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Unfettered by the past, young church is blooming in the vast Arizona desert

NCR Staff

By the time you get to Phoenix, you’ve flown over endless square miles of barrenness, austere and smokey brown with rare daubs of dull green foliage or streaks of magenta swirled into the earth. And then the plane banks to the right and there, like a wide-angle shot out of an old Look magazine, is the breathtaking sprawl of this city.

“We’re growing.” One hears it all the time, of the city and of the church here. It’s as if, at this point in creation, the dust of the ancient desert has no more time for slow evolution. The city projects 52,000 new residents annually for the next 15 years -- a total of 780,000. Things just spring up.

The Catholic church here seems to mimic its surroundings. Tethered to ancient traditions, it nevertheless is not weighted with the crust of habit. This is no East Coast, heavy-muscle, granite-facade church. It hasn’t had time to get that way.

This is a church -- the Phoenix diocese was founded just 28 years ago -- that in many ways, itself, is just springing up. It is building new churches not because, as in other dioceses, people keep moving out of the cities but because people keep moving in. Here they build new churches without having to close many older ones. “We have started three new parishes in the last three years,” said Marge Injasoulian, director of communications for the diocese. “Two are in Scottsdale and one is in Glendale, both high-growth areas.”

It would be difficult to find a slow-growth area in the Valley of the Sun. And the growth generates innovation. In Sun City West, for instance, a fourth new church has gone up in the past year, but it is part of an existing parish. Since both churches -- Prince of Peace and Our Lady of Lourdes -- are located in a retirement area, they have the benefit of retired priests to provide additional clergy at both sites. But those who attend the churches are members of the same parish -- same administration and programs and resources. “We’ve taken a new approach to fulfilling the needs of a growing Catholic community,” said Injasoulian.

“Things are fresh here, they’re pretty new,” said Chris Gunty, associate publisher of the diocesan newspaper, The Catholic Sun, and a transplant 13 years ago from Chicago. “We’re just getting to the point,” he said, “where we’re having to fight saying, ‘Let’s do it this way because we’ve always done it this way.’ ”

The freshness of things was evident one week in November when, in separate events, the diocese first celebrated a unique piece of its brief history -- the Kino Institute -- and then, with original music and lyrics and the humor of the young, performed “Jubilee 2000,” a witty statement of its mission in light of the coming millennium.

“People who come into the desert often do so when making threshold changes,” said Carmelite Fr. Don C. Benjamin, recently appointed executive director of the Kino Institute, an innovative adult education center that opened 25 years ago.

If that analysis sounds quaintly out of a biblical studies course, the insight apparently holds for the desert today, even when it is being covered with office towers, gated communities and shockingly green golf courses.

So people at the Kino Institute talk about migrants from the coasts weary of exhausting commutes and crushing population densities. They speak of retirees from the North, as well as young families chasing the burgeoning high tech job market. Others tell of refugees from the Los Angeles area escaping earthquakes and mud slides. “Every time there’s a natural disaster in L.A.,” said Gunty, “it seems that about three months later there’s a real estate boom here.”

Some are simply chasing the relentless sun. “Look outside,” laughed Gunty on a brilliant 80-degree afternoon. “This is November! The day I was hired here, it was so cold in Chicago my car wouldn’t start.”

Whatever the reasons, the flow of people from other states into this metropolitan area of 2.5 million (it was just 350,000 in 1960) has been steady. If old ratios hold up, more than 13 percent of the newcomers will be Catholics.

It would be an easy leap for the outsider to view the Kino Institute primarily in light of the priest shortage. After all, the number of registered Catholics in the area has more than doubled in 20 years, from 165,975 in 1977 to 386,821 last year. At the same time, while the Phoenix diocese has benefited from unusual attention by orders of religious priests (16 of 85 parishes are run by orders), the number of diocesan priests has hardly kept pace with the growth. In 1977, there were 94 active diocesan priests; today there are 95. During the same period, the number of order priests in the diocese jumped from 12 to 110.

Regardless of how one spins the figures or the myriad interpretations that can be brought to them, the reasonable expectation is that the Phoenix diocese would be hard-pressed, in terms of clergy, to keep up with its own growth. In fact, Vision 2000, a diocesan effort to determine what the church should look like in the next millennium, concluded that by the year 2000, each of the diocese’s 11 vicariates, or areas, would be short at least one priest by current standards.

So the Kino institute, an imaginative and resourceful model for developing lay leadership in a state that has no Catholic institution of higher education, seems a brilliant stroke of planning for the day when there simply will not be enough ordained clergy to fill the spots (see story).

But those close to the institute -- named for Jesuit Fr. Eusebio Kino, the first missionary to the Southwest -- say that such a reading of its purpose places the emphasis in the wrong spot.

Response to Vatican II

It’s a bit like the principle of the double effect applied to ministerial training. If the Kino institute will play a major role in softening the effects of the priest shortage, that is simply a secondary consequence.

