By Connie Berry
In what was introduced as an inaugural event, Le Moyne College hosted a Woodstock Forum on the future of the church on Sept. 8 in Panasci Family Chapel. The presentations featured three of Georgetown University’s Woodstock Theological Center’s members – Father Thomas Reese, Father Raymond Kemp and Dolores Leckey. Each talked about what makes them both hopeful and somewhat skeptical about the future of the Catholic Church. They were welcomed to a packed chapel with an audience that included Jesuit seminarians, diocesan clergy and religious, along with laity and students. They were introduced by Father David McCallum, and Father Donald Maldari served as moderator. “The future of the church is ours to create,” Father Maldari said at the beginning of the event.
Father Reese, whose writing occasionally appears in the Sun’s editorial pages, began the forum with his ideas about what factors leave him optimistic and those that make him lean toward pessimism within the church. He led with the bad news.
“So many people are leaving the church,” Father Reese said. “A recent Pew study says one out of every three people raised Catholic have left the church. These are people who no longer identify themselves as Catholic. If you put all of them together they would be the third largest denomination in the U.S.”
Father Reese went on to say that the worst possible scenario would be if women stopped attending church because they are typically responsible for passing the faith on to the next generation.
“If we lose women, forget it,” he said. “We’d have to close up. It would be over. The church cannot survive without women. Eighty percent of our religious educators are women.”
Father Reese listed two other reasons for pessimism in the future of the church: the decline in priests and the decline of the authority of the hierarchy.
“Without priests you don’t have most of the sacraments,” Father Reese said. “In a few years, when someone calls the rectory looking for anointing, you’ll get voicemail. The days of dying with a priest by your side are practically nonexistent. Without priests there is no Eucharist under our theology, or confession.”
Father Reese also described a lack of laity who still believes in the authority of bishops. The bishops, he said, lost further credibility with their handling of the priest sex abuse crisis. In the old days, he said, the priest would be the most educated person in the village, and that isn’t the case anymore. There is a decline in participation of the liturgy, Father Reese said, to the level that more Protestants are going to church on Sunday than Catholics.
With all the bad news aside, Father Reese said he still feels hopeful about the future of the Catholic Church.
The major factor that leaves him hopeful, he said, is the history of the church. “We’ve been a mess from the beginning. We’ve been a basket case ever since Jesus left us,” he joked. “Forty-nine years ago I entered the Society of Jesus right out of high school. Would I want to return to that church of 49 years ago? Hell no. We’re in much better shape now. Things do continue to change.”
He also said the faithful are encouraged to read Scripture now, not something widely promoted decades ago. And they are encouraged to develop a prayer life. “You take the Bible, prayer and the Holy Spirit and you’ve got a revolution,” he said.
“Another reason I’m hopeful is that we’re committed to helping the poor and we do it because we’re Catholic Christians. This is something young people find very attractive,” Father Reese explained. “Our Catholic social teaching – this is something the popes have been very vocal about. Our bishops are now saying, ‘Don’t put the budget cuts on the backs of the poor.’”
Dolores Leckey followed Father Reese and also concluded that the church’s long history must be considered when looking at the future. Also, Leckey said, the experience of grace within each person and the church, along with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ brings hope. She spoke about the Second Vatican Council saying that “the soil of the church was cultivated for decades before it took place.” She said there was a sense of expectation that something was about to be born.
“Remember,” she said. “The church that never changes changed.”
Vatican II happened more than 40 years ago, she said. “Why not again? Why don’t we exercise the freedom to speak the truth? Today some bishops suggest quietly that another council is needed,” she said.
Father Raymond Kemp followed Leckey and further developed the idea of what makes the Catholic Church appealing. He suggested hospitality, openness and welcoming people as the basis of a good parish. “People are looking for people who care that they are there,” he said. “And a good liturgy is important. In the words of Thea Bowman, a good liturgy ought to bring us to our knees at night and call us to a deeper response to the presence of Christ.”
One Syracuse pastor spoke up at the end of the presentations saying that he did not have members of his parish “beating down the doors” to help. He expressed frustration that once young people make their confirmation, he does not see them or their parents again. “It’s easy to criticize me, but they don’t want to be in my shoes either,” he said.
The panel acknowledged the fact that it is difficult to move anyone to act within the current society. Father Reese said that the old mentality was that the priest could do everything at the parish.
“And if he couldn’t do it there would be a convent full of sisters to do it,” Father Reese said. “If people don’t step forward we’re not going to have a church.”
Other audience members expressed frustration that there is no dialogue between hierarchy and laity.
At the end of Father Reese’s initial talk he made a statement that drew a laugh but one he considered very true. “As a Christian I must be an optimist,” he said. “I believe in someone who rose from the dead. I must be an optimist.”