former pastor plastered parishioners' windows with impossible-to-remove stickers if they parked in a reserved space, and where a curate once called parish children "termites," now attracts Catholics from a broad variety of parishes. They come to hear Father Cuenin's challenging sermons about contemporary life and to participate in a dynamic religious community. Some five hundred parishioners are active in programs that help, among others, teen-agers who are searching for a committed faith, women who are suffering as a result of divorce, abortion, or a family loss, and elderly people who are confined to their homes. When Father Cuenin came to the parish, he insisted on being called by his baptismal name—Walter—thereby announcing his egalitarian vision of a Church in which the laity would have a prominent role. He also replaced two priest assistants who were not happy about the new direction with lay pastoral associates.

On a crisp morning last May, the Saturday before Pentecost, Father Cuenin, dressed in a sweatshirt and a pair of khaki shorts, sat in the kitchen of the rectory drinking coffee and reading the papers. A story in the Globe reported that Cardinal Law had declared his support for a new set of procedures to deal with sexual abuse by priests, a policy shift that was being described as a national model. The Herald also had a story about the Cardinal: "AIDE ADMITS LAW MADE MOLESTER PRIEST A VICAR."

Father Cuenin is a squarely built, muscular man of fifty-six. He wears his light-brown hair, graying at the temples, in a military cut—his father was a Marine Corps officer—and his head and neck seem fashioned from the same sturdy log. He is not a man to raise his voice for emphasis; he registers his points otherwise. He glanced toward the ceiling with a Jack Nicholson look of incredulity. "National model?" he said sardonically. "This is Boston, the epicenter—where it all began. Who do we think we're kidding here, folks?"

The archdiocese of Boston was in well-publicized disarray. In January, the Globe reported that a local parish priest, Father John Geoghan, had been accused of abusing a hundred and thirty boys, one as young as four, over a period of three decades. Cardinal Law, the senior American Catholic prelate and a once frequent visitor to the White House, had been under pressure from many lay Catholics to resign because of his role in transferring Father Geoghan and other pedophile priests from one parish to another, even after their crimes were known.

"Catholicism isn't lived out in Rome, or in some proclamation from chancery offices here in Boston," Father Cuenin continued. "It's lived out in parishes, by real people. And here in a parish, while the issue right now is sexual misconduct, it's the arrogant abuse of power that fuels both the fury people feel and the determination they have for reform. Let's be clear: this is a Church I love, and it's also a Church that drives me nuts. Priests have been forced to remain silent about the supposedly unassailable prohibitions on birth control, second marriages, the ordination of married men and women. How can you arbitrarily close off such issues to the modern mind?

"Laypeople have been treated like so many immature children, incapable of having a real voice in a Church that has proved itself pitifully inadequate in running and policing itself," he went on. "You can only shrug it off for so long."

In Boston, the most Catholic of American cities, the pedophilia scandal has inspired an unprecedented revolt among laity and clergy, who have both made it clear that they want a greater voice in Church affairs. Newton, an affluent suburb just over the city line and eight miles or so from the center of Boston, has become, in effect, American Catholicism's Gdansk shipyard. Father Cuenin, who is one of the prime movers behind an upstart group of clergymen, the Boston Priests' Forum, and is also an unapologetic backer of a range of new lay initiatives, might be considered the movement's Lech Walesa.

During the eight-o'clock Mass at Our Lady's on the morning of Pentecost, Father Cuenin stood in the main aisle, dressed in a blazing-red chasuble, which signifies the fire of the Holy Spirit that descended upon the apostles fifty days after Easter. He was in the middle of his homily when he grinned like a little boy about to share an important secret. Referring to one of the liberalizing reforms instituted nearly forty years ago by the Second Vatican Council, under the leadership of Pope John XXIII, he said, "Turning the altar around was the easy part, but it implied more, much more than that. We have to face each other—laity, priest, bishop. Nobody can piously keep his—or, for that matter, her—face to the wall in some secret ritual. So the challenge is to change the way the Church is, not just the way it looks. Some of you are ready to walk out on the Church. I feel the same way sometimes. But we can't walk out on our family—and this is our family. I think we all sense that something is happening as never before, friends. The genie is out of the bottle. Catholics are not going back to a Church where they have no voice. I know I'm not."

