What did you hear on Easter Sunday about Mary of Magdala’s Witness?

Artist: Margaret Beaudette, S.C.
Artist: Margaret Beaudette, S.C.

In 2015, FutureChurch launched the Mary of Magdala Easter Gospel Restoration Project working with Catholics around the world to ensure that the full story of Mary of Magala’s witness to the Resurrection and commission by Jesus to “go and tell” is heard on Easter Sunday.

Dr. Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J., reminds us that for centuries, Mary Magdalene has been portrayed within the Christian faith as a former prostitute who repented her sins and became one of Jesus’ most dedicated followers. But, “in fact, Mary of Magdala was one of Jesus’ most influential apostles—and she was not a prostitute,” said Sr. Johnson. “Mary kept vigil at the cross throughout Jesus’ crucifixion, discovered the empty tomb after Jesus’ resurrection, and was then commissioned to ‘go and tell’ the good news.”

In Canada the bishops include all of John 20:1-18, but in the United States and elsewhere Catholics hear only part of the story, John 20: 1-9.  Thus, the telling of Mary of Magdala’s role as a primary witness to the Resurrection slips from view.

When reading the two versions side by side it is easy to see how dramatically the trajectory of the story changes when all of John 20:1-18 is proclaimed.  In the shortened version, the focus is on Simon Peter and their lack of understanding.  But in the longer version, we learn that the male disciples went home while Mary of Magdala stayed and continued to search for Jesus.  In doing so, she finds him, recognizes him as the risen Christ and is commissioned to go and tell the others.  The inspiring story of Mary of Magdala’s witness, commission and leadership role is proclaimed.

It will help us track the success of these efforts to restore the witness of Mary of Magdala to our Easter Sunday experience and will raise awareness so that more Catholics will be inspired to participate in this restoration work.  Share with us what you heard on the most holy of days, Easter Sunday.

Women Witnesses of Mercy are not push overs

Do not be lulled into thinking women who are merciful, are the silent sweet types.  They are not.

The women honored in our Women Witnesses of Mercy series are not push overs.  They are spirited and courageous and possess a kind of holy stubbornness when it comes to justice.

Artist: Marcy Hall
Artist: Marcy Hall

Sr. Dorothy Stang was feisty and energetic and loving — one of the great saints. She remained faithful to the poor, to the ruined Amazon, and so, to the Gospel and the God of justice and compassion. Beautiful stories come down to us.  She fed the hungry, built community, lived in destitution.  She confronted illegal loggers and corrupt ranchers, the class who stole land from the poor, kept them in misery, and bought off the police, the military and the government. Death threats rained down on Dorothy for years, along with insults and hate mail. Ranchers took aim at the community center for women that she had founded and riddled it with bullets. On one occasion the police arrested her for passing out “subversive” material. It was the United Nations’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Another time, she escaped by a hairs-breadth an attempt on her life. Yet she carried on and included the ranchers in her prayers for peace. Her defense of the poor was fearless.

simoneSr. Simone Campbell is another case in point.  She has gone nose to nose with her most vocal critics and continues to plod a path to their door to engage them in dialogue.  She does not give up when it comes to creating a society that is just for all and especially those who live at the fringe of our economic and social stratosphere.

A constitutive component of Sister Simone’s understanding of and preaching of the Gospel is that everyone — individuals, families, communities, organizations, and governments –must play their part in building a more just society.  Her conviction comes straight out of Catholic Social Teaching.  In CST we learn that in the image and likeness of a Triune God, the person is not only sacred but also inherently social. Living in community is an essential expression of who we are. But community isn’t something that just happens. Catholic Social Teaching and Scripture proclaim that each person has both the right and the obligation to participate society, seeking together the common good and well-being of all, but especially the poor and vulnerable.

