3rd International Conference of Church Reform Network; Chicago, October 2016

Forty two people gathered in Chicago for four days last week to take part in this conference. They came from eleven different countries in four continents. Most of the participants were representing a Church reform movement. They was a mixture of lay, clergy, women and men. All the main priests associations were represented, from Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Slovakia, Australia, the U.S. and of course myself from Ireland. Other reform groups included We Are Church (a number of countries had representatives there), FutureChurch, Voice of the Faithful, ACTA (England), Call to Action, Dignity, News Ways Ministry, Womens Ordination Worldwide, and others.

The format was participative (no formal presentations), and there were two facilitators, from Austria and Canada.

It was an intense four days. There was a strong overall sense of comradeship, a spirit of warmth and acceptance that made it very easy to be in the group. (Plenty of outbreaks of hugging, during which a certain Irishman tried to appear invisible!) By the end of the four days people you had never met before did feel like old friends. All of us being in one way or another involved in the movement for Church Reform, we had a great deal in common. There would have been a lot of similarity in our vision and hope for the Church.

But not everything was plain sailing. While the vision might have been similar, there were sometimes quite substantial differences in the strategies and policies appropriate for achieving those ends. These crystallised around two areas in particular; the question of the ordination of women, and the celebration of the Eucharist. Everybody there, both women and men, would, I think, have had little or no difficulty saying that they supported the ordination of women to the priesthood at some stage. But some, and not all of them men, believed that pushing for ordination at this stage was not helpful, because it only served to make dialogue with Church authorities impossible. Instead they argued that a better policy was to work for “full equality for women in decision making in the Church”. Others were more passionate about the ordination question, and believed that full equality was not possible without ordination.

The celebration of the Eucharist, as in the previous conference in Limerick, posed complex and emotional questions. Some said there could not be a Eucharist among us without a specific ordained priest presiding. Others, mostly, though not all, women, believed that was yet again highlighting the inequality of the Church, and not acceptable. In the end the Eucharist was celebrated, though not with everyone present.

As one person said at the end of the conference, when we saw how difficult it could be for a small group of largely like-minded people to reach agreement, we had more appreciation of the enormously complex problems that Pope Francis is dealing wth!
A wide range of issues were discussed and worked on. The one I myself was most involved with had to do with the need for some type of Declaration of Rights in the Church. We believe that at all levels in the Church there is a lack of accountability in the exercise of authority, and little or no means of appeal or redress. A group, of which I am a member, was set up to work on this over the next year.

Inevitably, the problems around the decline in priestly numbers and the closure of parishes figured prominently. A group worked on what is called the Lobinger Model, an approach to dealing with this situation outlined by a now retired bishop in South America. It seemed to me to contain a lot of merit as a way of stemming the advancing Eucharistic famine in large parts of the world.

Jeannine Gramick of New Ways Ministry, was, as is her style, gently but persistently pushing the topic of LGBT people in the Church, and a resolution was drawn up calling for the Church to respect the dignity of every person, no matter what their sexual orientation, and in that way setting an example that might help reduce the violence and discrimination which is still prevalent in many parts of the world.

Needless to say, with so many deeply committed women present, some of whom, like Martha Heizer of Austria, have campaigned for up to fifty years, full equality of women in the Church was underlying almost every discussion that took place — ( it saddens me that such a warm, faith filled human being as Martha is has been excommunicated by the Church authorities!!) It became clear to me that it will not be easy to find a resolution to this in the Church while our present clerical system survives.
By the end of the conference, which began on Monday morning at 9.00am, and ended on Thursday at lunchtime, I was really tired. But I was so glad to have been there. Ireland is a small country, and our own Church is in rapid decline and lacking in energy and inspiration. Meeting this group, many of whom I have now known for the past four years, gives me a great lift at a personal level and, more importantly, gives hope for our Church. Despite their age (most of us older), and the enormous problems they are all dealing with, the energy and conviction among the group left me feeling buoyant and affirmed.

