Organizing the Faithful

A Report from the Trenches

The Archdiocese of Boston, where my wife and I live, famously suffered from sexual abuse by priests, and by misfeasance and perhaps malfeasance by bishops in dealing with that abuse. By July 2002 there was an almost universal feeling in our parish that something must be done. At the parish council meeting that month my wife Helen proposed a resolution that would reach out to several nearby parishes (I’ve changed their names) in the hope of creating a unified response.

The resolution read in part:

In the hope of improving communications between and among laity, priests, and hierarchy and restoring lost trust, I propose a first step in building a structure of elected representative bodies that will serve in an advisory capacity.

I therefore move that we invite the parish councils of St. Lucy and St. Gabriel to meet with us and discuss the creation of elected committees or councils representing the laity and clergy of our vicariate, our region, and the archdiocese to serve as advisory bodies to the vicar, our regional bishop, and the archbishop respectively. It is understood that such a committee, if created, would start by requesting a meeting with the vicar.

(Our parish is part of a “cluster” with two neighboring parishes, “St. Lucy” and “St. Gabriel.” The archdiocese has five regional bishops and each region has four or five vicariates. Each vicariate, in turn, includes fifteen to twenty parishes organized in clusters.)

Our council and our pastor unanimously approved the resolution and appended to it a quote based on Vatican II’s Lumen gentium (sec. 37):

Every layman and laywoman should openly reveal [to their sacred pastors] their needs and desires with that freedom and confidence that befits a son or daughter of God and a brother or sister of Christ. An individual layman or laywoman, by reason of the knowledge, competence or outstanding ability which they enjoy, are permitted and sometimes even obliged, to express their opinions on things which concern the good of the church. When occasion arises let this be done through agencies set up by the church for this purpose.

In 1983 this language was incorporated and further developed in Canon Law (in canons 492, 493, 511, 512, 536, and 537). In 1994, it was included in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (907): Laypeople “have the right and even at times a duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the church, and they have a right to make their opinion known to the other Christian faithful.”

Our pastor then mailed letters to the parish councils of St. Lucy and St. Gabriel, inviting them to meet with our council. The pastor of St. Lucy never delivered the invitation to his council. I learned about this several months later and called him on the phone and asked him why. “We like to do things our own way,” he said.

Recently he retired and I wrote to his successor, enclosing the original invitation. He did not respond, nor did he deliver the invitation to his council. I informed a friend, a member of his council, about my letter, and she raised the question at the next council meeting. She told me, “It fell on deaf ears.”

At St. Gabriel’s I had a conversation with the pastor, a learned, elderly man with a very strong, authoritative manner. I urged him to meet with us. He began to give me the authoritative manner. I pushed back a little and, dreamer that I am, said that this was maybe a new era in the life of the church when the laity might have more to say about how things are done. He said, “Well, there’s no harm in talking.”

He did deliver the invitation to his council with a recommendation that it be rejected. We received a letter saying that “the overwhelming majority of our council felt that meeting with the other councils would be too cumbersome and counterproductive at this time.” Apparently there was harm in talking.

But it should be said for both pastors that they at least permitted the then-fledgling Voice of the Faithful (VOTF) to meet on church property. VOTF is an international organization that has taken the lead in promoting a greater role for the laity in the life of the church. Three years after the sexual-abuse crisis gained wide public exposure, VOTF claims thirty thousand members organized in over two hundred affiliates in all fifty states and thirty-eight other countries. Its goals are: “1) supporting those who have been abused, 2) supporting priests of integrity, and 3) shaping structural change within the church.” From the start VOTF declared its intention was not to get involved in such divisive issues as celibacy of the clergy, the ordination of women, etc. Some pastors in our archdiocese do not permit VOTF to meet on church property, and the archbishop at the time, Cardinal Bernard Law, issued a ban on VOTF meetings, but did allow them to continue where they already existed-a curious compromise.

Two years ago I happened to run into our new archbishop, Sean O’Malley, at a public function and said to him, “Your Excellency, if you want to restore trust and confidence among the laity, I think the best thing you can do is to lift the ban on Voice of the Faithful.” He smiled in the most kindly fashion, but the ban remains in force, and trust and confidence-and also Mass attendance and financial income-continue to decline.

