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Panel Focuses on Role of the Laity

University President William P. Leahy, SJ, welcomed the audience to last week’s Sesquicentennial symposium. (Photo by Justin Knight)

By Ed Hayward | Chronicle Staff

Published: Oct. 3, 2013

The Catholic Church must not only speak directly to past, present and future Catholics, but also listen to them, according to panelists who spoke at last Thursday’s Sesquicentennial event “Coworkers in the Vineyard: The Role of the Catholic Laity in the Life of Public Service and Scholarship.”

The panel discussion was part of a symposium, “The Legacy of Vatican II,” sponsored by the School of Theology and Ministry to mark the University’s 150th anniversary and the 50th anniversary of Vatican II. Other events throughout the day brought together distinguished scholars from around the world who have studied the landmark ecumenical council from theological, historical and cultural standpoints.

In the evening, a journalist, a change-agent nun, a former university president and a non-profit CEO joined School of Theology and Ministry Dean Mark Massa, SJ, and Professor of Theology and Religious Education Thomas Groome on the Robsham Theater stage for a wide-ranging discussion about the role faith has played in their work on behalf of social justice and where the Church and the laity stand 50 years after the Second Vatican Council sought to bring the Church closer to Catholics and the modern world.

In light of Vatican II’s call for active disciples, Fr. Massa started off the discussion by asking, “What questions are on the minds of practicing Catholics today?”

E.J. Dionne, a Washington Post syndicated columnist and a fellow at the Brookings Institute, said Catholics are very much concerned about the future of the church and their place within it.

“For a lot of Catholics, there’s a basic question: Will my kids stay Catholic?” said Dionne, author of the recent book Why Americans Hate Politics. “They also ask: Will my daughters stay Catholic? What is the Church saying to them now to inspire them?”

Panelist Tim Shriver, the president and CEO of Special Olympics, said the Church needs to find a way to recover Catholics who have left the church, a group so large it would make up the largest religious body in the United States.

“I think one of the questions we ought to ask is not what Catholics are looking for, but what are former Catholics looking for?” said Shriver. “Especially in the era of Vatican II, we have to ask ourselves: What went wrong? Why did so many people leave? What haven’t they found? I think what they did not find was food for their soul.”

Too often, he said, Catholics feel like they are preached to and never asked what they think.

Islamic studies scholar and recently retired Bryn Mawr College president Jane McAuliffe said young people are most concerned about the environment and climate change, growing societal inequalities and terrorism — issues Vatican II gave the Church the power to address.

“These are global issues and the Catholic Church is a global church and Vatican II opened the church to the world,” said McAuliffe. “It allowed us as Catholics to talk about relationships with other things and the fundamental reality of religious freedom. Vatican II changed the discourse from one of declaration to one of dialogue.”

Sister Simone Campbell, SSS, executive director of the national social justice lobby NETWORK — which drew a rebuke from Rome last year for its advocacy on behalf of the Affordable Care Act — discussed the “Nuns on the Bus” tour she launched to oppose cuts in social service programs for the needy. During that cross-country trip, Sister Campbell said she found “we are a nation of unseen people who are desperate for connection.

“What is required is to develop a new sense of being a caring community,” Sister Campbell said. “It is a huge challenge. To recover that sense of community, I think requires us to open up beyond fear. Stepping out of fear is key to finding communal connection. That inclusiveness has to be clear to those living on the margins.”

Groome said it’s crucial for Catholicism to more closely associate itself with Jesus Christ, not just with “The Church.”

“What faith are we determined to share?” said Groome. “I think that we have a pope who has St. Francis as his model and belongs to the Society of Jesus. But the heart and soul of our faith as Christians is the historical Jesus and his life...Jesus is still the best thing we’ve got.”

The panelists praised Pope Francis as a church leader who may come closest to advancing the most expansive interpretation of Vatican II yet.

“There is a lot of excitement around this pope because of his obvious commitment to the poor and to social justice,” said Dionne. “It is not an abstract thing to him. It is a very real commitment. You’re seeing for the first time in a while not someone who would try to create a smaller, tougher, more orthodox church in their own likeness. Rather, he’s opening the door to everyone and welcoming them in. That is on the minds of a lot of Catholics – certainly this one.”