Sr. Carol Keehan, DC, recently announced her retirement after thirteen years as president and chief executive officer of the Catholic Health Association. On October 22, 2018, she received the Commonweal Catholic in the Public Square Award. This piece is adapted from her acceptance address.


It is a challenging time. Between politics, church issues, climate change, and the loss of civility in discussing these issues, we can be overwhelmed.

We have to admit, it has gotten to many of us, some even admitting to being discouraged, depressed, or just in a real funk about it.

I am not sure what most of you do to get out of this kind of situation, but my go-to cure is no longer available. For years when the problems of life and the situations in the world weighed me down, I knew what would cure me: a Maeve Binchy novel. Now I know she is not Dostoevsky, and I probably should not admit this in this literary crowd. But: Did you ever read one? There are wonderful people in them, really vicious people in them, impossible situations—and it all works out better than you could imagine. You can probably take only one a year, but it is a real upper, and even the church does the right things in her books.

Sadly, Maeve has gone to God, and I am searching for another mood-elevator.

This can be a wonderful moment, especially for the church in America, and it can also be a healing moment.

In the meantime, it is critical to look at what we can do to help the people of our country and our church. Commonweal has a profound mission statement that begins “Since 1924, Commonweal has staked a claim for Catholic principles and perspective in American life, and for lay people’s voices within the church.” Has there ever been a moment when we needed you more? 

Another way to look at it might be: Is this what you were born to do? We know that profound and lasting change is necessary for our church to be what it claims to be, more importantly to be what Christ calls it to be.

This can be a wonderful moment, especially for the church in America, and it can also be a healing moment. I find myself thinking about that beautiful poem by Langston Hughes, “Let America Be America Again.” Langston Hughes wrote this poem as an African American man who had never been able to fully participate in the opportunities and promise of America, and yet he still believed. He wrote:

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where
           Every man is free…


O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!...


We the people, must redeem…

As I thought about that and the pain of the many victims of abuse, both sexual abuse and the abuse that comes from clericalism and church politics, I thought many people in the church have never had the opportunity to experience church with all its promise and commitment, and so I took the liberty of rewording Langston Hughes’s poem:

O, let Church be Church again—
The community that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the community where
                        Everyone is free…


O, yes,
I say it plain,
Church never was Church to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
Church will be!...


We, the people, must redeem…

I believe that if we can join with our brothers and sisters who have experienced such pain in a journey to authentically reform the church, it might be the best way for them to heal and to heal the church. This is a privileged opportunity, and Commonweal is exceptionally well positioned for leadership in that. Think about it! What other group in our country has such a strong collection of Catholic intellectuals who love their faith? Look at your history, how much you did to advance understanding and acceptance of Vatican II, your honest and respectful debates over issues and priorities. For decades, you have enriched the church. Maybe it has not always been appreciated, but you have enriched it.

The church has finally canonized a saint who was so clear on the essential service that people like the Commonweal family can give to the church: Saint Óscar Romero. Romero wrote in his book The Violence of Love:

We bishops, popes, priests, nuns, Catholic educators—
          we are human, and as humans we are sinful
and we need someone to be a prophet for us too
          and call us to conversion
and not let us set up religion
          as something untouchable.
Religion needs prophets, and thank God we have them,
          because it would be a sad church
that felt itself owner of the truth
          and rejected everything else.
A church that only condemns,
          a church that sees sin only in others
and does not look at the beam in its own eye,
          is not the authentic church of Christ.

What a privileged opportunity to help our church be “the authentic Church of Christ.” Pope Francis has been clear that we need correction in the church. I maintain that we must do this the way one corrects somebody whom one loves, not with the abusive, headline-grabbing, scorched-earth tactics we are sometimes seeing that are often designed to advance personal agendas. It can be an exciting and joyous journey.

In October 2018, Commonweal contributing writer Rita Ferrone commented on the gospel passage “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it” for Give Us This Day, and she captured what an exciting and joyous opportunity this could be. What should our response to this passage be, she wondered: More Bible study groups? Lectio Divina? More Scripture reading, more study of the authors of Scripture? And she concluded: “All these things are good and we should do them. Yet I cannot help but think that attention to the written word of God is above all a preparation for hearing the word of God as it is spoken in our life. We must learn the scriptures well because they teach us to discern the living word of God, proclaimed in the events and people around us.”

Rita continued: “‘God’s word is not chained.’ It speaks anew in every generation. We hear it quietly in the gift of compassion. It resounds in the miracle of forgiveness. It sings in the glory of creation. God’s word may be spoken in an unexpected kindness or when we discover a wellspring of love in our heart. This living word will shape us if we let it. Are we listening?”

Do you see why I claim the Commonweal family has so much to contribute at this important moment in the church? Commonweal family, we need you more than ever. We look so forward to what you can contribute at this important time in the life of our church. I want to thank you for all you have already done and for this incredible honor which I accept on behalf of all those in Catholic health care who passionately believe that health care is a human right.

Also by this author

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Published in the December 14, 2018 issue: View Contents
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