University Presidents Discuss Church Revitalization

Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J., Sr. Janet Eisner, S.N.D.D.E.N., and Rev. Joseph McChane, S.J.
Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J., Sr. Janet Eisner, S.N.D.D.E.N., and Rev. Joseph McChane, S.J.

by Alex Wasilkoff


As part of the Church in the 21st Century Center’s Easter Series, three presidents of Catholic universities engaged in a discussion on hope for revitalization for the Church. The event took place on March 28, and the speakers were Rev. William Leahy, S.J. of Boston College; Sr. Janet Eisner, SNDDEN, of Emmanuel College; and Rev. Joseph McShane, S.J, of Fordham University. Karen Kiefer, director of the C21 Center, moderated the discussion.


After a brief introduction, Kiefer invited the participants and audience to begin the event with a Hail Mary. The prayer was followed by the first question, “How would you describe the state of American Catholicism?” Sr. Janet noted that the Church in America, “is at the center and the edge.” She explained that certain parts of the Church like Catholic universities have a large influence on the Church, but other parts, like migrants at the border, are on the edge. Fr. McShane described the Church as being in a St. Paul in Athens moment—the Church is misunderstood by our post-Christian culture. Fr. Leahy said, “The Church is wounded and in much disarray.” Despite this, he said, “Students have faith; alumni have faith.” The question remaining is how to move forward.


Kiefer then asked the panelists, “What advice do you have for Catholics, especially the hierarchy?” Fr. Leahy proposed that dioceses might adopt lay boards of trustees like Catholic universities have done. He explained that bishops maintain complete authority on doctrine in the diocese, while the board could manage construction, finance, etc.. Sr. Janet added that women need an increased role in the Church. Specifically, she advised that more women be assigned to run parishes. Fr. McShane suggested that leadership seminars and discernment retreats might be key resources universities could offer the hierarchy.


In response to the question of “How does the Church change her culture of leadership?” a ll three presidents emphasized the role of Catholic education. Fr. Leahy proposed reorganizing the seminaries so that seminaries study alongside lay men and women. Sr. Janet noted that service in relation to the Gospel is an attractive aspect of the Church. Both Fr. Leahy and Fr. McShane cited listening sessions as a way for the Church to assist the Church in long term planning. Following these listening sessions, Fr. Leahy said, “Leaders have to provide vision and mission,” and he called for “actions, definite programs.” In terms of the Church’s current planning and vision, Fr. Leahy pointed to the data about Mass attendance. “We’re playing too much defense. We have to get out there and share the roots of our faith.”


Next, Kiefer questioned the presidents about the best methods of student formation at their schools. Sr. Janet identified the sense of community as a key element alongside service. Following her, Fr. Leahy responded that formation with core curriculum is essential. “Look at the curriculum. It is engaging the big questions about what is important and what Christianity has to offer.” Fr. McShane agreed with him. “Every freshmen hates the core. Every senior appreciates it. Every graduate brags about it—because it opens their mind in a structured way.” He continued, “We plant seeds and have faith in the power of faith to work itself out.” Fr. McShane cited the fact that graduates often seek out Jesuit parishes as sign of successful formation. “[Graduates] go back to where they were first fed.”


Before the Q&A, the Kiefer invited the presidents to share their hope for the future. Sr. Janet said, “The passion that many generations have had will be caught and transformed by this generation of students.” Fr. Leahy answered, “The core of the Church is strong. It’s up to us to make it even better and stronger.” Finally, Fr. McShane replied, “I want the Church to have such transparent love of the lord that He is loved, served, and experienced in the Church at this time.”


Much of the Q&A focused on the finding the opportunity present in the current crisis. Fr. McShane opened, “It is to discover Christ and be discovered by Christ. To get back to the core.” Sr. Janet added that Pope Francis and his works are very attractive to young people especially. Fr. Leahy said that the possibility for change is so great because the previous system is collapsing. Both Sr. Janet and Fr. McShane pointed to the large number of former Catholics as a fertile ground for evangelization. In closing, the presidents mourned sharp decline of women religious in the life of the Church, and again called for a thought to be put into the role of women in the Church.


Photo courtesy of the Church in the 21st Century Center

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