One vision of church's future

Grass-roots efforts, like a California parish's new openness, comfort members.

In these trying days for the Roman Catholic Church, the parishioners of St. Leo's offer an unusual message: hope.

They are not ignorant of the nationwide allegations of sexual abuse and priestly impropriety. Indeed, they are more familiar with them than most.

This, after all, is a parish in the sprawling northern California diocese of the Rev. Don Kimball, who last week was convicted of molesting a girl in the early 1980s. This is a part of the diocese where then-Bishop Patrick Ziemann in 1999 admitted to sexual liaisons with a clergyman.

Yet when parishioner Antoinette Kuhry is asked about the future of her church, her blue eyes brighten. Here, in a sunbaked church amid vineyards and the gentle green shoulders of the Sonoma Hills, the riposte to betrayal has been momentum for reform: promises from local church leaders of more openness and a greater voice for the laity.

The experience of parishioners here serves as a reminder that new policies stemming from this week's Rome meeting of US cardinals with the pope are only part of the answer to the Catholic church's current troubles. The tone set by local priests will also play a crucial role in reassuring church faithful that authorities are putting the tide of molestation and coverups behind them.

The response at St. Leo's – while in some ways unusual – typifies the kind of changes that are likely to take increasing root nationwide as churches struggle to survive and evolve. Indeed, while some other parishes have derided these independent Catholics as "Lutherans," calls for change are increasing in Catholic pews across America.

Among some here at St. Leo's, the tone is revolutionary, and there is talk of taking on some of the deepest traditions of the faith: celibacy, church hierarchy, women in the priesthood. Among others, it is a more subdued determination to simply ensure past missteps don't happen again. For almost all, though, the reform movement has brought a measure of comfort in a time of crisis.

"It's a pivotal moment," says Ms. Kuhry. "It's a time of great tragedy because of what has happened, but it is also an opportunity. We need to change the system."

To many here, "the system" is synonymous with secrecy. The recent sexual-abuse cases nationwide – where church leaders simply shuffled priests with a history of pedophilia to different parishes – is but one example, they say. In addition to his sexual indiscretions, local former Bishop Ziemann also mismanaged church money, leaving the Santa Rosa-based diocese $16 million in debt.

Since its founding, the Roman Catholic church has enshrined a culture of deference to the clergy, leaving parishioners little or no opportunity to shape or influence church governance. That, say many parishioners, must change.

"The priests are not the church, we are," says Pat Kettler, a retired schoolteacher lingering over a snack in the packed St. Leo's cafeteria after Sunday mass. "We need to open up the communication between the bishops and the churches so we don't have this boy's club secrecy."

Along with several other parishes in the Santa Rosa diocese, St. Leo's has taken a leading role in making this happen. Only a few paces away, in a white-walled meeting room adorned with a large wooden crucifix, two dozen parishioners have gathered to talk about the big new reform: the formation of a new diocese-wide council to advise the bishop. It will include lay people.

Based on similar councils across the US, Santa Rosa's Diocesan Pastoral Council is a complicated structure of boards and sub-boards. In the end, only 10 of the roughly 100 lay people elected by the diocese's 43 parishes will actually get to sit down with the bishop. But in this room, the assembled query those volunteers who have entered the St. Leo's election as if they will meet the Pope himself.

The candidates emphasize the need for persistence. One attendee nods her head and mumbles "yes, yes sir" like a modest member of a gospel choir. The room breaks into applause when one candidate comments, "[The church] has to listen. We've got them on the run."

No one expects the council to overthrow church doctrine on celibacy or marriage. But they expect it to be a part of the dialogue. This is the voice of the parishioners, they say, and it must be heard.

Not that every parish wants the same things St. Leo's does. This parish has a reputation as the most reform-oriented in the diocese. "The parishes are not all in the same place," says Kuhry. "We're very outspoken. We're a parish of activists."

Part of that is just being near Sonoma.

This is a college town without a college. Here, intellectuals and retirees have come to wrap themselves in the morning mist and brown their skin in the summer sun. Cool arcades buttressed by creaking timbers lead to fountain plazas smelling of jasmine. Determined preservationists have kept the downtown square – with buildings hewn from red brick or massive stone blocks – as a testament to the California of colonial Spain.

St. Leo's progressive tradition, though, also comes from its leadership. Pastor Larry Carolan actually left the priesthood for nearly two decades after becoming frustrated at the lack of change in the church. Now, at St. Leo's, he's found a parish that embraces many of his ideals. During Sunday mass, Father Carolan alternates between comforter and comedian, mixing humble introspection with moments of levity.

The effect of the scandals on the people of the diocese, he says, has been devastating, and much of his Sunday mass – from the hymn selection to the homily – echoes the current concerns. During the service, the crisis is a major theme, and Carolan mentions that he's set up a question-and-answer session for any parishioners interested in talking with a lawyer representing several local victims of priests' sexual abuse.

"The main thing is, I've been willing to talk about it," says Carolan. "Out of the bad stuff often comes good."

Here, at a full church with heaping collection plates, people seem to appreciate the message. For so many, that openness is crucial to any solution, and the new Diocesan Pastoral Council is evidence that it might now be spreading into higher levels of the Catholic church.

Standing beside a pew after Sunday mass, Randy Stava can even curl the lips beneath his thick black beard into a smile. "This is the avenue more parishes need to take," he says. "I'm extremely optimistic."

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