Catholic reformers hold historic meeting

Saturday's Boston convention is being watched by lay people of all stripes.

Pope John Paul II spoke on the sexual abuse scandal in the church last spring in Rome. The US bishops spoke in Dallas in June. This weekend in Boston, several thousand lay Catholics bent on unprecedented reform will gather at a national convention to have their say.

Six months into the crisis that many Catholics consider the most devastating since the Reformation, the rapidly expanding lay group called Voice of the Faithful will make its own statement on the kind of change required of its church.

Galvanized by the sense of a hierarchy out of touch with the people, their historic movement aims to bring the laity into joint governance with the clergy in matters other than doctrine. But they won't be issuing public demands of the hierarchy. Instead they'll announce specific actions they are taking to help the church and survivors of abuse through the crisis, and discuss new forms of lay involvement that could rebuild trust in how the church is governed.

Catholics of all stripes are likely to pay attention. In a remarkably short time, the group, which started in a church basement in Wellesley, Mass., has gained 18,000 members in 40 states and 21 countries and established its "mainstream Catholic" credentials. Yet some have wondered whether its bid to create a grass-roots organization to share in church governance with the hierarchy is too revolutionary. But this week 60 theologians and canon lawyers signed a statement of support.

Voice of the Faithful hasn't been welcomed with open arms by the Boston Archdiocese, though two meetings have been held with Cardinal Bernard Law's top aide.

"They are cautious about us," says Mary Calcaterra, vice president of Voice. "But we are confident of the legitimate call the Spirit is sending to us.... We are an important component voice, of people who know what families are about, and we are not going to go away."

Despite demands on personal lives, Voice members say their commitment persists because of the mission. "What got us off our couches and into the fray is this tremendous sense of a huge social injustice done by our church to innocent people," says James Post, a Boston University professor who is the president of Voice. "We have an obligation to make that right and to ensure such a tragedy never happens again."

Others share the view that the scandal demonstrates that the church needs the contribution of laypeople attuned to the everyday world. Voice is "clearly loyal – it's not challenging the bishops' authority but calling them to account for mismanagement," says R. Scott Appleby, a church scholar at Notre Dame. "Laypeople have to ensure best practices on the part of the church in its role as a public institution – and you need new structures for that."

Dr. Appleby gave a frank assessment of the state of the church to bishops in June in Dallas, and told them "the future of the Church in this country depends upon your sharing authority with the laity."

With members traveling from as far away as California,Texas, Canada, and Germany, Saturday's convention will be an important test of Voice's momentum. Paul Baier, the group's Internet maven, says convention goals are to "pray together, educate ourselves about the duties of the laity, and organize action programs." Several theologians who've thought deeply about church history and the role of the laity will speak.

"This is part of a great awakening in the laity," Dr. Post predicts, "as people discover the excitement of ideas that have been percolating but nobody knew about."

Melissa Gradel, a grant writer coming with a group from her Brooklyn parish, appreciates the opportunity to become active in a productive way. "We have to get out of the practice of acting like children and accept the responsibility that we are the church and this is our problem and responsibility to solve it," she says.

Keeping away from controversial issues like married priests and women's ordination, Voice focuses on three objectives: supporting survivors of abuse, supporting priests of integrity, and seeking structural change. They've held fundraising activities for survivor groups, and will encourage the church hierarchy to match them dollar for dollar, Mr. Baier says. There's need for a national hotline for victims, and for operational resources for survivor support groups – which victims say have been their most helpful avenue of healing. They're working on ways to collaborate with the Priests' Forum – a Boston-area group formed to deal with dilemmas that pastors are facing.

"The desire is that the whole church build bridges for dialogue and rebuilding trust," says Svea Fraser, a chaplain at Wellesley College.

And as it became clear that many Boston Catholics were not contributing to the annual Cardinal's Appeal as a protest, Voice created an alternative fund to provide a vehicle for financial support to local charities. This has not helped relations with the cardinal's staff. Some believe his aides have encouraged pastors to close down Voice chapters in their parishes.

Still, Post thinks the lines of communication remain open. "We are in the sizing up stage – they are trying to understand us and what we mean by 'change the church,'" he says.

The archdiocese did not respond to requests for comment.

A key question is how long the commitment among the members can be sustained if there is no clear opening to interact with church hierarchy. The group recognizes it will be a long process.

Encouraged by strong support from prominent theologians, from a significant base of local clergy, and even, if only privately, from some big church donors, Voice of the Faithful is moving into "stage two." It's establishing a full-time professional staff, and the systems to support research and the growing number of local chapters.

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