Sr. Simone struggles with what it means to carry out the Gospel.  In her heartfelt poem, Loaves and Fish she writes:

I always joked
that the miracle of loaves
and fish was: sharing
The women always knew this.
But in this moment of need
and notoriety I ache, tremble
almost weep at folks so
hungry, malnourished,
faced with spiritual famine
of epic proportions. My heart
aches with their need.

Apostle-like, I whine:
“What are we among so many?”
The consistent, 2000-year-old
ever-new response is this:
“Blessed and broken, you are
enough.” I savor the blessed,
cower at the broken, and
pray to be enough.

In April, we will release the next Women Witnesses of Mercy resource on Sr. Dorothy Stang.  Another tough, “stubborn” woman witness of mercy, she was murdered for her work defending poor Brazilians and the sacred life of the Amazon where they lived and where so many living creatures depend on its ongoing vibrancy and health.

Please donate $125 or more to FutureChurch’s Women in Church Leadership Campaign and get a poster with all twelve women witnesses of mercy with beautiful original art by Marcy Hall.

Women Ready to Serve as Deacons

drm-Flier Ready To Serve TeleconferenceThe Second Vatican Council recognized “there are men who actually carry out the functions of the deacon’s office” and thus “it is only right to strengthen them by the imposition of hands.”

Today the same is true of many women who lead parishes and serve as catechists and chaplains and in other ministries. In light of mission opportunities and pastoral needs, local Churches should be allowed to call forth women for the ordained diaconia of liturgy, word and charity.

Please join us on April 13, 2016 at 8pm ET as we hear from three women who are ready to serve as deacons.

Connie Walsh has always felt a particular call to the permanent diaconate, not priesthood or religious life. Cynthia (Sam) Bowns recognized her desire to serve as a deacon as she accompanied her husband through his diaconal formation program. Natalie Terry is engaged in and feels called to greater ministerial leadership, and would seriously consider the diaconate if opened to women. After each speaker shares her story, Luke Hansen, S.J., will facilitate questions and discussion.  Read the bios of our panelists below.

RESOURCES for those interested in women deacons!

  1.  Visit our new Catholic Women Deacons website.
  2.  Sign up for our retreat for those discerning whether they want to be deacons from September 16 – 18, 2016 at River’s Edge in Cleveland, Ohio by sending an email to Russ@futurechurch.org.
  3. Sign up for our teleconference series.   The first one is April 13th with our three panelists.  The second one is May 18, 2016 at 8pm ET with expert Phyllis Zagano.  The third is TBD.

Bios of Teleconference Panelists

Connie Walsh, of Maplewood, Minnesota, a certified community health worker, recently retired after 24 years as the manager of advocacy services at United Family Medicine in St. Paul, Minnesota. The clinic serves a diverse group of largely uninsured or underinsured persons. Connie served for eight years on the Commission of Women for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, and for five years she taught a domestic violence curriculum at St. Paul Seminary and for deacon couples. She has received formation as an Ignatian Associate, served on a parish council and on 23 Cursillo retreat teams, volunteered in Guatemala, and served as a lector, Eucharistic minister, fundraiser, and religious educator.

Cynthia (Sam) M. Bowns, of Crete, Illinois, recently retired as an associate and alumni coordinator in the development department at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. Sam has a Masters of Divinity and a certificate in spiritual formation from Catholic Theological Union, where she continues to volunteer. A married mother of three, she has served for decades in a variety of parish ministries, including co-chair of RCIA, lector, Eucharistic minister and art and environment. Sam, a certified spiritual director, first recognized her desire to serve as a deacon as she accompanied her husband Loren Bowns through his discernment and training as a deacon in the Diocese of Joliet. Following his ordination, Sam pursued further theological education in order be a well-prepared advocate for women called to ordained ministry. Loren, who serves as a deacon in the Archdiocese of Chicago, will also participate in the teleconference.


