Murphy Needs to Respond to Laity Complaints
Dick Ryan of West Islip Writes a Column for Salt, a National Catholic Publication. James P. Pinkerton Is on Assignment

By Dick Ryan
Newsday [Long Island NY]
June 26, 2003

There is no longer a silence of the lambs in the Catholic Church. That fact came roaring across the night this week when Bishop William Murphy held three separate "listening sessions" in West Islip, Riverhead and Hicksville.

At St. John the Baptist High School in West Islip, for instance, he sat at center stage and listened, a captive audience of one, as dozens of Catholics railed out, sometimes bitterly, often passionately, about the current crisis in the Catholic Church. There were moments when he looked as if he wished he were somewhere in Topeka.

But now will Bishop Murphy really respond, as he promised at the end of each session, to all their pleas and complaints, all the questions they raised, all the emotions that came in a rush? He had to realize that this wasn't just the Voice of the Faithful talking but a former assistant district attorney, a young married couple who pleaded for the future of their children, and even a few priests and nuns who were part of the crowd.

Or will he get his back up over their brazen conduct, issue a few bromides about "church teaching," and reassert the authority and power that seems more precious than air to many bishops? If he reverts to form and ignores them, the reaction from the laity on Long Island could make the outcries this week sound like a whisper.

While the laity has broken its long silence here, there is another kind of silence that the American hierarchy seems to cherish as its safety blanket, clutching it as a convenient dodge in piously evading all the uncomfortable questions and challenges that have sprung up in the last few years.

At the bishops' semi-annual meeting in St. Louis last week, the cardinals and bishops floated the idea of a historic plenary council that would include bishops, priests and laity in a wonderful brotherhood and would explore a multitude of issues in the church. They had tabled the idea last year and, after a brief discussion, tabled it again for next year so that the earliest date for such an event would be sometime after 2006. Postpone, delay, stall and string along - the safe and sanctified side of silence in the Catholic Church.

But the laity is no longer silent and no longer believes that it needs anyone's permission, or a special dispensation, to speak out and save the church. And that is why a national congress of lay people, open to all, would be the laity's bold answer to some wispy plenary council that will probably never happen, the hierarchy's seasonal tease tossed out to Catholics every century or so to give the appearance of sincerity and openness.

And if the bishops aren't all that interested in "listening sessions" on a national level, the congress of lay people could invite legislators, the media and even representatives of the Vatican to open their ears to the laity's perception of some of the problems currently suffocating the American church.

The laity might also want to take a page from the civil-rights movement of the 1960s and the peace movement during the Vietnam war and convert them into a religious-rights movement and a movement for peace within the church. If the bishops can conduct "pro-life vigils" outside abortion clinics and on the streets of Washington, then the laity can conduct similar peaceful, prayerful vigils outside chanceries and cathedrals for reform, accountability and simple honesty within the church. And they will do just that on Sunday morning when the Voice of the Faithful will hold a prayer vigil on the steps of St. Agnes Cathedral in Rockville Centre.

For three nights on Long Island, the laity seemed to exult in the sound of their voices and the messages that came soaring through, as Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council had always encouraged, only to be crushed by those in the hierarchy who have always believed in holy silence for all the wrong, deceitful reasons.

But this time, if the laity's voice on Long Island is again ignored and stifled with the withering silence of arrogance and some limp scolding against "dissent," the voices of the laity could erupt in a way that hasn't been heard since Pope John XXIII looked out over Vatican Square and bellowed for the laity to take their rightful place by his side.


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