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Parishes Host Courageous Conversations

August 7, 2019

“A dialogue must be a meeting of human beings with hearts as well as minds first, and an exchange of ideas second. A dialogue that does not involve the heart serves little purpose.”
Monsignor Luigi Padovese

At Parish Catalyst, our mission is to encourage Catholic leaders to think creatively, act courageously and renew the Church. Recently, several of our parishes exhibited this kind of creativity and courage by hosting gatherings to promote authentic dialogue about the ongoing scandals in the Church. Below are a few examples of different models that parishes have used to create a safe place for people to grieve, express their feelings, ask questions and share their experiences. While no model is perfect, some may be more helpful than others, depending on the community and culture of your parish. We hope that these examples provide some useful ideas that might inspire your own courageous conversations. 

St. Joseph University Parish in Buffalo, NY, organized an “Open Forum” for parishioners. The leadership wanted this to be a “family” conversation, so it was only promoted in masses and through the bulletin, not publicized on their website, social media, or outside of the church.

The evening was opened and facilitated by Sister Marcia Ann Fiutko, FSSJ. She is from outside of the parish and has extensive experience in leading conflict resolution meetings. Sister Marcia established 9 Ground rules for the evening and opened the forum with prayer. There were two microphones and speakers were given 2 minutes each. You can download a copy of the ground rules by clicking here: Ground Rules for an Open Forum.

When asked why hosting this evening was important, Father Jack Ledwon explained,

“We can’t just move right to answers or healing. The first step is giving people a voice to grieve, express their hurts, fears and concerns. Without a voice people feel helpless and powerless. It’s disrespectful to just talk at hurting people.”

Throughout the evening people openly expressed their feelings of anger, frustration and grief, while some even said that they were embarrassed to be Catholic. Several people shared their own stories of abuse, some for the first time in public. When the conversation began to slow down, the staff responded to some specific questions that applied to the parish and the diocese, with Father Ledwon closing the evening in prayer.

While it takes great courage to allow such an open discussion, Father Jack was extremely pleased with the results. “Overall, people were grateful for a place of safety and support. Many said that if it wasn’t for this parish, they would not be attending a church. In the end, it was respectful and affirming for the parish.”

St. Anthony of Padua in Houston, Texas hosted a town hall meeting titled, “Restore: Coping with Church Scandal.” Held in the church itself, the setting was a visual reminder of the sacredness of this conversation. The evening was laity led with Father Rafferty present, but seated with the parishioners.

Michael Gormley took a few moments to set up the evening, followed by comments and questions from parishioners. “We wanted people to voice their frustrations in a way that was heard by the church”, said Gormley. “We also wanted people to slow down and process the facts apart from the sensational news coverage.” The entire meeting was recorded and shared on their Facebook page, which you can watch here: “Restore: Coping w/ Church Scandal”.

Our Lady of the Lake in Lake Oswego, OR dedicated two Sundays to addressing the crisis. Each week Father John Kerns gave a homily addressing the crisis, followed by a listening session after the mass allowing parishioners to speak openly and ask questions. Week one addressed the specifics of the crisis, with week two asking the question, “Why do I remain a Catholic in such troubling times?”

“I am grateful for the turnout and the input we received. Some parishioners made important statements which often were accompanied by expressions of anger and grief. The comments were not just addressed to the issues of the actual crimes perpetrated against minors, but more so, the failure on the parts of leadership to address those crimes.” – Father John Kerns

A week later, a letter was sent to parishioners with a summary of the conversations, along with an outline of the Archdiocesan policies and procedures. You can download that letter by clicking here: Our Lady of the Lake Letter.

St. Brigid in San Diego, CA had two unique listening sessions, with Deacon Chris Hulburt facilitating a model called “restorative circles”. There were about 90 people who participated in each session, with an opportunity for each one to express their feelings, opinions, ask questions, and offer ideas on what to do going forward. 

Msgr Steven Callahan took time to speak briefly from his own experience of how the diocese addressed allegations of sexual abuse from 1990–2015, and their ongoing policies and procedures today. Previously, Msgr Callahan had served as the victims assistance coordinator for the diocese. 

While the sessions were emotionally intense, there was a good spirit and people expressed appreciation that the parish provided this forum for them to come together. Many people shared a belief that real change will require lay men and women being more involved in leadership roles in the Church moving forward. 

In all of these parishes, a strong desire was expressed to come together and pray as a faith community, whether it be the rosary, Mass, or Eucharistic adoration. May we all continue to pray for the Church, most of all for the victims and their families who have been most affected by clergy sexual abuse.

If you would like help facilitating your own “Courageous Conversations”, let us know. We’d be honored to help you in any way we can. Click here to send us a message or just give us a call at 310.500.4286.

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