It was founded in 1972 by then Bishop Edward A. McCarthy and two Carmelite priests as a response to the call issued by the Second Vatican Council of the early 1960s for a greater role in the church for lay people. “From the start, we saw our goal as helping adults hear the authentic gospel in its truth and really be evangelized,” wrote Carmelite Fr. Ernest E. Larkin, in a talk delivered several years ago. Larkin, a noted author and lecturer on spirituality, said the sights of the Kino institute “were set on cultural Catholics, who were ‘sacramentalized’ and ‘institutionalized’ but maybe never truly evangelized. We also wanted to address pre-Vatican II Catholics, who were being called to a new and exciting vision of church.”

McCarthy, now retired archbishop of Miami, was thoroughly convinced of the wisdom of the council and the need for some kind of facility for Catholic academic training. “Bishop McCarthy used to call Kino a college without walls -- we truly had no walls in his time -- or a floating university,” Larkin wrote. The intent from the start was to provide high quality courses at different levels -- from those with little formal religious training to graduate level studies.

Today the institute is housed in an expanding campus with a substantial library and 500 to 600 students a year taking courses in the institute’s School of Ministry. The school offers college level, basic theology courses followed by courses that emphasize pastoral applications of the themes treated in the theology phase. The courses have been certified by the United States Catholic Conference, which means, according to School of Ministry dean Kathy Brown, that ministry certificates from Kino will be recognized in dioceses across the country.

The institute also runs a Spanish-language program of pastoral formation under the direction of Teófilo Argueta Ramírez. Through a special association with the University of San Francisco, Kino also offers a master’s degree in theology. “Cohorts” of 20 to 25 students go through the three-year program together, according to Diana Stickney, coordinator of the program.

People like Stickney and Brown, given the chance, don’t even try to soft-pedal their enthusiasm for what is happening in this church of the desert. Perhaps neither expected their enthusiasm for the faith, for theology and for the growing role of the laity to land them in Phoenix. Certainly Stickney, with roots in New England and a love for San Francisco, admits to thoughts of returning to one of the coasts. But then, she says, weighing all the pros and cons, she simply couldn’t be doing what she is doing in Phoenix almost anywhere else.

As dominated by laity as the institute has become, it is a teaching arm of a church where the local bishop has the last say. Thomas J. O’Brien, the current bishop of Phoenix, has been close to Kino since its inception and remains a strong supporter. “I have followed its beginnings and its history for 25 years and have watched it grow and mature,” he said in a recent phone interview. “It’s become an institution that I have become very proud of, especially since it has been accredited with the USCC.”

He said the institute “did not start as a solution to the priest shortage but as a real attempt to train lay leadership. Now it seems one of the functions it may serve is to help in the event of a priest shortage.”

O’Brien, coincidentally the chair of the national bishops’ committee that produced the recent letter to parents of gay and lesbian children, said there has been some talk of allowing the institute to evolve into a full-fledged four-year college. Some Catholic colleges in other states have also expressed interest in coming into the diocese. “We’re not there yet,” said O’Brien.

Both the bishop and Benjamin, the institute’s Carmelite director, said a reluctance to alter the character of the institute, which has worked so well to educate and train so many in the diocese, would weigh in against any major changes in the institute’s status. O’Brien’s support is more than verbal. The institute gets half of its $300,000 annual budget from the diocese, which has made a commitment to keep education affordable. The rest of the budget comes from tuition and individual donors.

In November the institute got an unusual boost as the result of a fund-raiser, a 25th anniversary dinner attended by a sold-out crowd at the chic Arizona Biltmore.

The centerpiece of the evening was a discussion by a high-powered panel moderated by Robert B. Kaiser, former New York Times reporter and Time magazine Rome correspondent who covered the Second Vatican Council. Kaiser, who now lives in Phoenix, assembled the panel consisting of Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister, author, columnist and member of NCR’s board of directors; Jesuit Fr. Richard McCormick, a leading moral theologian and O’Brien Professor Emeritus of Christian Ethics at the University of Notre Dame; Jacob Needleman, professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University; Michael Novak, leading conservative thinker and writer, fellow of the American Enterprise Institute and winner of the Templeton Prize; and Kenneth Woodward, senior writer and religion editor of Newsweek magazine.

Using a format similar to the TV show “Politically Incorrect,” the five discussed the topic, proposed by former Jesuit Kaiser, “That society repeal the 10 Commandments because no one is observing them anyway.”

The following night was the premier of “Jubilee 2000” with music and lyrics by Julie and Tim Smith and book by Kaiser. The show (see accompanying story) is a spirited and at times provocative walk through Christian history with three guides: the Archangel Gabriel, in this case, a female angel nicknamed Gabby; her buddy, Miguel, the Hispanic version of Michael the Archangel; and the devil herself, in common parlance, Lucifer, but here, Lucy.

Near the show’s end, appropriately enough for this new church in the desert, Pope John XXIII is onstage singing the tune, “Aggiornamento”: “It’s time to rethink and revamp and renew. ... Let the Spirit give birth to a fresh point of view.”

National Catholic Reporter, January, 9, 1998