Father Cuenin went on to mention a reform group called Voice of the Faithful, which is advocating that the Church's hierarchy be more accountable to ordinary lay Catholics. He implored his listeners to join the group, telling them that Voice of the Faithful was planning a rally at the Hynes Convention Center, in Boston, on July 20th. He said that he had already bought a ticket for the event, and he urged the congregation to do the same.

In an earlier parish bulletin, Father Cuenin had announced that Our Lady's had declined to contribute its usual donation, the cathedraticum, to the Cardinal's budget for the expenses of his office, his household, and his personal charities. Father Cuenin told the parishioners that there were alternative ways for their dollars to be channelled to needy cases, and that they should no longer feel obliged, as they had in the past, to make their donations through the Cardinal's Annual Appeal. What he was advocating, in essence, was conscientious objection, not to Catholic charities but to the Appeal itself.

John R. Quinn, a former archbishop of San Francisco, who is now retired, wrote in a recent issue of the national Catholic weekly America, "In terms of its harm and far-reaching effects, the present crisis in the Church must be compared with the Reformation and the French Revolution." To put Father Cuenin's views in perspective, I visited the Weston Jesuit School, a theological center in Cambridge, where he taught sacramental theology and liturgy for ten years. There, in a cramped third-floor office, I met Father John O'Malley, a respected historian of the Church.

"It's impossible to overemphasize both the importance of Vatican II and how its tolerant and open spirit has been largely extinguished by the present Pope," Father O'Malley told me. "He has created a law-and-order, fear-driven, clerically controlled Church. Diocesan priests who didn't leave—and plenty did—basically took one of two paths. Some continued the thrust of Vatican II and became our great parish priests. Others agreed to be silent on issues of change."

I asked Father O'Malley whether there were any precedents for the grassroots activism advocated by Father Cuenin and Boston lay Catholics. "Worker priests, priests' councils—yes, they've appeared, only to be suppressed or to run out of steam," he said. Citing one of the Church's most revered reformers, he added, "Remember, Francis of Assisi, in the thirteenth century, was a layman. In our century, we had Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement. But they addressed social ills, not Church ills. No, there has never been a truly significant revolution from within the Catholic Church by laypeople. That is why this is so intriguing: no mob in the street, but thoughtful Catholics coming out of the parishes, carefully organizing to redress wrongs."

Every afternoon at two o'clock or so, Father Cuenin takes a walk through the neighborhood around Our Lady's. The exercise provides an hour's break in a schedule that requires him to supervise a staff of eleven, preside at daily Mass, three weekend Masses, weddings, funerals, and parish and school events, and to attend to administrative issues.

"People today are looking for authenticity, not just some kind of Catholicism where you go in on Sunday and punch your card, performing your 'obligation,' " he said as we walked along the shaded sidewalks of Newton. "They are looking for a framework for their lives, inspiration to go on, to be decent, to raise good kids, to be good citizens and people. And this crisis has caused them to wake up. 'Why have I been putting up with this all these years?' I hear them saying. This is the moment of truth. If it's not seized upon, people will simply drift away, and the Catholic Church will become some sort of quaint relic, the place you go for baptisms and weddings and funerals but is otherwise irrelevant to your life."

I asked Father Cuenin to tell me about his path to the priesthood. "I was a good little boy who craved attention," he said, smiling. When his father was stationed in Paris for a time, he began attending daily Mass at Saint-Germain-en-Laye. "My parents were Catholics but not especially religious ones, so no one was pushing me," he said. "I had never really known a priest, so I didn't exactly know what they did, but when I looked up at the altar it got me. That's what I wanted to do with my life. My parents weren't enthusiastic about my entering the seminary; they thought that I had illusions of grandeur. In a way, I did."

In 1963, at the age of seventeen, he began his training for the priesthood in Boston, which had been his parents' home, first at Cardinal O'Connell Seminary and then at St. John's. "Mine was a conservative, cultic vision of being a priest, and pretty unfocussed," he told me. But then he was "blown away," he said, by the emerging tolerance ushered in by Vatican II.

