Tim Russert (center), host of NBC's "Meet the Press," moderates the Sept. 18 panel discussion that formally launched the second year of Boston College's "Church in the 21st Century" initiative. The panelists were (L-R): Patrick Downes '05, Emmanuel College theologian Sister Mary Johnson, SND de Namur, Catholic Charities USA President Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, Russert, Elizabeth Paulhus '04, New York Times religion writer Peter Steinfels and Catalina Montes, principal of Allston-Brighton's Gardner Elementary School. Photo by Lee Pellegrini
"The Church has been hit by a hurricane," said Montes, principal of Allston-Brighton's Gardner Elementary School, and a panelist at the recent second-year opening event of the Church in the 21st Century project.
"We cling together. We wait together. We pray together," she said. "People need to hear the word of God, keep moving forward, and be a community, working together."
Hurricane Isabel's outer winds were blowing Sept. 18 as the Church 21 project reaffirmed its efforts to renew a Church buffeted by crisis. More than 2,000 at Conte Forum heard Montes and five other panelists led in a "Meet the Press"-style discussion by NBC's Tim Russert.
The event's title reflected the Church 21 mission: "Toward Renewal." Rounding out the panel were New York Times religion writer Peter Steinfels; Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, president of Catholic Charities USA; Emmanuel College theologian Sister Mary Johnson, SND de Namur; and two BC students, Patrick Downes '05 and Elizabeth Paulhus '04.
The spirit of full and active lay participation in the Church was reflected from the opening prayer, summoning the blessings of the Holy Spirit on the communal endeavor, to the closing quote by St. Francis Assisi invoked by BC Trustees chairman Jack Connors '63: "Leadership does not require ordination."
Opening remarks by University President William Leahy, SJ, described the scope to date of Church 21, which has focused on the roles of lay men and women, priests and bishops in the Church, on the conveyance of the faith to succeeding generations, and on sexuality in the Catholic tradition and contemporary culture.
"After more than a year of listening, programs, and activities, we have learned a great deal about the state of the Catholic Church in America," Fr. Leahy said.
"It is evident the problem of sexual abuse by priests and bishops, and its toleration at the highest levels, have brought into public view issues that have been simmering below the surface for many years."
Several of those issues, from sexuality to celibacy to the male priesthood, were on the table at the Church 21 opener.
Russert gauged panelists on the centrality of Sunday Mass to Catholic faith and experience. Sister Johnson described the clergy gap the declining number of priests has caused in American parishes and in Latin America, where a growing number of poor have come to be disenfranchised from the sacraments.
Discussion of opening the priesthood to women and married men drew applause. So, too, did Fr. Hehir's call for an open and informed discussion of potential Church reforms at a time when vocations are in decline and a growing number of parishes are without priests.
"We've got to treat adults as adults in the Church," he said.
Lynch School junior Downes urged a greater attention to lay Catholic opinion as well as a more liberal disposition toward homosexuality. "We need to address everyone in the Church, to go to people, to ask them," said the BC High grad from Cambridge who directs the Kairos Retreat Program at BC.
"Who are we to limit the roles of women and homosexuals in the Church?" asked Downes, who noted he had chosen to be confirmed in the Church in the midst of the crisis, because otherwise, "I would have denied myself the humanity that God is trying to give all of us."
Communion, in the sense of sacrament and shared values, was a central theme.
The Profession of Faith said by all at Sunday Mass holds great power to her as a member of the Catholic "community of believers," Paulhus said.
"The words I am saying are the same as the words someone in Roxbury is saying, or in Poland is saying, or in Nicaragua is saying," said the theology major from Wheeling, W. Va., who sings with the Liturgy Arts Group and helps lead the Taize prayer at BC.
"The words, no matter what language, cross all boundaries. We're choosing to profess this as our faith. There's nothing more awe-inspiring than that."
Panelists later said they had found the evening's exchange inspiring. "You take six people from different backgrounds and generations, and yet there was such a 'Catholic' sense here in the sense of universality," said Paulhus. "The audience reacted to that. They felt it is not hopeless."
Downes said: "It was a spiritual experience for me. It was rewarding to speak my heart, and have people come up to me and say they had re-examined their faith that night and strengthened it." He echoed the description Campus Ministry Director James Erps, SJ, gave of the event: "a moment of Grace."
Fr. Leahy closed with a nod to the new archbishop across town whose arrival has helped calm the local storm. "If Archbishop O'Malley were here tonight, I think he would say the Church in Boston is indeed alive."
More information on the Church in the 21st Century is available at www.bc.edu/church21/.
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