The first meeting of parishioners in our three-parish cluster called to respond to the sexual-abuse crisis had been held at St. Gabriel’s in June 2002. It was well attended: about 160 people. A VOTF official addressed us. Speakers on the floor were outspoken, indignant, and seemed ready for action. I made a motion that the meeting “name a committee to consist of our three pastors and at least one representative from each parish council to meet with our regional bishop and propose to him the creation of a regional council consisting of the pastor and at least one lay representative from each parish council in the region, and that this council shall meet at least three times a year with the bishop and serve as an advisory body to him.” The motion was seconded, but voted down. The majority was not ready for action.

It was several weeks later that my wife Helen made her more sensible recommendation to our parish council, quoted above, namely, that we invite the other two councils to meet with us to discuss a more comprehensive proposal for elected councils at the level of the vicariates, regional bishops, and the archdiocese.

The next general meeting of our parishes was on August 12, 2002, at St. Lucy’s. It was even better attended, perhaps 200 people. Feelings were still strong and strongly expressed. After general discussion, I made a motion to “recommend to the parish councils of St. Lucy and St. Gabriel that they accept the invitation of our parish council to meet and discuss our proposal.” The pastor of St. Gabriel, very angry, protested: “I’m not going to sit here and let you dictate to my parish council.” My motion was voted down or ruled out of order, I have forgotten which. Still not ready for action, just talk.

This pastor, incidentally, was full of surprises. Some time later my wife and I attended a meeting at which he spoke and suggested that the day might well be coming when the church would have to approve married priests and ordain women. After the meeting we spoke to him. I said, “Father, you sounded so progressive tonight that I thought perhaps you might have changed your mind and be willing now to meet with our council and discuss our proposal for greater lay participation.” He said, “I’m too busy to attend meetings whose main point is to give people a chance to express their insecurities.”

The following month a third joint meeting was also well attended-about 140. A motion was made to affiliate with Voice of the Faithful, and a vote was called. The meeting was set up in two sections facing one another. Most folks were in the opposite section. I looked across and saw a solid phalanx, about four rows deep, of gray-haired ladies and thought to myself, “This looks like a very conservative crowd.” I was not optimistic about the vote. But when the chair asked for a show of hands in favor of affiliation, practically every hand in that phalanx went up. Affiliation won, 89 to 38, with some abstentions, well over the necessary two-thirds. Action at last!

A few days later, Auxiliary Bishop Emilio S. Allue of the Boston Archdiocese was quoted widely as forbidding the pastors in his region to allow those parishioners who were members of VOTF to meet on church property. He said he was doing this “in order to avoid further scandal and polarity among our parishioners.”

I wrote him a letter saying that I was greatly saddened by his action and expressed the view that, contrary to his belief, “scandal and polarity” could only be increased, not diminished, by his action. I mentioned the phalanx of gray-haired ladies at our meeting and added, “This is your church and my church, Bishop. The gray-haired ladies have spoken. I don’t know about the gray-haired ladies in your region, but it is my guess that in our region they are not going to take vetoes like yours lying down, if a similar veto is directed at us, which God forbid. There is too much at stake, of which the safety of our children is only the most obvious.” I mailed a copy to the archbishop, as well. I received no replies. Unfortunately, it appears we need more than spunky gray-haired ladies.

There was one encouraging development. Our vicar wrote in his parish bulletin, “May God bless the Voice of the Faithful and anyone else who can help us...find ways to involve more laypeople in the actual decision making within the church.”

I had several long, congenial talks with him. But for a variety of reasons he did not feel ready to push our particular plan at the time. He seemed to feel that the solution was to make existing structures work better. He also felt that he had no authority to tell pastors what they should or should not do, even though he had been given responsibility by the archbishop to do exactly that if they were out of line with church policy. The ancient assumption that pastors are sovereign in their little fiefdoms until the bishop himself intervenes still seemed to dominate his thinking. Nor could he see that having his own council could strengthen his hand in dealing with wayward pastors.

Meanwhile, our own parish council, discouraged by the opposition from St. Lucy and St. Gabriel, was losing interest. It wouldn’t even agree to convene a meeting of the congregation to discuss our proposal and how to promote it. Other concerns began to seem more important: how to raise money to make up for the declining revenue; how to prevent our parish from being closed down entirely in the announced plan to eliminate a stated number of parishes, because of severe financial problems resulting from the scandal.

This year we attended a VOTF cluster meeting. VOTF meetings now consist mainly of a speaker and discussion. Attendance had dwindled to about twenty-five, mostly gray-haired ladies and a few angry men. The old apathy had clearly settled in. The speaker was a VOTF organizer, very outspoken and also angry and frustrated about the opposition VOTF continues to receive from the archdiocese.