Natalie Terry, originally from Wynantskill, New York, is the director of the Ignatian Spiritual Life Center and Children’s Faith Formation at St. Agnes Catholic Church in San Francisco. She has a Masters of Divinity from the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University in Berkeley, California, where she is currently writing her thesis for a Licentiate in Sacred Theology in the area of sacramental theology. She graduated from John Carroll University in 2010 with Bachelor of Arts in religious studies, and then served as a volunteer with the Sisters of the Humility of Mary in Pulaski, Pennsylvania.  Natalie has been a facilitator and prayer leader with the Ignatian Solidarity Network, and she has served as a lay preacher, lector, Eucharistic minister and presider of Communion services and Liturgies of the Word.

Luke Hansen, S.J., a member of the Wisconsin Province of the Society of Jesus, is a student at the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University in Berkeley, California. Luke has a Master of Arts in social philosophy from Loyola University Chicago, has worked on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, and served as an associate editor of America magazine from 2012 to 2014. He has reported from the Vatican, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and has won several awards from the Catholic Press Association for his writing. As an intern for FutureChurch, Luke recently edited the first edition of VOICES, a magazine that features the storytelling of Catholic women who work for the empowerment of women around the world through anti-trafficking initiatives, health care, education and other fields.



What Will Pope Francis Say in His Apostolic Exhortation on the Family?

Francis, my experts
by Pat Marrin

Sources say Pope Francis signed the 200 plus page post-synodal apostolic exhortation on March 19, the Feast of St. Joseph but it is being translated into other languages (from Italian) before its release.  Reports say it will be published on April 8, 2016 at 11:30am (Rome time) and that Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna who was part of the German language group that offered a form of the “Internal Forum” as a way to bring divorced and remarried Catholics back into the fold, will present it.   Other expected participants at the press conference are: Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, general secretary of the Synod of Bishops;  Professor Francesco Miano, lecturer in moral philosophy at the University of Rome at Tor Vergata, and his wife, Professor Giuseppina De Simone in Miano, lecturer in philosophy at the Theological Faculty of Southern Italy in Naples.

The event will be live-streamed on Vatican Radio.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, the architect of a pathway to Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics recently said that Pope Francis will “definitively express himself on family issues addressed during the last synod, and in particular on the participation of the divorced and remarried faithful in the active life of the Catholic community”.

The National Catholic Register reported Kasper as saying the exhortation will represent “the first step in a reform” that will mark the “turning of a page” in the Church’s history “after 1,700 years.”

“We must not repeat past formulas and barricade ourselves behind the wall of exclusivism and clericalism,” Kasper told the audience.  The Church must live in the current times and “know how to interpret them,” also saying that women must be offered more opportunities to serve in Church administration.

If changing protocol is a marker for what lays ahead, Francis may be sending another signal.  On Febraury 27, when Argentina’s new president, Mauricio Macri, visited Pope Francis in the Vatican, accompanied by his third wife, Juliana Awada, Francis, overcame resistance from the protocol chiefs and secretariat of state and received Macri with his wife in his private library.  Prior to that, Vatican protocol required that if a Catholic head of state visited the pope accompanied by a spouse not married to him (or her) in the church then that person was not admitted to the official audience with the pope. Instead, the pope would greet that person separately in another room after the main audience.  Unhappy with that protocol, Francis changed it.

Journalist Gerald O’Connell makes some predictions about what will be in Francis’ post-synodal apostolic exhortation.

  1.  There will be no change in church doctrine. Pope Francis will reaffirm that marriage is between a man and a woman in a lifelong union open to having children. He will restate church teaching on the indissolubility of marriage.
  2. Pope Francis is expected to open doors in terms of the church’s pastoral approach to issues such as cohabitation, how divorced and remarried Catholics may be reinstated in the church and allowed to receive Communion, and homosexuality in the family.
  3. Mercy will be emphasized as the heart of the Gospel message.  He will also highlight the vital importance of “accompaniment” and “reconciliation.”The document is scheduled to be released during the first part of April, apparently, thank goodness, in multiple languages.

