On January 6, 2002, Professor of Theology Thomas Groome was among the millions of Catholics around the world to read the shocking results of a Boston Globe investigation that exposed a decades-long pattern of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, and efforts by the Archdiocese of Boston to cover it up. Not long after, Groome was one of about 25 people called into an emergency meeting by University President William P. Leahy, S.J., to discuss BC’s response to the unfolding crisis.

Everyone in attendance was in agreement: Boston College could not stay silent. Instead, recalled Groome—now a professor in the School of Theology and Ministry—“we decided to face it head-on.”

Karen Kiefer

Church in the 21st Century Center Director Karen Kiefer (Photo by Gary Wayne Gilbert)

The result was the Church in the 21st Century Center (C21), which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. Initially launched as a two-year program, C21 was created to serve as a catalyst for the renewal of the Catholic Church by publishing papers and hosting lectures and conferences exploring three main areas: roles and relationships within the Church, sexuality in the Catholic tradition, and handing on the faith to the next generation. The Catholic intellectual tradition was later added as a fourth area of focus.

No topic was off-limits. In the center’s first year, speakers at C21-sponsored events discussed Catholic attitudes toward homosexuality and debated the role of women in the Church. The center even invited the Globe reporters who uncovered the abuse scandal to appear on a panel.

“I remember being so proud because we were the first Catholic university to step into the crisis and start doing the work, convening people, and having lots of hard conversations,” said Karen Kiefer ’82, who joined the C21 staff in 2008 and now serves as the organization’s director.

Early on, C21 made efforts to engage young people in the center’s programming. In 2005, Director Tim Muldoon ’92 launched Agape Latte, a monthly storytelling series in which speakers from the BC community shared their faith journeys with students over coffee. Now entirely student-led, Agape Latte remains one of the center’s most popular offerings and has inspired similar programs at more than 150 schools and parishes around the world.

“I remember being so proud because we were the first Catholic university to step into the crisis and start doing the work, convening people, and having lots of hard conversations."
C21 Director Karen Kiefer

In 2012, C21 expanded the concept into a weeklong celebration of faith on campus co-sponsored with Campus Ministry, Espresso Your Faith Week, featuring outdoor activities like “Cornhole with the Jesuits” as well as panel discussions and a candlelight Mass. Kiefer described the celebration as encouraging students “to realize the gift of God working in their minds and hearts with the hope that they will be intentional about how they spend their time here and be inspired to see God in all things.”

Earlier this year, Espresso Your Faith received the Spirituality and Religion in Higher Education Knowledge Community Outstanding Spiritual Initiative Award from NASPA (Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education), which recognizes a program or initiative that promotes spiritual and religious growth on a college campus and demonstrates a significant impact on a college campus by promoting spiritual and religious engagement among the student body.

C21’s audience has always extended beyond the BC campus (its twice-yearly magazine C21 Resources has a mailing list of 180,000), but the coronavirus pandemic unexpectedly broadened its reach. In 2020, with the world under quarantine, Kiefer’s team created downloadable guides that allowed people to mimic the center’s popular Faith Feeds program—which brings local parishioners together for a meal and conversation—from the safety of home. “It just took off and suddenly people were downloading hundreds of thousands of these guides,” Kiefer recalled. “It taught us that there’s a real case for intimate conversation over Zoom.”

Since then, C21 has launched Pray It Forward, a 15-minute prayer session that attracts more than 600 people via Zoom every Wednesday, and Breakfast with God, a weekly online faith program for children co-sponsored with the BC Roche Center for Catholic Education. It also continues its work to address the Church’s ongoing struggle to attract young people: Last year, C21’s Student Voices Project surveyed thousands of college students nationwide about their hopes for the Catholic Church, and shared the results with Pope Francis.

The project, which included input from more than 550 BC students, was the perfect example of C21’s modern-day approach to its 20-year-old mission, Kiefer said: “We try to look at the biggest challenges the Church is facing and meet them not just with conversations, programs, and publications but also with new ideas and innovations. Then we give it all back to the Church.”

This academic year, C21 launched Mass & Mingle, a once-a-month opportunity for 20- and 30-something Catholics in the Boston area to meet new friends while also engaging with faith and spirituality. Offered in partnership with the BC Alumni Association and the Jesuit Parish of St. Ignatius of Loyola, Mass & Mingle invites young adults to attend the 5 p.m. Sunday Mass at St. Ignatius Church, followed by a one-hour social. Each Mass & Mingle event has food, refreshments, trivia prizes, and “a big question” to spark conversation about how participants can “find God in all things.”

As it enters its third decade, C21 plans to keep asking the big and challenging questions related to the Church, and to launch even more new initiatives that encourage young adults to connect with their local parishes.

“As long as questions prevail, there’s a need for the Church in the 21st Century,” said Groome. “Our work is far from finished.”

Alix Hackett | University Communications | April 2023
This article was adapted from a story appearing in the winter 2023 edition of
Boston College Magazine.