The national office of VOTF has made several proposals for structural change in dioceses, most of which involve strengthening parish councils. One proposal calls for “the creation of parallel lay councils on intermediate levels such as the vicariate and region, if a diocese is so divided, and if decisions affecting the laity are made at those levels.” I don’t know if they got the idea from us or independently. When I called the national office to ask if any diocese, region, or vicariate had adopted the proposal, I was told that, to their knowledge, only the Archdiocese of Los Angeles had shown any interest.

Before we start moaning about the more discouraging elements, it might be wise to note that the parish council is now a fairly well-established institution, even though, as in St. Lucy’s under the former pastor, it did not function well because he not only did not deliver the mail, but held no elections, appointed the members, and did not allow nonmembers to attend-all violations of archdiocesan rules. Before 1988, parish councils in our archdiocese were not mandatory. Our former pastor simply abolished our council when his slate was defeated by a more independent slate. He couldn’t do that now.

Today the councils are mandatory, and most seem to be functioning reasonably well. VOTF could do more to ensure that all councils function well.

VOTF held a Northeast regional conference last year that drew 900 people. In July, it held its first national conference in three years in Indianapolis, bringing together 600 leaders from thirty states. This conference may well have been a turning point, partly because of the distinction of several of its speakers and what they said.

David Castaldi, VOTF chairman, was former chancellor and chief financial officer of the Boston Archdiocese. You can’t ask for more impressive credentials than that. He projected the costs of the sex scandal at between $2 and $3 billion in direct costs and, according to the Associated Press, “urged leaders of local affiliates to press their bishops for more and better financial reporting as individual dioceses post increasingly higher financial payouts to abuse victims, lawyers, and others.” Castaldi concluded, “Our church will change from the bottom up.”

Another speaker was Illinois Appellate Judge Anne Burke, former interim chair of the bishops’ National Review Board-another pair of impressive credentials. She was highly critical of certain bishops, and reported that some leaders at the bishops’ June meeting wanted to “roll back the clock” and soften the standards of accountability they had voted for in 2002. Fortunately, media leaks created pressure that prevented that from happening.

One bishop critical of VOTF was right there in Indianapolis, Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein, who warned his priests two weeks before the conference about VOTF’s third goal, “to shape structural change within the church.” Buechlein wrote that VOTF “seems not to be aware of the possible implications to changing the church’s structure.”

With all due respect, a question for the archbishop: “Your Excellency, are you aware-not of the possible implications, but the real implications, one might even say the demands-of Section 37 of Lumen gentium as quoted above and as codified in the canons listed at the beginning of this article?” These involve changes in the structures of the church. Have they all been made in every diocese? Judging from our own diocese, no, especially if one looks for the election of lay representatives to the diocesan council as opposed to their appointment.

On the other hand, Archbishop Buechlein may have a point in needling VOTF. Are its leaders any more aware than he is of the dynamite hidden in revised Canon Law as to the structural changes in the church that are now required? VOTF is still a somewhat loosely structured organization, depending largely on volunteers. It has only three full-time staffmembers plus ten part-time. They do have a large presence online at, including an e-mail newsletter, In the Vineyard. There is also a book by one of the founders, James E. Muller, and Charles Kenney, Keep the Faith, Change the Church (Rodale, $24.95).

It is becoming increasingly difficult for VOTF, frustrated as it is, to confine its activities to its three stated goals. For example, a VOTF official has confronted our current archbishop over spending money to oppose gay marriage. I wrote a letter protesting this violation of basic VOTF policy and suggested that the VOTF official resign. There was no response and no resignation. Nevertheless, the survival, growth, and improved organization of VOTF seems to be our best hope.

It is curious that the Notre Dame study described in Commonweal (November 19, 2004), in listing the twelve most serious issues facing the church, included only one that speaks to the concerns of this article, namely “that women are not involved enough in church decision making.” What about laymen being involved in church decision making? Right now women are more involved than men, as they are in all church activities this side of saying Mass and having the last word on what happens.

We need not only spunky gray-haired ladies. We need spunky gray-haired men, black-haired men, brown-haired men, men with no hair at all. We need men.

But whether men or women, young or old, we need fighters. For the long haul. This is going to take time. But it seems unthinkable that the effort should not succeed. After all, we are only asking for the opportunity to advise. Could anything be more reasonable? Some twenty-five hundred bishops in council assembled, together with the pope, have said that we have that right. That was more than forty years ago. So let’s claim it.

Published in the 2005-09-09 issue: 

John C. Cort is author of, most recently, Dreadful Conversions: The Making of a Catholic Socialist (Fordham University Press).

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