Father Cuenin began to speak out in favor of allowing the seminarians greater freedom within their tightly regimented schedule. The rector of St. John's took him aside and told him that if he wasn't more circumspect he might be dismissed. "I was nervous, of course," Father Cuenin recalled. "I didn't want to be kicked out, but what I was asking for was hardly radical. We were grown men being treated as if we were in grade school. The rector bitterly disagreed, but he sent me off to Rome the next year"—granting a privilege accorded only to the most promising.

In Rome, in 1967, Father Cuenin enrolled in a course in moral theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University which was taught by the German theologian Josef Fuchs. Fuchs urged his students not to get caught up in the precise accounting of their moments of goodness and their failings, which was the prevailing ethos of Catholicism at the time. He asked them to consider, instead, what he called the "fundamental option" to make their priestly vocations the pursuit of generosity, kindness, justice, and peace. "It was an amazing opening for me, to find that the life of faith could be so dynamic, so charitable, despite our faults," Father Cuenin told me. "It blew out the cobwebs." At his ordination, in St. Peter's Basilica, in 1970, James Hickey, the rector of the North American College in Rome and later the archbishop of Washington, D.C., told him, "Walter, I know you're going be a leader of people. I just don't know where you're going to lead them."

Father Cuenin spent the next three years as an associate pastor in St. Michael's parish in North Andover, Massachusetts, and then went back to Rome to earn a doctorate in sacramental theology. Upon his return to Boston, in 1977, he was appointed to the chancery's tribunal, where he worked primarily on requests for marriage annulments. He was on the sort of track that led logically to a seminary rectorship or to ordination as a bishop. He was also assigned, on a part-time basis, to Sacred Heart parish in Lexington, as an associate pastor. "I finally had the chance to put into effect what had been churning around inside me," he said. Under his tutelage and that of the pastor, Father Ultan McCabe, lay committees performed duties that had once been the domain of priests. Kneelers were removed, and the liturgy was considered no longer a rote exercise but a canvas to be enriched by dramatic readings, dance, and hymns from diverse cultures.

In 1986, a new, more authoritarian pastor was assigned to Sacred Heart. In the course of a few months, Father Cuenin watched the parish's spirit of community dissolve. To him, the appointment signalled a move by Cardinal Law, who a few years earlier had been named the head of the archdiocese, to strengthen orthodoxy and to reclaim the power of the priesthood over the laity. In response, many parishioners withheld their donations. "Their expectations had been raised, and now they were given this," Father Cuenin said. "It shattered them." The archdiocese granted his request for a transfer.

Still, Father Cuenin could not shake the dispiriting experience he had had at Sacred Heart. In 1989, he "hit the wall." Both his parents had recently died, and he felt that it was time to take stock of himself. "I was someone who had basically gone along, even with my misgivings about the Church, for most of my life," he said. "It was my mid-life crisis, I guess—time for me to see whether I could remain a priest in a Church that could be so wonderful and yet so cruel, often at the same time." He took a leave of absence, became a travel agent, and set himself the challenge of earning fifty thousand dollars a year, a goal that he easily exceeded. He went into therapy for what he calls "anger, dissatisfaction, and confusion with who I was." He visited churches as an observer, throughout the archdiocese. "It was an eye-opener," he said. "Our newer churches looked like Pizza Huts, with a priest up there clamoring for attention and 'relevance.' In a word, mediocre. I looked at myself, and I realized that I was a pretty decent priest, that I could bring more than that to people. Through therapy, I found out that I didn't have to be whipped into a fury every fifteen minutes when I didn't like something the Church was doing. I found that, after all, I loved being a parish priest."

Ayear later, after Father Cuenin returned from his leave, Cardinal Law asked him to organize pilgrimages for the archdiocese. He travelled frequently with the Cardinal and found him a personable companion and a skillful politician who, on parish trips, moved from table to table at meals, making sure that he had met everyone and that everyone was enjoying the trip. Although the Cardinal often displayed an easy, common touch, he also seemed to relish the prestige of his position and his access to high Vatican officials. He was customarily addressed as "Your eminence," and he didn't ask to be called anything else.

