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Spotlight Report

  Bella English  

Bring democracy to the church


A small gathering of Boston-area Catholics grew into Voice of the Faithful, a nationwide lay reform group.  
Coverage of Voice of the Faithful
They're hardly a bunch of bomb throwers. They're into "evolution, not revolution." They open and close each meeting with a prayer. They're unfailingly polite. Sit in on a Voice of the Faithful meeting, and you will see a lot of gray heads, the majority women, and hear a lot of people describe themselves as "traditional conservative Catholics." Rather than give up on their church during the ghastly priest sexual abuse scandal, as others have, they have chosen to stay and work on the problems from within. After all, who better to reform the church than its people?

They're the ones who fill the pews and the collection plates; without them, the church would not exist.

But this is the Catholic Church, and it has never claimed to be a democracy; far from it. So it's little wonder that the hierarchy and some parish priests feel threatened. Heretofore, it was "pay, pray and obey," and the only voices raised were in song.

That was before. Before the people in the pews began to feel betrayed by the church hierarchy, who apparently aided and abetted deviant priests by transferring them from parish to parish, thus perpetuating the cycle of abuse.

The "new normal" Catholic Church should look a lot more democratic. And that's what Voice of the Faithful is trying to do. In meetings this fall, members have expressed their love for -- and frustration with -- their church. They have stated and restated their goals: to support those who have been abused, to support the priests of integrity and to bring structural change to the church.

Still, there are those who are seeking to marginalize the group, questioning its agenda and calling members troublemakers seeking to tinker with the holy trinity -- despite Vatican II's explicit call for more involvement by the laity. Cardinal Bernard Law and his robotic officials are among the worst offenders. For months, Voice leaders have been unable to get an appointment with Law.

"These are the same people who told me I would go to hell if I ate a meatball sub on Fridays," said Sal Giarratani at a Voice meeting at St. John the Baptist in Quincy last week. "At the same time, there was this enabling of priests who hurt other people, yet meatballs seemed more important than that. These people knew they could get away with it because the system of secrecy worked in their favor. It enabled the abuse."

There are four official Voice chapters in the area: St. Paul's in Hingham, the Cranberry Country Group in Middleborough, St. Albert's in Weymouth and Our Lady of Sorrows in Sharon. Several other parishes have met to discuss forming a chapter. The Pembroke cluster meets at St. Thecla's and the Brockton cluster gathers at St. Patrick's. Holy Family in Duxbury meets at a senior center and the Plymouth cluster meets at Kingston's Sacred Heart school -- thanks to the nuns -- because the priests at those churches are apparently afraid of Law's reaction to Voice of the Faithful.

The Braintree cluster, which includes St. Francis, St. Clare and St. Thomas More, has been kicked off church property. In a letter to the three priests, the steering committee asked them to "prayerfully reconsider" and allow the next meeting to be held on church property. The priests said no, again.

"The whole crisis grew out of an abuse of power and secrecy," said organizer Jay Waldron. "For the pastors to do something like this just adds fuel to the fire. There are a ton of lay people who would love to get more involved with the church, and situations like this really turn them off."

At the same time, a new group calling itself "The Faithful Voice" has popped up, and includes a Pembroke chapter. Its purpose is obvious: to destroy the credibility of Voice of the Faithful. According to its Web site, the VOTF's message "is still filled with their anti-Catholic agenda of destroying the Roman Catholic Church from within."

If it weren't so hilarious, it would be frightening. Parish priests with minds of their own have lent support to Voice of the Faithful efforts, and many Voice of the Faithful organizers and members serve as church lectors, Eucharistic ministers, religious education teachers, finance and parish council members. These are the infidels who threaten to destroy the church?

At a recent meeting in Duxbury, nearly 200 people showed up. Organizer Ben Murphy of Holy Family has been heartened by the laity response -- even though his parish priest has refused to let the group meet on church grounds.

"We feel it's unfair," Murphy said. "We should be able to use the facility that we support. It's our church. The laity has the right and responsibility to participate in the governance of the church. And 99 percent of the church is made up of the laity."

It's hard to believe that in this country built on the principle of freedom -- especially post-Sept. 11 -- we are having this First Amendment debate. But the church hierarchy is counting on the silent Catholics: those who have been hypnotized into following church dictates instead of thinking for themselves. While Law is telling Catholics to stay in their pews, the Voice is calling people out of them, to join in a healthy, open discussion of the future of their church. Not Law's church. Not the pope's church. Not their parish priest's church. The people's church.

At a recent Voice meeting at St. Agatha's in Milton, the Rev. Peter Casey was thanked for allowing the group to meet. "You don't have to ask permission to do something good," was his simple, eloquent reply.

In some parts of the Catholic Church in 2002, apparently you need to ask permission to go to the bathroom. John Hynes of St. Gerard Majella in Canton is an organizer for the local Voice of the Faithful chapters. This "radical" is a Eucharistic minister who sings in his church choir and has been a Cub Scout leader. His children attend Catholic schools. His uncle and three cousins are priests. His "agenda?" To make the church safe for his children and grandchildren.

Hynes believes the sex abuse crisis can be a catalyst for "a post Vatican II revival of our church" with a renewed emphasis on social justice and opposition to violence. "The clergy of courage who have opened their hearts, and their minds, and the doors of our churches seem to recognize this possibility," he said. "At this point, only the members of the hierarchy seem to be missing. We need to pray that they will not be far behind."

Amen to that.

Bella English writes from Milton. She can be reached at 617-929-8770 or via e-mail at

This story ran on page S8 of the Boston Globe on 10/06/2002.
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