New Hope for Francis-style Bishops with the Appointment of a New Apostolic Nuncio

Archbishop Vigano washes the feet of a religious sister on Holy Thursday.

Media outlets have reported that Pope Francis has chosen Archbishop Christophe Pierre, now the Vatican’s representative to Mexico, to be his next envoy to the  United States replacing the retiring Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano.

Michael Sean Winters shows how this role functions and predicts the new Francis appointment could produce changes for the U.S. Church including a new wave of Francis bishops.

  1.  The nuncio, like all ambassadors, is charged with maintaining relations with the U.S. government. The Vatican and the U.S. government collaborate on a host of issues around the world, even when tensions exist between the local Church and the government.
  2. The Vatican is concerned about the candidacy of Donald Trump.  Because opposition to immigrants is such a central part of Trump’s political rise, and concern for immigrants has been such a central focus of Pope Francis’ articulation of the Church’s social doctrine, it surely occurred to the Vatican leadership that an archbishop who has spent the last nine years in Mexico could be uniquely valuable at this point in time. As well, immigration is one issue on which the U.S. bishops are not only united, but on which they are totally in sync with the Vatican.
  3. A lot of routine and non-routine business is either handled by the nuncio. He  forwards petitions and other information, and is free to comment thereon, and shape the Vatican’s response with those comments.
  4. Nowhere is a nuncio’s influence more obvious, and more enduring, than in the selection of new bishops. When a diocese becomes vacant, the nuncio is charged with investigating the needs of the diocese and then proposing the names of three candidates who could meet those needs. That list of candidates, a terna, is sent to the Congregation for Bishops, which can pass it along to the pope as is, change the rankings of the three names on the list, or even reject the list and ask for a new one. Different nuncios handle this task differently, with varying levels of attention to the actual needs of a given diocese.  And although the Pope has his own method for finding bishops as is the case with Archbishop Blaise Cupich, in most cases, the nuncio draws up the first list of potential nominees.Right now are about a third of the U.S. bishops are very supportive of Pope Francis, a third harbor grave reservations about his leadership, and a third are not sure what to think.The new appointment will be instrumental in making Francis appointments. According to Winters, if the pope wants a bishops’ conference that will support him, he needs his new nuncio to name about twenty to thirty bishops who are with the program. Winters notes that in the past couple of years, when reading the lists of appointments at the Vatican website each morning, the new bishops in Mexico have all been pastors. Archbishop Pierre got the memo and, if he is indeed coming to Washington, we can hope he will appoint pastors to lead U.S. dioceses too.To learn more, read Winters’ article in full.

Why Voices of Faith In the Vatican Matters

IMG_2692The international initiative Voices of Faith seeks to both shine a light on the contributions women are making in the Church and in the world and advocate for expanded opportunities for women at all levels of Church governance.

On March 8, 2016, from inside the Vatican, women from around the world shared stories of fighting human trafficking, poverty, child marriage and more during the 3rd annual Voices of Faith Event.   A two-part event, the first half highlighted women leaders and experts from around the world who shared how their work helps curb the violence, exploitation and poverty women and children face daily. Their incredible journeys of faith, tenacity and courage are a witness to the Gospel message that overturns those cultural and societal norms that denigrate, de-value and de-humanize women and children.

During the second half of the event, a multi-generational panel of five women including Gayatri Lobo Gajiwala, Nicole Perone, Petra Dankova, Geralyn Sheehan and Carolyn Woo along with moderator, Tom Smolich, S.J., talked about the ways the Church has grown in terms of including women’s gifts, but also shared their ideas for expanding women’s roles within the Catholic Church.  The panel discussion can be viewed at the Voices of Faith website (1:40 – 2:44). The transcript can be read on the FutureChurch website.  The 2015 panel discussion transcript is also available.

Very often, people wonder if the expansion of women’s roles within the Church is connected to the plight of women in the world and the challenge of confronting violence against them with Gospel values.

The connection is strong and clear.

