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Spotlight Report

Priests joining to discuss their church's future

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 2/28/2002

In a reflection of growing unease among local priests, a large group of Boston-area clerics has begun meeting privately to discuss concerns about the future of the Catholic Church, wrestling with issues that range from the celibate priesthood to the leadership style of Cardinal Bernard F. Law.

The priests, 75 of whom gathered at a retreat center last week, say they do not want an adversarial or confrontational relationship with Law, but the very fact of their meeting without the cardinal is an illustration of broad concern that he has not been open to hearing their views in the past.

In one indication of their seriousness, the priests last week flew in a well-known liberal theologian from the University of Notre Dame to advise them about the potential for priests to exert more influence within the hierarchical Catholic Church.

The group, tentatively being called the priests' fellowship or priests' forum, was formed last summer, when three suburban priests decided to form a support group to talk about issues such as burnout and loneliness, which have become increasing problems as the number of priests has declined. As the group grew, some participants suggested they talk about pushing the Vatican either to reduce the workload on priests by allowing deacons to perform more sacraments, or opening up the priesthood beyond the ranks of celibate men.

But in the last few weeks, as the clergy sexual abuse scandal has roiled the church, the size of the group has exploded, and its sense of urgency has quickened. Members of the group are considering addressing the cardinal's leadership style directly, perhaps by suggesting Law rein in his extensive travel to focus on the needs of Boston, or by encouraging him to stop his occasional practice of reassigning priests whose preaching or worship style have offended church conservatives.

The group has no formal structure and has not voted or taken a position on any issue, but its founders plan to meet again tomorrow, and hope soon to choose a leadership team and begin defining their purpose.

''Naturally, the group has to address the situation we're faced with,'' said the Rev. Paul E. Kilroy, pastor of St. Bernard Church in West Newton. ''We're growing at a little more rapid pace because of the scandal surrounding clergy sexual abuse of minors. We wouldn't have the size of group we had except for this issue.''

The group includes priests who have had run-ins with Law in the past, but also Law loyalists, and says it is open to all.

''Everybody is mainstream and hard-working,'' Kilroy said. ''It's not a confrontational group - at least it didn't start out that way. The effort is to be a source of information for the cardinal about what's happening in the ranks, and to be supportive of one another.''

Kilroy said the group has only met about three times, and has discussed just a handful of issues, including whether to push to allow deacons to administer the sacrament of the sick or to officiate at wakes and burials because of the shortage of priests. He said he expects the priests also to take up the issue of whether the priesthood should be expanded to include married men.

''We, in fact, do have married priests in the Archdiocese of Boston [who were formerly Episcopalian], and if we can have Anglicans coming in, how come others can't get married?'' Kilroy said. ''We need to bring that up for conversation, and discuss the theological ramifications. We are not trying to create a bandwagon for every issue, but we need to find a way to create a ministry so that burnout does not become the soup of the day.''

Last week, the group flew in the Rev. Richard P. McBrien, a prominent Notre Dame theologian, to counsel them. McBrien compared the evolving Boston organization to an association of Chicago priests formed in the 1960s by priests concerned about the leadership of Cardinal John P. Cody. McBrien said he knows of no similar group of priests organized in the nation today.

''If the priests do not give voice to their concern, who will?'' McBrien said in a telephone interview. ''They decided to get together in the fall because they were frustrated that they had no opportunity to discuss with their bishop problems of mutual concern. But by the time I came into the situation [last week], the situation in the archdiocese had changed quite drastically, so that they are no longer seeing themselves as a support group, but as having a responsibility as a group of pastors to take some leadership, with or without the cardinal's support or involvement, in helping to address the issues which are tearing apart the church in Boston and leaving laypeople confused and embarrassed. If the priests hold back or defer to the cardinal, laity are going to conclude the priests are part of the problem.''

The Archdiocese of Boston once had a priests' senate, but that organization was replaced by a presbyterial council that now serves largely as a forum for Law to voice his concerns, according to priests. Some priests also meet in small support groups, called Emmaus groups, but those were set up by the church administration and are not universally popular.

A spokeswoman for Law said the cardinal has no problem with the priests meeting. Law has been trying to improve his relationship with priests in recent weeks as he seeks to repair damage caused by his past handling of pedophile priests.

''Clearly the many fine priests of the Archdiocese of Boston are feeling the effects of the actions of a few,'' said spokeswoman, Donna M. Morrissey. ''Cardinal Law is mindful of the concerns and needs of his brother priests at this difficult time, and he is working to provide additional resources and support. The Archdiocese of Boston is supportive of this group of priests gathering, and we welcome any feedback or recommendations from this group, as we do from other groups of priests meeting.''

Priests have been at once demoralized and empowered by the current crisis. A Boston Globe/WBZ-TV poll earlier this month showed 51 percent of local Catholics had an unfavorable view of Law, but only 4 percent had an unfavorable view of their parish priest. McBrien said Law is no longer in a position to punish priests for talking about controversial issues.

''Can you imagine if Law punished a sitting pastor who is not a pedophile because he dared to meet with his brother priests? The people would be livid,'' McBrien said. ''That would be the biggest blunder Law could make, and he wouldn't make it. But five months ago he would have. The church has changed in the last few weeks that much, and Boston is only the beginning.''

McBrien is known as a progressive, but the group has tried to reflect the diversity of the church. In December, it hosted a presentation by Monsignor Dennis F. Sheehan, a former seminary rector in Boston who is now pastor of St. Paul Church in Cambridge. Sheehan is clearly in the mainstream of Catholic thought, and his parish, which ministers to Harvard students, is highly regarded for the quality of its liturgy, a top area of concern for Law.

''There's a certain isolation that goes with most experiences of priesthood today,'' said Sheehan, who said many priests now live alone, where a few decades ago they would have lived in a rectory with several others. ''I would say that the experience of our diminished numbers was what I was hearing as the leading factor in the desire to come together.''

In addition to Kilroy, the other founders of the group are the Rev. Thomas F. Powers, pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church in Wellesley, and the Rev. Walter H. Cuenin, pastor of Our Lady Help of Christians Church in Newton.

Michael Paulson can be reached by e-mail at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 2/28/2002.
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