In particular, Father Cuenin was bothered by the Cardinal's unyielding allegiance to the dictates of Rome. The Cardinal seemed open to complaints about archdiocesan policies, but Father Cuenin noticed that he seldom acted on them. "I was beginning to see a man who had the best of intentions, yet who was afraid to allow the force of ideas he didn't like to take hold," he told me. "For example, the Cardinal called for a study of the living arrangements of priests, but said at the outset that there would be no consideration of priests living in apartments. Even as he asked the question, he wanted to control what the answer would be."

Our Lady Help of Christians is widely considered an excellent parish. Nonetheless, Father Cuenin's pastorate has not escaped the chancery's scrutiny. He hadn't been long in the job when calls started coming in, from the Cardinal himself or from his subordinates, reprimanding him for, among other things, using translations of scripture that replaced such words as "man" with gender-neutral terms, and for giving a non-Catholic—specifically, the Episcopal bishop of Massachusetts—the Eucharist. Recently, Cardinal Law asked for a full copy of Father Cuenin's statement against a Massachusetts bill that would have narrowly defined marriage as a union between man and woman, thereby disallowing same-sex couples to qualify for benefits. And yet Our Lady's, because of its central location and its excellent facilities, is often used for archdiocesan gatherings. A certain test of wills seems to be going on between Cardinal and pastor, each acknowledging the other's strengths, while working to correct his perceived weaknesses.

"Regardless of our differences, I have no animosity toward the man," Father Cuenin told me. "I have always been treated very well by him. We just happen to disagree. Actually, I admire the Cardinal's loyalty to the Church. But loyalty also demands creative disagreement with teachings and stands that are not enhancing what we are basically trying to do—bring people into a closer relationship with God, with Christ. Loyalty demands that you take uncomfortable stands. And I think the fault here in Boston is that no one took on Cardinal Law. We let things go on."

Father Cuenin is equally forthright about his differences with the Vatican. "While I see people moving, very healthily, to a new freedom and depth, ready to take their faith into their lives, the Pope sees a creeping move toward a watered-down Catholicism," he said. "There have been dozens of synods at the Vatican during which hundreds of different opinions were registered, but the final word is always Rome's. And Rome isn't always right. Any cursory reading of history will sustain that point."

One afternoon, as we ended a walk through the parish, Father Cuenin said, "If I were to be brutally honest, I would have to say that for the past few years, beneath all our accomplishments and happiness here at Our Lady's, I've felt a real sadness. I hear heartbreaking stories of people who go from parish to parish to have a baby baptized and are refused because they are married a second time, or not married at all. Or people who sit there every week and feel that they are not worthy to receive the Eucharist because of some Church rule. That's why the Church must change."

Like most of the Catholic clergymen he knows, Father Cuenin only recently discovered that some of his fellow-priests in the Boston archdiocese were molesting children. He had his first personal experience with the problem earlier this year, when Sister Marie LaBollita, a pastoral associate at Our Lady's, informed him that the parents of a family in the parish, a couple named Rodney and Paula Ford, told her that their son, Greg, had been sexually abused some years earlier by Father Paul Shanley. The Fords had been members of St. Jean l'Evangeliste, a once predominantly French parish, which merged with Our Lady's in 1997. The abuse allegedly started when Greg Ford, who is now twenty-four, was a six-year-old student in a religious-education class. Father Shanley had reportedly asked the boy to leave class—a summons deemed an honor—and, in the rectory, had coerced him into a game of strip poker. The seduction progressed to other acts of intimacy, and the abuse continued for six years. Last January, the Globe published a story that described the priest's succession of reassignments from parish to parish, despite allegations of abuse. Greg Ford saw a picture of Shanley in the paper and broke down. The Fords filed a civil suit against Cardinal Law and the archdiocese, charging him and other officials with negligence. Cardinal Law, in his response, called the Fords neglectful parents.

One evening, Father Cuenin and I met with the Fords in the rectory of Our Lady's. Paula Ford was a vibrant, voluble woman whose piercing dark eyes were accented by dark-rimmed glasses. Her husband, a police officer at Boston College, was more reserved. The day before, they had been in their lawyer's office with Cardinal Law, who was being deposed on their suit.