  1.  The Catholic Church misses out on the wealth of resources women bring when it excludes them from decision making within the Church. Catholic women have been pioneers on the Catholic frontier since the beginning.  Because they work closely with those who have suffered and those at the margins, they are effective in making the Gospel a reality.  Their dedicated service is woven into the fabric of Catholic life, especially in areas such as health care, parish life, education, social services, poverty reduction, care for orphans and children and care for the planet.  They are CEOs, presidents, CFOs, chancellors and provosts, yet they have no place at the table when it comes to the development of Church teaching, canon law, the choosing of bishops and many other areas that affect Church life. Those who live at the margins would benefit from the insights, wisdom, intellect and faith of Catholic women in the ongoing development of Catholic teaching, policy, doctrine, law and other disciplines that affect Catholic life.
  2. Effective governance pivots on the ability to have an inclusive and diverse governing body filled with people who have a stake in the outcomes associated with the mission.  Francis has begun that work in earnest appointing bishops and cardinals from outside of Europe and the West to new posts. But that drive for diversity should not end with prelates.  It should also include a healthy influx of women and laity from diverse regions of the world.  When a governing body includes those whose wise counsel comes from experience in the field, the governing body builds its capacity to respond more effectively to those most in need.
  3. Models matter.  And what the Catholic Church models matters.  The Catholic Church has enormous influence in the world.  It is a global player and its decisions affect the lives of women (Catholic and those who are not Catholic) everywhere.   For instance, the Vatican has significant influence at the United Nations both helping and sometimes crippling the efforts to bring women into full equality worldwide.When Pope Francis decreed that women should be included in the foot washing rite on Holy Thursday, women in Kerala, India and in Washington D.C. were included for the first time. When the Church models equality; when it models justice for women and men; when it creates new realities for women based on the deeply egalitarian practices of Jesus — it serves as a counter-cultural model — a beacon of new life for women everywhere, but especially in regions that unapologetically view women as second class citizens.
  4. We need to move beyond the few to the many.  Much of what the Church accomplishes is enormously life-giving, but it has not fully embraced or integrated women’s gifts, talents or faith into its governance structures. Panelist Nicole Perone stressed that most Catholics cannot name Catholic women leaders in the same way they can name Catholic male leaders.  Carolyn Woo, President and CEO of Catholic Relief Services, pointed out, that while a few women have risen to the top of their field, these women are the exceptions and not the rule.

    According to Woo, we need:

    1. The engagement of women as leaders in the Church to move from the exceptional to the habitual; from ad hoc to systematic.
    2. The engagement of women as family; not as guests or guest workers.
    3. To cast the feminine genius as more than simply being sensitive, intuitive and nourishing to include qualities such as entrepreneurial and persistent acting as a social critic and speaking truth to power.
    4. To make the Church not only a provider of services to women, but also an advocate for their rights.

The Church will be more credible as a teaching body and more effective in spreading the Gospel when it fully incorporates women into all levels of Church governance, ministry, leadership and life.

The Voices of Faith effort seeks to put a spotlight on the ways in which women are leading today while advocating for a new tomorrow where women will step up alongside their brothers fostering a richer brand of Catholicism and a more effective Gospel outreach for all people.















Vatican Rulings Protect New York Churches!

For the past 16 months, FutureChurch has actively supported parishioners in the Archdiocese of New York who appealed November 2nd 2014 and May 8, 2015 announcements by Cardinal Timothy Dolan that merged 149 of the Archdiocese’s 368 parishes.

Last week, the Vatican issued rulings for 9 of the 14 parishes whose appeals were accepted for review by the Congregation for the Clergy. In 6 of these, the Vatican took unusual care to amend the Archdiocese’s original decrees. The amendments said parishioners should be able to continue to worship in churches that had effectively been closed by Cardinal Dolan. While the Vatican did not reverse any merger rulings, the amendments provide important protections for parishioners wishing to preserve the integrity of their churches. Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, (WSJ) one local leader had this to say:

“The Congregation is telling the archdiocese that you just can’t arbitrarily close churches and not allow the people to use it,” said Charles Shaw, a parishioner of St. Joseph who has helped to lead the appeals process. “The Congregation was very clear that the Polish nature of our church—and the personal nature of our church as a Polish-ethnic church—the cardinal needs to give us the right to carry on our worship in that fashion, and we’ve been doing it since the church was established in 1901.”

