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Earlier stories

Spotlight Report

  Joan Vennochi  

Catholics' time to choose


THE FATHER WENT to church, so the daughter did, too.

Going home is a luxury and a challenge. There is comfort in the return to the environment that shapes an individual from youth to young adult. But the limitations that bring generations of children to decide to live their lives outside those boundaries are still obvious, during even the briefest of visits.

Everything is the same. But everything is different.

The room that was once a wellspring to a child's dreams retains no physical links to its former occupant. There is a sleep sofa rather than a little girl's bed. But the same walls surround it, the same sound and light filter in. It feels comfortable but sadder. With age comes the realization that time passes just as quickly as everyone warns when you are young and don't believe it.

On Sunday morning, the daughter does not tell the father she does not want to go to church. She goes. A new, modern-looking structure, the product of a successful building drive, replaced the old parish where she made her first confession - ''I talked back to my parents; I was mean to my sister'' - and celebrated her First Communion in a white lace princess dress handmade by an aunt.

The church building looks different, but inside, the church feeling is timeless. The priest celebrating Mass gives a homily that relates to that day's Gospel, the parable of the 10 virgins who ''took their lamps and went forth to meet the bridegroom.'' Five of the virgins took extra oil for their lamps; five didn't. The bridegroom was late. The five virgins who went out looking for oil when their lamps ran out were locked out of the celebration. Ouch. Those virgins paid a high price for their lack of readiness.

There is no mention of the weekend headlines - that Roman Catholic bishops will be meeting in Washington this week to complete their policy on sexual abuse by priests; that as they do so, they are facing the most organized challenge to their power from the laity in the church's modern history.

Those Rome-dictated revisions of the policy are a backtrack of a plan by this nation's bishops that was supposed to bring peace and closure to victims of clergy sexual abuse as well as to Catholics who do not understand why canon law does not aim to protect children first and foremost.

Under the people's law, the accused have due process rights, but those rights do not stand in the way of protecting alleged victims from further abuse. Why should church law be any different?

The proposed policy revisions require lay boards that review abuse cases to be subordinate to bishops, allows the Vatican to decide which priests can be ousted and in some states will allow bishops discretion about whether to report abuse to police.

Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas Reilly is correct when he says, ''Discretion requires trust, and they've lost that trust.''

In pushing these policy revisions, the Vatican is making a calculation: Enough people still attend Mass. Those who disagree are free to stay away. Enough people still call themselves Catholic. Those who chafe at the appellation, especially given the Vatican's most recent backpedaling, are free to find another one.

To put it most bluntly, as William Donohue, president of the New York-based Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, said in the Globe: ''Rogue Catholics should be ignored.... Anyone who has tracked these disaffected Catholics knows their goal is to reconstruct the church from top to bottom.''

Nine bishops have banned Voice of the Faithful, a national group that was formed in April in response to the scandal, from meeting on church premises. They do not want disaffected Catholics or their money.

In the end, Catholics who remain dissatisfied will have to make a choice. Do they swallow their unhappiness and continue calling themselves Catholics? Do they close their eyes to what they don't like and take what gives them peace from Sunday Mass?

The father put an envelope with a check in the church collection basket. Just like those days from long ago, he passed money to the daughter. She is no longer a little girl, but she took it and placed it in the basket.

Everything is the same, but everything is different,

The daughter is not putting her own money in the collection basket. Not yet.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is

This story ran on page A17 of the Boston Globe on 11/12/2002.
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