"Greg was a happy kid, up to about thirteen," Paula Ford said. "Then he started writing about all this darkness in his life—guns, knives, violence." Soon, he turned to self-mutilation and setting fires, and that led to his being placed in the first of seventeen psychiatric hospitals and other therapeutic facilities. "The doctors kept telling us that Greg had clear signs of sexual abuse," his mother said.

Her husband interjected, "I'll never forget the way Greg explained the abuse to me." He arched his arms in a menacing fashion and leaned forward in his chair. This, he said, was how his son had described the recurring horror of being sodomized by Father Shanley.

"We sat right across the table from our archbishop," Paula Ford continued. "He never apologized for what happened; he never so much as met our eyes."

Father Cuenin, who had been listening quietly, shook his head. "And these are 'neglectful parents'?" he said. "For sending their child to a church class?"

A number of lay groups have risen up in Boston in the past several months. One calls for an archdiocesan-wide assembly of parish leaders. Another has organized protests, marching with photos of sexual-abuse victims, as children. Voice of the Faithful, which was founded in February and is by far the largest of them, was in the process of organizing the July 20th convention.

One meeting, in June, was held in the basement of St. Ignatius Church, in Chestnut Hill. There was a catacomb-like feeling about the gathering: hushed voices, subdued lighting, bowed heads. Cruets for water and wine and a dish used for the ritual hand-washing stood off to the side of a simple wooden altar, as if in readiness for Mass. Yet in front of the altar was a giant flip chart.

A Voice of the Faithful meeting perhaps resembles one of the early sessions that led to Vatican II, with one difference: these reformers are not priests but mostly ordinary people, ranging from their mid-twenties to their sixties and seventies. At St. Ignatius, eight subgroups, organized under such rubrics as Financial Voice, Parish Voice, and Voice of Renewal, were discussing strategies for bringing about changes in Church policy, including lay participation at every level of Church decision-making, and greater transparency in the allocation of Church funds and in the selection of parish priests and bishops.

Although some of the members had advocated drastic tactics, such as a siege on the chancery to demand Cardinal Law's resignation, more temperate voices prevailed. One group was working on an agreement with the National Catholic Community Foundation, whereby private donations could be made to Catholic causes outside official channels.

Voice of the Faithful has developed its own legion of periti—the experts who wrote the Vatican II documents and guided them toward promulgation. One expert, Thomas Beaudoin, who teaches theology part time at Boston College, read passages on lay involvement from Lumen Gentium, Vatican II's groundbreaking "Dogmatic Constitution on the Church," to an eager group of Gen X-ers. Another key figure, Paul Baier, is a specialist in dot-com startups. He organized the group's Web site—Voice of the Faithful has an e-mail list of twenty-five thousand correspondents throughout the United States and twenty-three other countries—and advanced ten thousand dollars of his own money toward the July 20th rally. He warned about hackers who have tried to infect the site,, and he reported that the Vatican had visited the site but had not signed up for regular participation.

The president of Voice of the Faithful is James Post, a fifty-eight-year-old professor of management at Boston University and a veteran of the Nestle boycott, which alerted the world to the dangers of breast-milk substitutes in developing countries. "Generic complaints we've always had in the Catholic Church, but never the traction," he told me. "Three points: here is an issue that everyone agrees is egregious—it involves children. We squirm. Second, because of the Internet we have the ability to organize a community virtually overnight. And, third, the media is very interested. This is the first real twenty-first-century people's movement."

On June 7th, Father Cuenin stood in the lobby of Robsham Theatre, at Boston College, to greet the arrivals at an organizational meeting of the newly established Boston Priests' Forum. Most were in their fifties and sixties—men who had come of age during Vatican II. Younger Boston priests, out of concern for their careers, were reluctant to participate in such a public display of independence from the chancery, and Cardinal Law had made his opposition to the group clear when the editor of the archdiocesan newspaper, the Pilot, turned down an article about the Forum on the ground that the group was "divisive."