The WSJ also reported that three appeals were not amended and decisions about five others are still pending.

Canon lawyer Sr. Kate Kuenstler, who worked with most of the New York appeals, was pleased with the outcome: It is so good to see the Vatican respecting the parish faith community of the laity. I am delighted at the clear sensitivity of the Vatican that tempers the blunt instrument used by Cardinal Dolan to dismantle the parishes built by and for the European immigrants so many years ago.” 

By way of analysis, it seems clear that the Vatican’s protective amendments will make it more difficult for Cardinal Dolan to sell the churches of newly merged parishes. Further, the rulings effectively informed the laity that the Cardinal should not “suppress” personal parishes and that the Vatican has oversight over the sale of Catholic property. In several instances, the amendments specifically state that parishioners have the right to appeal again if the rulings are not upheld by local pastors or by Archdiocesan leadership.

FutureChurch congratulates these exceptionally faithful New York Catholics, and Sr. Kate, for this important victory on behalf of the rights of laity in the Church.


As Chicago prepares for the next round of mergers, they are asking what Chicago Catholics think.   http://www.archchicago.org/renew

Our Catholic Church: What Do We Tell Our Daughters? A Tale of Warning and Hope

Natalia Imperatori-LeeOn April 15, 2016, Natalia Imperatori-Lee, Ph.D., head of Catholic Studies at Manhattan College in New York City will discuss, “Our Catholic Church: What Do We Tell Our Daughters?”  The event will be held at Rutgers Church in New York City. The event is filled to capacity and registration is now closed but the video will be available for viewing on the FutureChurch website.  

A missing generation 

In terms of engagement in the Catholic Church, there is a significant difference between Hispanic millennial women and non-Hispanic millennial women.  In this age bracket, Hispanic women are still quite active in parish life, attend Mass and are more likely to agree with the Church on hot button issues.

But the same is not true for non-Hispanic millennial women.  In 2012, Patricia Wittberg, S.C., Professor of Sociology at Purdue and Indiana University found that young women are leaving the Church in record numbers, a shift that began in the mid-1990s. While older Catholic women in the United States were more engaged in the Catholic Church than men of their age, the Catholic women of Generation X (born between 1962 and 1980) barely equaled their male counterparts in regular Mass attendance.  They were also significantly more likely than the men to disagree with official Church teaching on women’s ordination, homosexuality, premarital sex and on whether one had to go to Mass to be considered a good Catholic.

That trend has deepened.

Data obtained from 2002 through 2008 from the General Social Survey indicated that millennial Catholic women (born between 1981 and 1995) are even more disaffected than Gen X women.  In fact, this is the first time a generation of Catholic women are more likely than their counterparts to say they never attend Mass. Further, they expressed a general lack of confidence in the Church.

Wittberg notes, this is not the case for Protestant women.

So, why are non-Hispanic millennial  Catholic women more disaffected than previous generations?

The answer is complex but below are some of the reasons as voiced by Millennials themselves.

1. Millennial women, like their male counterparts, are likely to disagree with the Church’s teachings on homosexuality, the ordination of women to the priesthood and reproductive rights. They say they are appalled at the treatment of LGBT Catholics and women in the Church.  In one study, a 23-year old woman left because, “I felt deceived and undervalued by the church.”

While some finger-wagging bishops, priests and other Catholics largely root this dissent in secularism and individualism, many Millennials find the foundation for their disagreement within the very teachings of the Catholic Church; what they understand to have been the example of Jesus, what they intuit about the love God, and what they learned from Catholic Social Teaching.

