Sesquicentennial Event Explores Role of Catholic Laity

by Alessandra Luedeking


On the evening of September 26th, Boston College hosted its sesquicentennial panel discussion entitled, “Coworkers in the Vineyard: The Role of the Catholic Laity in the Life of Public Service and Scholarship,” in the Robsham Theater. The discussion was sponsored by the School of Theology and Ministry and moderated by its dean, Mark Massa, S.J. The panel was comprised of five distinguished Catholic leaders in the United States: Simone Campbell, S.S.S., the Executive Director of NETWORK, a progressive Catholic movement for peace and justice through social and economic change; E.J. Dionne Jr., a syndicated columnist for the Washington Post, Senior Fellow at Brookings Institution, and professor at Georgetown University; Thomas H. Groome, a professor of theology and religious education in the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry; Jane McAuliffe, an internationally respected scholar of the Koran and Muslim-Christian relations and former president of Bryn Mawr College; and Timothy P. Shriver, Chairman and CEO of Special Olympics and co-founder of CASTLE, the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning.

Fifty years ago, the Second Vatican Council prompted Catholics to serve as co-workers with priests and bishops in the vineyard of the Lord. The recent panel discussion was oriented towards discovering what this call means for the Catholic laity of today. Massa opened the dialogue between the panelists with the inquiry, “What questions do you think are on the minds of practicing Catholics today?”


E.J. Dionne identified Catholic parents’ basic concerns with two questions: “Will my kids stay Catholic?” and “What is the Church saying to them now to inspire them?” Dionne said that the Church has a “tendency to throw people out” and forget the mission that we all share as part of a community of believers. He drew bouts of laughter from the audience with his statement that the “Catholic Church’s job is to make everybody feel guilty about something.” He concluded by reproaching the concept of individualism in favor of a greater communal experience within the Church.

Timothy Shriver responded by rewording the original question to ask, “What are former Catholics looking for?” Shriver detected what he believed to be a “spiritual crisis” where people walked searchingly into the Church and were saturated with Gospel teachings and rituals, but were never truly listened to. In other words, Catholics are never asked for their opinion on the Gospel, but are merely made to listen and accept its teaching. His suggested solution was to implement “reciprocity, or relational transformation” that “invites people … into discussion,” rather than having them sit stoically through a homily. He claimed that the Church is not conducive to what Thomas Keating states to be “the most natural language of human beings,” namely, a silence which invites introspection and unity. Shriver concluded by providing an answer to his own question. He claimed that the Church is “missing love,” and makes the distinction between “loving God” and “falling in love with God.”


Jane McAuliffe crafted her response from the perspective of college students. She formulated three questions of universal concern, transcending beyond the confines of the Catholic Church: “Will the planet survive?” “Will there ever be a level playing field?” and “Will we ever survive as a globe?”


The first of these questions is concerned with the environment and alarm over a global climate catastrophe. She recognizes that college students expend time and energy in service projects with the aim of reducing pollution and the use of fossil fuels. The second question concerns itself with the “fundamental equality of human beings,” recognizing that minority populations confront life wondering whether they will ever experience “full citizenship” in a society composed of a majority. The final question is related to the fear of terrorism and how students proactively work toward opening communication and inter-cultural exchanges in the hopes of producing a safer haven as “citizens of this globe.”


Simone Campbell answered the question by distinguishing a need for a “sense of community built on a spirituality that comes from the mystical insight that we are one body with all of creation.” She asserts that “our faith is to welcome all in,” and points to a depletion of joy in modern society which can be rectified by fostering relationships in communion with others.


Thomas Groome was the last to comment on Fr. Massa’s initial question. He elicited laughter with his blasé comment, “I think it all depends.” Groome held that the core and faith of the Catholic Church rests with the historical Jesus, whose life remains largely untold as evidenced in the Apostle’s Creed which reads: “Born of the Virgin Mary / Suffered under Pontius Pilate.” Jesus’s life is essentially “skipped,” prompting Groome to propose that Catholics “reclaim the centrality of Jesus.” He concluded with the remark, “Jesus is still the best thing we’ve got!”


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