The Forum originated last fall, during a Saturday-night rectory dinner held by Father Cuenin and two pastors of nearby parishes, Father Paul Kilroy and Father Thomas Powers. "We looked at each other and realized that we lacked something even as basic as 'unsupervised conversation,' " Father Cuenin told me. "We live in a Balkanized world, isolated in our parishes, and we really had no opportunity to share our concerns openly, without fear of retribution."

What started as a group of three expanded to fifteen priests, then forty-five. After the pedophilia scandal broke, in January, the number grew rapidly. In May, Father Donald Cozzens, the author of a widely read book entitled "The Changing Face of the Priesthood," attracted an audience of two hundred—more than a third of Boston's diocesan priests. Before this, Father Kilroy said, "you couldn't get two hundred priests together if you gave them free tickets to a Red Sox game."

A hundred and eight priests showed up at the Boston College meeting, and agreed that the Forum should be formally organized, with or without the archdiocese's blessing. They would press for the right of due process for priests accused of sexual misconduct, and they would continue to invite guest speakers even if they were persona non grata in the archdiocese. They were especially eager to hear Eugene Kennedy, a former priest, speak on themes from his book "The Unhealed Wound: The Church, the Priesthood, and the Question of Sexuality," a scathing indictment of the Church's perception of human sexuality. Kennedy will appear this month. "I had never seen priests energized like this," Father Cuenin said later that evening in the rectory, as he nursed his nightly Martini. "For once, they were taking their professional lives into their own hands. This may be hard for lay Catholics to understand, but priests are more similar to them than they realize. We, too, often feel like powerless, voiceless underlings."

As outrage about the pedophilia scandal grew, the American Catholic bishops decided that their semi-annual conference, which was to take place in Dallas, in mid-June, would be devoted to the matter. On the Sunday morning before the conference, I attended two Masses—one conducted by Father Cuenin at Our Lady's; the other by Cardinal Law at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, in Boston's South End.

The story of Christ dining with Matthew the tax collector was the Church's gospel reading for the day. "If, as they say, you are known by the company you keep, Christ wasn't doing very much for his image here, eating with a miserable tax collector," Father Cuenin began, alluding to the holy man's willingness to break bread with one of the most despised functionaries of the time. Recently, he said, the Church had become more concerned with protecting its own image than with protecting its flock. The Church, he went on, must become more attentive to people whose lives have been fractured—for example, the divorced should be allowed a "front-row seat," and not be told that they are unworthy to approach the Communion banquet. Gays and lesbians should be in the "other front row," and not told that their lives are "basically disordered." He concluded, "How many of you feel marginalized right now? This wasn't Christ's way. Let's always remember that he called for mercy together with justice. The Eucharist is not a reward for good behavior—it is food for the journey of life."

Later that morning, in downtown Boston, the police had set up lines outside the cathedral well before a black Mercury bearing Cardinal Law emerged on Harrison Avenue and pulled into the parking lot behind the cathedral, which was heavily guarded. With a flash of red, the Cardinal disappeared through a back door. Thirty minutes later, he stood before some four hundred congregants, Catholic immigrants from approximtely fifty countries who had gathered for an annual multicultural mass. Viewed from the rear of the cathedral, Cardinal Law looked magnificent in his white vestments, a tall mitre atop his silvery hair, his skin ruddy, his crosier held firmly in his left hand. He made no references in his homily to the upheaval in his archdiocese or to the impending conference in Dallas. In a soft, well-modulated voice, he gestured for the members of each nationality to stand for applause. The message was the unity of the Catholic Church: many countries brought together under the same God. But, as I approached the altar at Communion time, I saw that Cardinal Law's skin, in fact, was pallid and loose on his face, like an oversized shirt. His arms seemed leaden as he reached into the ciborium for the Host. He looked tired and sad.

A few days later, after the bishops in Dallas had proclaimed a new, zero-tolerance policy toward clerical sex abusers, Father Cuenin told the National Catholic Reporter, "This whole crisis can't be just on the backs of the priests. . . . I don't think the American people will be able to put trust back in the leadership of the Church if some bishops do not resign or leave the ministry." During Mass on the Sunday after the Dallas meeting, he began his homily by commenting on a passage in Matthew that is often used to introduce an appeal for young men to consider a priestly vocation. He took an unexpected turn, however. "This is going to sound a bit off the wall," he said, "but I'm going to ask you not to pray for vocations. But to pray that the Church will have the strength and the courage to acknowledge the vocations we already have. Exceptional women are waiting to serve. We have married men who would make wonderful priests. We don't need more vocations—they are already here. Let's just accept them."