The millennial view is also reflected in whom they trust.  Pope Francis is popular among young Catholics millennials for his open-armed spirituality and his humble desire to be in a meaningful loving relationship with people everywhere.  One study showed that only two percent of younger Catholics having a negative view of him while eighty percent have a negative view of bishops.  This may help explain why some studies show that even those who admire Pope Francis cannot see themselves returning to the Church.

2. Many believe the Church does not attract younger women because it limits the ways their gifts and talents can be engaged.  Leadership opportunities in the secular world are abundant. Women head national governments, lead military branches, run multi-national organizations, and work as senior managers.  They lead universities, hospitals and launch businesses. Limiting the opportunities for women to use their gifts for ministry and governance within the Church reduces its attractiveness.

Unlike the generations before them, most non-Hispanic millennial women are not walking through the doors of the Church in the hopes of finding greater meaning in their lives.  They are just walking by.  Carolyn Woo warned of the consequences of not engaging women more effectively at the recent Voices of Faith event held in the Vatican on March 8, 2016.

Women are knocking at the door and sometimes that is wearying for the people on the other side of the door…too much knocking.  But I have the fear that the generation of women who follow us will stop knocking. There will come a day when there is the silence of people not knocking.

As a whole host of younger women retreat from the Catholic Church, we need more than bandaids, or as Carolyn Woo stated, we need to go from “the exceptional to the habitual” when it comes to engaging them at every level of Church governance.  We need a comprehensive strategy for reform, inclusive practices and mentorships that will build trust and redeem the arrogance that drove a generation away.

Natalia Imperatori-Lee will seed that conversation and she will lead us to think about how we can move from words to action.

Our foremothers in faith taught us that God works in us.  If we are to have the blessings of the next generation of women in our parish communities, we must be faithful in our call to listen deeply, embrace all and to humbly invite those who are walking by to join us again so that together, we may incarnate the richest and most God-like aspects of our tradition for future generations.






Voices of Faith Multi-Generational Panel Discussion – March 8, 2016



Shrinking the Catholic Brand: Are We Witnessing the Woolworth Model of Management? by Deborah Rose-Milavec

numberofpraisheswopriestsMedia outlets are reporting new rounds of parish mergers and closures.  If you are scratching your head at this phenomenon, you are not alone.  You may even ask, “How is this prelate-led strategy beneficial for the Body of Christ, or more importantly, how does it catalyze the community in making the Gospel mission a reality throughout our world?”

Our faith tells us that we are to be the People of God, the Body of Christ — the eyes, ears, heart and hands of God here on earth, commissioned to bring the Good News especially to those who are marginalized in our societies.  Yet, by all measures, those in leadership seem to be downsizing — shrinking the number the Eucharistic communities where we feed on God’s word and learn how to love God and neighbor.  Does this strategy help us accomplish our mission?

Pope Francis knows that the Church benefits mightily from solid managerial practices.  He has done some heavy lifting in terms of Vatican finances and restructuring curial offices.   But what about Church at the local level?  When it comes to restructuring parish communities, is it fair to ask, “Are bishops suffering from the Woolworth management syndrome?” Woolworth stores, once a leading model in the retail five and dime business, went bust in the 1990s because they couldn’t adapt to a changing environment.  The Guardian wrote that the company “had outlived its usefulness.”

The Catholic Church is not a five and dime store.  Indeed, we need fewer places for consumers to consume.  But, whatever value Woolworth had, its inability to adapt to new models of commerce — the signs of the times — led to its demise.  Wouldn’t it be a sad story if the Catholic Church went the Woolworth way?

