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Moved by challenge to create community

Special to National Catholic Reporter

When 31-year-old Chris Mulcahy agreed to become head of the parish council at St. Agnes Church in Dayton, Ohio, members of the congregation joked for weeks, "Are you the one who is to come?" One of the youngest council presidents in the United States, she responded, "Listen, I'm not worthy to untie sandals around here."

The relationship between Mulcahy and her parish is a beacon for seemingly dark days in the American church -- a period when the theological chasm between many 20- and 30-somethings and Rome grows wider over the issues of women's ordination, mandatory celibacy for priests, artificial birth control, abortion and gay rights.

Her leadership post is also surprising given that most parish councils are filled -- or at least headed by -- older church members.

But St. Agnes is an unusual place. Its emphasis on inclusion and multiculturalism has produced a six-member parish council that includes three Caucasians, three African-Americans, three men and three women.

Mulcahy, a licensed social worker, is one of three council members under age 45. She has been a member at St. Agnes for eight years and has served on the church council for the last five. In 1996 she became the chairperson.

St. Agnes was created in 1915 in what was then an upper middle-class German neighborhood. As a result of the economic transformation of the area in the last 30 years, St. Agnes is now surrounded by lower-income, predominantly African-American housing.

"Dayton is a very segregated city," said Nympha Clark, pastoral administrator of St. Agnes. "This is one of the few fully integrated churches."

St. Agnes has fewer than 100 active households. Thirty percent of its members are African-American, the other 70 percent are either Caucasian or mixed. Members include affluent physicians and attorneys as well as people struggling on fixed incomes and living in subsidized housing.

In the Miami Valley, St. Agnes also is known as a haven for gay and lesbian Catholics. The church makes it clear that alternative households are welcome. The church also has a higher number of mentally ill people in attendance than many congregations because of its intentional ministry to that population.

For the church to select a young person to head its council fits with its progressive nature.

For Chris Mulcahy -- whose Catholic peers and closest friends have created small faith communities away from the institutional church -- the irony is profound.

"A lot of my friends aren't comfortable in a church structure -- in the institutional church -- and I don't think any of us would define ourselves as traditional Catholics," she said. "I have some peers at St. Agnes, but most of my peers find church outside the institution. Catholics my age have a belief system, and it's not always 'Father knows best.' "

Mulcahy is sympathetic to peers who stay away from the institutional church. "The Catholic church is a church with rules, and it says, 'If you can follow this outline, you can be one of us.' I don't agree with that."

Nevertheless, while Mulcahy joins friends in homes for scripture readings, prayer and even baptisms, she remains dedicated to parish participation.

Small faith communities are essential, she said, "but I don't want them to be the future of the church."

Fortunately for Mulcahy, her contradictions -- so characteristic of many of her generation -- are accepted at St. Agnes. The parish not only endorses her leadership but mirrors her concept of church as well.

"I want to worship in a church that represents how I live in my everyday life," she said. "I live in a world that is made up of a variety of cultures, colors and economic differences. I want my church to reflect this.

"In our daily world, in the United States, women have -- more than in other countries -- the opportunity to be equal to men. I want my church to reflect this.

"In our world it is a reality that some people are in intimate relationships with persons of the same gender," she said. "I want my church to accept this as a reality, not a repulsion.

"I want my church to respect the choices of people who are called to both the ministry of priesthood and the ministry of parenthood," she said. "One is not better than the other, and I believe they can coexist in a way that brings life to the church.

"This is my vision and the closest I can come to seeing it played out is St. Agnes, which is wonderfully articulate" about its mission, she said. "For them to say, 'We want you to be parish council chair' is kind of daunting. St. Agnes gives me the freedom to believe what I believe and encourages my vision of church."

Mulcahy said she was attracted to St. Agnes because it is progressive but also sees itself in connection with the bigger church "and not as a disfranchised community of believers."

"By its actions, St. Agnes says, 'People are church, and we can be church to one another.' We're wanting to realize the reality that we are gifts to one another."

Fr. Jim Schutte, pastor of St. Agnes for the past two years, said Mulcahy's vision enlivens the parish.

"One of the blessings of the shortage of priests has been the laity's decision to step forward as Chris has," he said, adding that her greatest gift to the parish has been "her spark and fervor."

"It's strong. She's committed to honesty, and she has given others hope," he said. "She really cares for the parish, and there's been a positive response from the parish toward Chris' leadership."

While many Catholics leave the church in their 20s but typically return later -- after having children -- Chris has been active in a congregation since childhood. She grew up in Medina, Ohio, and attended Baldwin-Wallace College where she was active in the Newman Center's campus ministry program and served as its president as a senior. She also helped create the Ohio Catholic Student Coalition in the mid-1980s. She said her exposure to the coalition taught her to ask the question, "What is church?"

Although that question has driven many younger Catholics out of parishes, it seems to make Chris Mulcahy more determined to stay -- and assume leadership. Her feelings about church got a boost last fall when, with the help of a scholarship from a local Call to Action chapter, she attended her first Call to Action conference. "It was wonderful," she said. "I was feeling a bit down about church. Being with 5,000 people who took pride in being Catholic yet openly celebrated their differences was a fantastic experience for me."

The negative side of the meeting was discovering in a caucus for young people that many others her age feel little hope of finding a place for themselves in the present system.

Mulcahy operates from a challenge thrown out by a Newman Center priest at Baldwin-Wallace College during a senior farewell Mass. He told the graduating seniors that they might not find a community like the one they had enjoyed at college, but it was their responsibility to keep looking -- or to work to create the community they wanted.

She was introduced to St. Agnes when she spent a year assisting mentally ill people, working in an office facing the church across the parking lot. She earned a bachelor's degree in psychology with a minor in education from Baldwin-Wallace and moved to Dayton to explore religious life and to work for the Marianist Voluntary Service Community.

She now works as an intake supervisor with Children's Protective Services of Montgomery County and oversees six social workers who investigate allegations of child abuse and neglect.

Although she decided against religious life, she doesn't regard her lay status as second best. "I didn't just settle for becoming a lay leader," she said. "It's just as important as any other role in the church."

"I believe there is hope for the future. We have an incredible history," she said. "Why give up just because it is not going the way I want it to? If women gave up on the dream to vote, where would we be? If slaves and abolitionists gave up on ... the dream of freedom, where would we be?

"I could chose to worship in another faith tradition, but I am a Catholic, and I have a dream that we are responsible for our future, and I have a voice in what that future can be. Unless we speak out, how will people know we are unhappy?"

National Catholic Reporter, April 4, 1997