With American Roman Catholics leaving their church in record numbers, it will be up to laypersons - not just bishops and priests - to revitalize the faith, a panel of speakers told an overflow audience Sunday at St. Joseph's University.
"The church has acted like a lazy monopoly," the Rev. Thomas Reese told the crowd at Mandeville Hall, noting that one in three baptized Catholics now leaves the church in adulthood.
Reese, a senior fellow at Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University and former editor of the Jesuit magazine America, was one of three panelists invited by the university to discuss "The Future of the Church."
The topic's subtitle was "Sources of Hope," and after airing their grievances with their church, the three unabashedly progressive speakers pointed out ways they believe the nation's largest denomination can remain attractive and relevant.
"The Catholic Church is confronting a real crisis" of eroding membership, Sister Carol Jean Vale, president of Chestnut Hill College and moderator of the two-hour program, said in her opening remarks. "How can we form Catholics for the future?" she asked.
Reese, who is a Jesuit priest, laid much of the blame for the erosion of Catholic identity on what he described as a "culture of clericalism" in the church.
Too many priests and bishops seem to believe that "we know better" than the laity "and we don't need to listen to them."
Reese, a prolific author, also opined that "our churches and our liturgies are boring." Seventy-one percent of ex-Catholics who join a Protestant or evangelical congregation report that the Catholic Church "wasn't meeting my spiritual needs," he said.
Parishes need to do a better job of preaching, offer better music, be more welcoming, and provide engaging programs for children, Reese said.
But the folks in the pews cannot wait for the pastor to create, or authorize, every feature of parish life, Reese said.
"Want a youth group? Start one!" he told the crowd of 321. "Want a book club? Do it! You don't need the pope or a bishop or a priest to be Christian," he said. "We're becoming a do-it-yourself church."
Reese was followed by Dolores R. Leckey, another research fellow at the Woodstock Center and former adviser to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the national organization of the Catholic hierarchy for articulating church teaching.
"What reason do I personally have for hope?" she began.
The answer lay, she said, in the reforms of the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65, which she described as a "monumental change in consciousness" for Roman Catholicism because it "looked at who is the church, not what."
The Second Vatican Council was emphatic, Leckey said, that "lay life is a true vocation."
She opined that "new life has emerged" out of the "earthquake" that was the clergy sex-abuse crisis because some lay Catholics are channeling their frustration with church leadership into a recognition that they must play a greater role.
She was followed by the Rev. Raymond Kemp, also a senior fellow at Georgetown's Woodstock Center and a former pastor in the Archdiocese of Washington.
Microphone in hand, Kemp rose from the dais and strolled down to the floor of Woffington Auditorium.
"My spiritual director and my shrink told me to be optimistic," he said, to laughter.
He would later echo Leckey's observation that the sex-abuse crisis had emboldened some lay Catholics to "build the church from below."
But Kemp began by emphasizing the need of parishes to "find a kind of hospitality" that asks of each member: "What do you want to do with the gospel?"
He cited Old St. Patrick's Church in Chicago, which, under dynamic leadership, grew from a handful of parishioners 20 years ago to more than 6,000, with 120 "peer ministries."
"You get a sense of a parish that's doing things and having fun doing it," he said.
Kemp also said he believed the way for the Catholic Church to attract and keep young people is to appeal to their idealism.
"The untold story in the Catholic Church" is the amount of social services it provides at home and abroad, Kemp said. "We feed, house, clothe, and resettle more people than any other nongovernment agency in this country."
"Who's attracted to this?" he asked. "Young people" who "want to realize what it means to be Catholic by putting their bodies" in service to those in need.
"I pray," Kemp said, "that we listen to young people."