At seven-thirty on the morning of July 20th, Father Cuenin stood in the parking lot of Our Lady's and waved goodbye as a busload of his parishioners left for the Voice of the Faithful rally, in Back Bay. Because he had to return to Newton for a two-o'clock wedding, he had decided to follow them in his own car.

At the Hynes Convention Center, the delegates filled the main floor and the balcony—forty-two hundred seats. Scores more had taken up standing positions along the walls. Father Cuenin and his ninety parishioners were wearing distinctive T-shirts with the message, front and back, "Our Lady's Voice. Newton. Keep the Faith. Change the Church," and they cut a noticeable blue swath on the convention floor. The event had drawn a much younger crowd than Father Cuenin had expected, and a sizable number had come from outside the Boston area. Kris Ward had flown in from Dayton, Ohio, and spent the night on the floor at Logan International Airport. "I've been waiting most of my Catholic life to hear what Voice of the Faithful is advocating," she said. "Yes!"

Much of the daylong program of lectures and workshops was devoted to exploring the theological roots of lay participation in Church affairs. The most acclaimed speaker was Father Thomas Doyle, one of the authors of a 1985 report, written for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, on rampant sexual abuse among priests. It was ignored. In his address, Father Doyle described current developments as "the initial death throes of the medieval, monarchical model of the Church," and urged his listeners to help free Church officials "from these terrible chains of addiction to power and control." If the Church was not meant to be a democracy, he pointed out, neither was it intended to be an oligarchy. "It's a community," he said.

"All good," Father Cuenin said the next morning, as we sat on the deck outside the rectory kitchen. "But what they need and what we need"—he was referring to the Priests' Forum—"is a community organizer like Saul Alinsky. Some way to put pressure on the hierarchy for change. A lunch counter to be arrested at." He called out to the adjacent parking lot, "Excuse me, is there a lunch counter out there?

"This is an extraordinarily complex issue," he continued. "A new understanding of the sacrament of baptism has completely upended the old system whereby the ministry was largely limited to ordained priests. It is through baptism that the Holy Spirit gives every Christian a share in the ministry of Christ in the Church. In other words, there is the sense that the whole community—the bishop and the people—has the power to ordain. Unfortunately, many in today's leadership find that difficult to accept. So we basically have two different Churches operating at the same time. We keep on talking about the 'Vatican II Church.' But the Pope who, in the spirit of Vatican II, goes to Assisi to meet as a co-equal with other religious heads is the same Pope who endorses the Vatican declaration Dominus Iesus, which categorically proclaims the supremacy of Roman Catholicism. The conflict within the Church is dizzying.

"When I entered the seminary," he went on, "the very theologians who eventually wrote the Vatican II documents were in exile, their writings suppressed. But they weren't radicals, and neither am I. Change will come when we least expect it, in a blinding flash. Vatican II is a perfect example: virtually overnight, the Church began to change because the buildup was there, the time was right."

Several days later, Father Cuenin, now dressed in proper clerical black, stood in Our Lady's parking lot. Beside him was Cardinal Law. The Cardinal had arrived to join six hundred young Catholics who were travelling by bus to Toronto to celebrate World Youth Day in the presence of the Pope. As pilgrimage director for the archdiocese, Father Cuenin had been asked by the chancery to organize the trip.

The media had turned out, prompted by an announcement by the archdiocese that it would not accept Voice of the Faithful's circuitous donations, even as it was making cuts to charity because of a shortfall in the Cardinal's Appeal for 2002. Outwardly, the two men seemed on the best of terms. But as the Cardinal climbed aboard one of the buses, Father Cuenin said he was sorry that parish duties prevented him from going on the twelve-hour road trip. He added that he would be flying to Toronto a few hours later. "Walter," Cardinal Law said, admonishing his dissident priest with a smile, "we all have to make our sacrifices."


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