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  1. Max Stetter says:

    Thank you. I couldn’t agree more

  2. “Some, and not all of them men, believed that pushing for ordination at this stage was not helpful, because it only served to make dialogue with Church authorities impossible. Instead they argued that a better policy was to work for “full equality for women in decision making in the Church”. Others were more passionate about the ordination question, and believed that full equality was not possible without ordination.”
    Its interesting but not surprising that the issue of issue of the place of women in the Church was under-girded so much of the discussion at this four day event for it is the elephant in the room wherever Catholics gather or speak.
    My view is that to limit our strategy to “working for full equality for women in decision making in the Church” must be music to the ears of those in the hierarchy who wish to maintain the status quo. If they are masters of anything it is in the ability to string something like that out for eternity and a day. We must be more strident and insistent and clear in our call that the exclusion of women from ministry has had its day and is no longer acceptable or credible. (and I speak as a practicing male Catholic). And anyway, I don’t think its about us dialoguing with the authorities; its about a prophetic declaring what we see. Whether or not the hierarchy get the message is up to them. But if we aren’t coming across as loud and clear on this, they certainly won’t.
    Thanks for representing us at this gathering Tony. No better ambassador.

  3. Thank you Tony – I agree completely – it was a terrific conference – we all came away inspired and encouraged. I participated in the Lobinger group – and coming from ACTA, the grass roots movement in England and Wales, I felt there was an exciting potential in this model for church, which our members might find fruitful. If ACTA National Leadership agree, we’ll forward to our members the link below from the National Catholic Reporter website. In it Christine Schenk gives a really useful account of Bishop Lobinger’s ideas, as well as relating Pope Francis’ own interest in the proposed model, reported by Austin Ivereagh in Crux in August this year. https://www.ncronline.org/blogs/simply-spirit/will-next-synod-address-ordaining-elders-both-women-and-men
    Several books by Bishop Lobinger (friend of Denis Hurley)are available in English. If any readers have comments about the Lobinger model we would be very glad to hear from them.

  4. Jean, what I have proposed for years, too many now, I’m afraid, is that the future church ought to be organized in such a way that a local bishop appoints/anoints proven men and women from parishes for pastoral ministry and liturgical worship.
    Overall, I would love to attend such conferences as the one attended by Tony and others, but, I have to say, that I just do not believe Pope Francis is tuned in to any concerted reform effort…Sometimes, I wonder if reform is a lost cause…however, if the Lord intends to rescue and repair this Church, then, surely, something that smacks of reform, will happen….all..probably.. a divine surprise…
    There is one thing, however, that must be done in accordance with lay people coming to the fore in ministry…and that is the creation of base communities…and we must return to balanced and thoughtful study of the scriptures….This too, requires a leadership that is not necessarily clerical.
    So much to do!

  5. Max Stetter says:

    Thanks, Jean and Darlene,
    I couldn’t agree more on both points, Lobinger model of priesthood and pastoral spirit, as well as the base communities of church to be.

  6. declan cooney says:

    It is so sad to see this little group, not very representative really !!, fail to achieve communion and unity. What decline in priestly numbers?? Just go to Africa, which Benedict has great faith in, or Asia to see the huge numbers entering seminaries. Even in the West numbers are up in dioceses with an orthodox bishop.

  7. Padraig McCarthy says:

    Fritz Lobinger worked at the Lumko Institute in South Africa, where they developed a very good set of materials for training in a variety of lay ministries in the 1970s. There is an account of this at http://lumko.org/history/
    We need a new model of priesthood which will ensure that each community has celebration of Eucharist, but without clericalising those who serve in this way. Lobinger’s suggestions point to possibilities. Perhaps ACP could invite him for a conference, and invite bishops to come …

  8. Thank you very much indeed for the link, Padraig. It’ll help us with preparation here in Birmingham for our local ACTA meeting on Bishop Lobinger’s ideas, led by the theologian David McLoughlin on January 22nd.

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