Church Talk

Sept. 30-Oct. 6,2004
Church Talk
By Connie Cissell/ SUN editor
Father Donald Cozzens, Author and Researcher, Visits St. Joseph the Worker

LIVERPOOL — Father Donald Cozzens, a writer in residence at John Carroll University in Cleveland and author of The Changing Face of the Priesthood and Sacred Silence: Denial and the Crisis in the Church, spoke on Sept. 23 at St. Joseph the Worker Parish. Much of the church was filled and those occupying the seats included many priests of the diocese along with a rather aging representation of the laity, as Father Cozzens and the event organizers pointed out. His presentation was titled “Faith that Dares to Speak: The Crisis and Beyond,” also the title of his latest book due for release this month. The presentation was sponsored by St. Joseph the Worker, St. Andrew’s and St. Lucy’s Parishes and Call To Action, Upstate New York. Father Cozzens’ observations included Catholics’ current need for words of encouragement. “There are a lot of good Catholic people losing heart these days,” Father Cozzens said. “This is a time of testing, a time of praying, a time of persevering; testing for the laity and the lower clergy and for the maturity of our faith.” He said that the present structure of the Catholic Church tends to keep Catholic adults and clergy in an adolescent mode. “I am amused and saddened that some in the church see the mission of organizations like Voice of the Faithful and Call To Action as a danger and a threat to the church,” he told those gathered as he began his talk.

He spoke about the need for all people to “speak from the center.” Father Cozzens said most people want to be held in favor not only by church leaders, but by fellow Catholics. “If we want this too much, we fail the test of courage,” he said. Concerning a survey of priests asking about the most important issues they face, Cozzens said the most common response from priests regarded maintaining their integrity. “We should no longer keep silent in the face of something that violates our integrity,” Father Cozzens recommended. “It is liberating to be an adult Catholic. …Your experience of discipleship is a blessing to our church. We need to be in dialogue with you [the laity] if we’re to be effective.” His presentation covered many issues from birth control to the infallibility of the pope, and it offered those gathered to listen a forum to address what they face as adult Catholics today. Father Cozzens suggested a re-examination of the church’s structure and determination of which parts support the mission of the Catholic Church. “This is being adult and breaking through our tendency to denial, which all major institutions face,” Father Cozzens said.

He called the current structure of the Catholic Church the “last feudal system” in history. The popes, he said, represent the king; the bishops would be the lords of the manor; pastors represent vassals and the laity are left as the serfs. “The role of the bishop works best when the serfs aren’t educated. Look at you, you are educated people,” Father Cozzens said. “Accountability is always upward in a feudal system. The lords of the manor are accountable to the sovereign. Dialogue between the serfs and the superiors is literally unthinkable.” The goal of the institution of the church has become the church itself, Father Cozzens said. “We need to prune away outdated structures. We need to prune mandated celibacy. Celibacy is a great gift of the Spirit. We will always have celibacy, but diocesan priests…can have a call from God to serve as a priest and a complementary call to family life, marriage and parenthood.”

His words echoed some of the mission of groups like Voice of the Faithful and Call to Action, but he also spoke of the need for the whole church to recognize the grieving process within the sex abuse scandal. “We don’t hear much from the institutional church about grieving. If you want to keep an individual from growing, keep him or her from grieving,” Father Cozzens said. When one grieves, he said, it acknowledges the fact that change has to be made. “The church would rather talk about healing than grieving. Some are wary of the talk about healing. If there is to be healing, we are obliged to acknowledge our profound need to grieve the unspeakable wounds among our people,” he said. The frustration, discouragement and anger some Catholics feel today, Father Cozzens said, needs to be acknowledged but then passed. “That anger moves toward sadness and anguish. If we remain angry, we make it hard for others to talk to us,” he said. There is also a lot of “numbness” involved as a response to the church’s crisis — a tendency to ignore the situation. “We need to move from numbness to grieving and lamenting,” he said.

Questions at the end of the presentation included the infallibility of the pope. Father Cozzens response was, “The Spirit has been promised to the church and as Catholics we believe when the pope speaks, he speaks for the church.” About contraception, Father Cozzens said that Pope Paul VI indicated that this doctrine is not fallible but that obviously with birthrates being what they are, there are certainly many Catholics not accepting this teaching. When asked about whether or not those currently alive would ever “see” women’s ordination, Father Cozzens said, “I think to the diaconate. …The Holy Father has been as clear as he can be on this issue. He feels the church doesn’t have that discretionary power. High ranking church officials have said the issue needs more study and prayer.”

One of the priests present noted that grieving and growing are issues for pastors as well. “There is pastoral numbness. We listen to the lamentations and to the people. They want to grow and they want it to be facilitated and we don’t know how to do that,” he said. Another listener asked about the gray hair in the audience and why younger people do not seem to be as concerned with the church’s current problems. Cozzens answered saying that it was perhaps a cultural issue. “A lot of young married couples today distance themselves from the life of institutions — politics, the government, education, the church. They come to Mass because they need the social life. I don’t know if they understand how valuable the institutional church is,” he said. Parents have to model faith for their children, Father Cozzens said. “Children are quick to see when words don’t match action. We have to model the Gospel, not just talk about it in this very secular world.”

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