The “Church on Fire” lecture series on church reform kicks off Thursday evening at Blessed Sacrament Church as scandal continues to dog the Buffalo diocese. After enduring months of bombshell after bombshell shaking the foundations of Catholic western New York to its foundations, the resignation of Bishop Richard Malone and the appointment of his temperamental opposite, Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of Albany as apostolic administrator seemed to signal a better day.
Yet recent developments have proven worrisome. Last week the Diocese of Buffalo declared bankruptcy, something unimaginable just a year ago, and a private Mass last week with Bishop Scharfenberger that included priests tainted by the clergy abuse scandal has left reform-minded Catholics stunned. And this week, according to a new story by investigative reporter Charlie Specht, we learned that the priest who hosted that controversial Mass at his church may have been involved in covering up a credible accusation of clerical abuse when he was vice-chancellor of the diocese.
The seemingly endless drumbeat of scandal has had many Catholics asking, “should I stay with the church?” and others, “what must be done?” The lecture series ambitiously attempts to answer both questions, with the answer to the first question inherent in its title, Church on Fire: Stay With Us! The later question, “what must be done?” just happens to be known as “The Vincentian Question,” closely associated with St. Vincent de Paul and the Vincentian religious order he founded (see the brief video below). Appropriately then, kicking off the series will be Rev. Aidan Rooney, a Vincentian priest, who will speak about ecclesiastical reform from the perspective of his order and its founder.
What must be done? The Vincentian question:
Beyond being a Vincentian priest, Rev. Rooney is also Vice President for Mission Integration at Niagara University, one of North America’s best known Vincentian institutions, and one of the region’s first institutions of higher education. His title is significant, because the official name of the Vincentian order is the Congregation of the Mission (CM). Why? Because St. Vincent de Paul was a man on a mission, and not just the mission to the poor for which he and his order are best known, but also a mission of church reform. In fact, as Rev. Rooney told me in a recent interview, the major religious orders were all begun by reformers at times of turmoil and scandal in the Church.
What that means, sadly, is that this isn’t the first time the Church has been down this road. In Bishop Robert Barron’s short book on the present crisis, which many Catholics are reading – and which will be available at the Blessed Sacrament lectures – there is chapter titled, “We’ve Been Here Before.” In other words, “here we go again!” But why do we have these cycles? After all, The Catholic Church has perhaps the longest memory of any institution in history, so why can’t we get this right once and for all?
I put that question to Rev. Rooney. “Institutions find themselves becoming comfortable and complacent,” he told me. “Institutions only change their practices when confronted with a situation their practices can’t successfully address.” Even religious institutions.
We certainly are in such a situation now. How must the church’s practices change? To ask the Vincentian question, “what must be done?”
A perspective on perspectives
In a college ethics class, I had to write a paper examining an ethical issue from the perspective of multiple ethical theories, like Kantian Deontology, Utilitarianism, etc. It was one of the most instructive things I learned in college, because it was an approach I found useful in many situations in real life: looking at issues from a variety of angles and then creating a kind of synthesis to make the best decision or choose the best path forward. Similar approaches are found in many fields, including planning: the ecological planning method championed by Ian McHarg involves examining a site through several disciplines (geology, hydrology, ecology, transportation, cultural resources, etc.) then synthesizing the results to produce the best land-use plan.
In the context of the Catholic Church, the equivalent of those approaches would be to examine issues from the perspective of prominent theologians, saints, and church leaders, especially the “Doctors [i.e. teachers] of the Church.” But in areas of church reform in particular, the best perspectives may come from the founders of the religious orders, who were all reformers, according to Rev. Rooney. The perspective of each order, he told me, will reflect the particular issues in the Church at the particular moment of time of its founding. The differing perspectives also reflect that “different leaders bring different gifts,” Rev. Rooney told me, something he plans to talk about in his lecture.The Vincentians, in particular, embraced the poor, who were being left behind and neglected in a Baroque Europe of astonishing income inequality, where a few were growing fabulously wealthy on the slave trade, mercantilism, and the spoils of overseas colonies. Rev. Rooney’s Vincentian perspective, then, should be most timely given the age of growing income inequality we live in, where lay leadership in our diocese – and even in reform efforts like the Movement to Restore Trust – tends to come from among the well-heeled and well-connected rather than “rank-and-file” Catholics.
Blessed Sacrament Church: a parish asking, “what must be done?”
Until last winter, when Blessed Sacrament Church was the site of Buffalo Mass Mob XXXI, I knew almost nothing about this church I described as “hiding in plain sight.” But in the last year I have gained the greatest respect for this church, its clergy, and its lay leadership.
The church, under the guidance of lay leadership such as Parish Council President Michael Pitek, has been taking advantage of a pastoral transition to thoughtfully consider its mission and role in the community, and smartly plan for its future. They clearly grasp that they have an indispensable role to play in serving the Elmwood Village, ironically one of the most “unchurched” parts of the city in terms of religious affiliation. They also recognize that being the closest church to major Catholic schools like West Buffalo Catholic, Nardin Academy, and Canisius High School means the need to form a tighter bond with those essential institutions.
As I have described it, Blessed Sacrament’s future is in becoming the St. Joseph’s University of the Elmwood Village – a vibrant, welcoming, socially aware church with a wide variety of programs and ministries and types of services to fit the needs of nearly everyone. They are already well on their way to such a future with religious education that last year featured a talk about Islam by Professor Faizan Haq meant to promote interfaith understanding and dialog, viewings of Bishop Robert Barron’s influential Catholicism series, and the initiation of Taize services.
The church also held a series of coffee talks after Masses to discuss the future of the parish, facilitated by Parish Council President Michel Pitek. Intrigued and impressed by their efforts, I visited many of these events and shared them on social media:
Throughout this process of parish discernment and growth they are essentially asking the Vincentian question: what must be done? And they are taking the next step: doing.
With this lecture series, in a way Blessed Sacrament is going beyond their own internal discussions and taking it to other Catholics and even the non-Catholic community. Instead of “hiding in plain sight,” they are stepping out of their comfort zone and contributing to the essential, diocese-wide, church-wide discussion of what must be done. And they are inviting you to join the discussion.
The lecture series kicks off this week and runs through the spring. It will also include several concerts at Blessed Sacrament Church. It will conclude with an appearance by Sister Helen Prejean, the prominent activist against the death penalty who wrote the book Dead Man Walking, at Shea’s Buffalo to talk about her latest book sharing her own personal spiritual journey. Buffalo Rising will be covering the series throughout.
An excellent preparation for the first lecture is this short video about St. Vincent de Paul created by Niagara University and two other Vincentian Universities, titled St. Vincent de Paul, A Person of the 17th Century, a Person for the 21st Century:
What must be done? Come and find out.