We know the CARA statistics — the hundred thousand mile view. People are moving to the West and South and along with it we see a Catholic migration.  The statistics make parish mergers and closings in the North and East seem logical.  Maybe it is true that our penchant to replicate European building structures presents a formidable challenge when there are demographic shifts, but at the heart of our dilemma is an attachment to one way of providing the Eucharist and sacramental life —  through the male celibate clergy.   Indeed, Catholic bishops have not been able to adapt to a changing environment in a way that revitalizes the Church and they have been loath to address the looming priest shortage in a way that allows for innovation and change at the heart of our ministerial (operating) system.  We need to ask, “How will this end?  Are we going the Woolworth way?”

Over the past decade over 1,350 parishes have closed.  In the Archdiocese of New York, although he has not had his way entirely thanks to the work of tenacious Catholics, Cardinal Dolan has been working to merge and close over 149 parishes.  The Archdiocese of Philadelphia closed or merged 46 parishes.  The Archdiocese of Chicago will face a second round of mergers and closures involving 80 to 100 parishes.  The Diocese of Sioux City will close 41 parishes by 2017. The Diocese of Cleveland will face another round of mergers and closures due to the shrinking number of priests. The list and the problem goes on.

Archbishop Blaise Cupich, a Francis appointee, will work as thoughtfully and pastorally as any bishop can, but if we cling to the idea that we need one priest for each parish in a Catholic environment where the priest shortage is not a minor blip, but an ongoing reality, how does one more merger or closure, no matter how pastorally presented, solve anything?

The fall out from merging and closings parishes is huge.

1.  We lose Catholics.  Parish mergers and closings drive down the numbers of practicing Catholics. One study shows that up to 40% of Catholics never return when they are turned out of their parish home.

2.  We lose valuable outreach to disenfranchised communities.  We shrink our ability to carry out the Gospel mission.

3.  We strain and sometimes collapse already fragile communities.  When a parish closes, gas stations close.  Stores close. People who need more services get fewer.  Blight roots itself more profoundly and people lose hope.

Whether by design or default, the genius that is the Body of Christ — the organism that powers God’s Gospel-oriented transformation on earth — is being diminished, one parish community at a time.

While we are inundated with loads of statistical data meant to allay fears and foster acceptance of the current strategy, we have a responsibility to look hard at the methods being employed by our bishops and call for greater courage and clarity in facing the root causes and the unsustainable attachment to models of ministry that no longer serve us in this age.  We have seen the effects of round one in the merger/closure strategy.  Will round two, three, four or five make us stronger or just bring us closer to some eventual end – diminishing our numbers and ultimately impeding our collective ability to carry out the Gospel? Will someone write two hundred years from now that the Catholic Church “outlived its usefulness”?

In Evangelii Gaudium Pope Francis urged Catholics to remember, “The parish is the presence of the Church in a given territory, an environment for hearing God’s word, for growth in the Christian life, for dialogue, proclamation, charitable outreach, worship and celebration. It is a community of communities, a sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey, and a centre of constant missionary outreach (28).”  In 2007, as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he urged priests to “rent a garage” so people could experience Eucharistic community.

Some bishops have been taking his words to heart and are working pastorally and creatively to keep their parishes open.  Bishop Joseph C. Bambera, D.D., from the Diocese of Scranton appointed Mary Ann Cody, I.H.M. to serve as parish life coordinator and to shepherd the community of Our Lady of the Eucharist in the absence of a resident priest.  In Indiana, Archbishop Joseph Tobin reversed a decision to merge 4 rural parishes into one mega-church.

More than ever we need courageous conversations.  We need to share emerging models for ministry, like those in Austria and Switzerland.  We need men who are married, women and an empowered laity to step up alongside our priests to nurture the life that is our parish community.  We need Eucharistic communities more than ever – places to nourish one another and to grow in holiness.  We need to be transformed – not for some individualistic end, but for our work as the People of God in carrying out God’s dream.

Recently, Archbishop Cupich wrote, “We should not be afraid to face these realities, but rather see this moment as a graced opportunity to chart new ways to live out our mission more fully.” Let’s take Archbishop Cupich’s words to heart and seek new models born of God’s spirit today.