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Spotlight Report

Churches vote to back role of laity

By Steven Rosenberg, Globe Staff Correspondent, 10/06/2002

MARBLEHEAD -- Parishioners from three North Shore Catholic churches who voted last month to affiliate with the Voice of the Faithful organization insist they're not out to start a revolution.
A small gathering of Boston-area Catholics grew into Voice of the Faithful, a nationwide lay reform group.  
Coverage of Voice of the Faithful

"We think there needs to be lay participation in the governing of the church," said Toni DiLisio, a member of St. John the Evangelist Church in Swampscott, who supports the Voice of the Faithful.

But not all parishioners agree with the recent vote.

"I think it's the evil spirit working within the church," said Dorothea York, just before entering a morning Mass last week at the Our Lady, Star of the Sea Church. "They don't want to listen to the authority of the Pope. They want to go off on their own."

York said there's hardly a consensus of opinion regarding the Wellesley-based Voice of the Faithful, a Catholic lay group created this year to provide a forum for worshippers in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic church. The mission and the goals of the 25,000-member organization include supporting sexual abuse victims, and priests "of integrity," while working to shape structural change in the church.

The tri-parish cluster, as the group is called, is composed of parishioners from Nahant's St. Thomas Aquinas Church, Swampscott's St. John the Evangelist Church, and Our Lady, Star of the Sea Church in Marblehead. The cluster has met six times this year, with people attending "listening sessions" to vent emotions amid the allegations of pedophilia within the clergy. Last summer, several members of the Voice of the Faithful from the three communities proposed establishing an affiliation with the lay group. At the meeting last month, the group stopped short of becoming a chapter of the Voice of the Faithful. Instead, 89 parishioners voted to affirm the group's goals and mission statement.

"The crisis was so troubling that I couldn't sit in a pew and do nothing, and leaving wasn't an option," said Margaret Herrick, a member of the tri-parish steering committee, and a member of the Star of the Sea Church in Marblehead. "People want to heal, but they want to take the next step so this can't happen again."

Herrick, who attended parochial school, and holds college degrees from two Catholic universities, said the tri-parish cluster has started several monthly study groups, including a support group for sexual abuse survivors, a group to support priests of integrity, and a group studying the hierarchy and the governance of the church.

The right to question church policies, and the parishioners desire to exert more lay leadership seems out of line to Charlie Newall, who also attends Our Lady, Star of the Sea. "They don't speak for this church, and they don't speak for my church," insisted Newall. "We have a hierarchy, and we don't need another one."

But Nancy Nichols, who also attends the Marblehead church, called the group a centrist organization that does not want to change the church's theology. "It's a difficult time. There's a lot of fear about this group. I think people want to think it's radical and clamoring for immediate change, and that's not the essence of the group," she said. "It's based on a philosophy that everyone should be heard."

She said future meetings would include lectures from sexual abuse survivors, and letter writing sessions to respected priests.

DiLisio, who has belonged to the Swampscott church for 30 years, wants parishioners to take a more active role in managing some aspects of the church, including overseeing the financial duties. "I think lay people have to be involved in how our money is spent in the church," she said. "Many lay people who are involved in the business world have a lot to offer the hierarchy in the governance of the church."

The tri-parish group has scheduled a meeting for November but is unclear where the meeting will be held. Last month, Bishop Emilio S. Allue, who oversees the Merrimack Valley's suburban churches for the Archdiocese of Boston, banned a North Andover Voice of the Faithful affiliated parish from meeting in its church. Members of the steering committee of the tri-parish say they will meet in a private hall if rebuffed by their clergy.

Rev. Terence Curley, pastor at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Nahant, said he would consult with the lay members of the church council before making a decision. "I don't want to make the decision myself," he said.

Curley, however, expressed opposition to any Voice of the Faithful activity in the area. "I'm trying to work within the existing structure," he said. "I think they're reinventing the wheel."

This story ran on page N7 of the Boston Globe on 10/13/2002.
Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

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