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Church in Crisis

Voice of the Faithful is heard on Long Island

Long Island, N.Y.

Voice of the Faithful got off to a modest start on Long Island, N.Y., on Aug. 1 when 100 Catholics gathered for the first time in a meeting room at St. Sylvester Church in Medford. But plans for a second meeting at Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Church in Wyandanch came to an abrupt halt when Bishop William Murphy of the Rockville Centre diocese issued what the diocese termed an “edict” banning Voice of the Faithful from ever meeting in any Catholic church facility on Long Island.

“The bishop believes that VOTF is a divisive group with other agendas in mind involving ordination and human sexuality,” diocesan spokesperson Joanne Navarro said later. “He agrees that people should meet with the priests and pastor of their own parish.”

Murphy later noted that parish councils are the appropriate channel of communication and that full dialogue with the laity will occur during a diocesan synod that is being planned for 2007.

The pastor of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, Fr. William Brisotti, disagreed. “There is no reason to discourage dialogue among the people who want to respond to current circumstances in the church,” he said. Brisotti also noted that Murphy’s action “adds more reason for the movement they are talking about in the first place.”

Brisotti first learned about the ban when he received a phone call from Auxiliary Bishop John Dunne outlining Murphy’s edict. A few days later, after Brisotti had voiced his disagreement in the press, calling the ban “short-sighted,” he was summoned to the bishop’s residence for a private dinner with Murphy. Contacted the following day, Brisotti would not comment on the details of their conversation.

Dunne also placed a similar call to Fr. Edward Kealey, a co-pastor at St. Sylvester’s, after the initial meeting had been held and after Murphy heard about it. “I received a message that Bishop Dunne had called,” explained Kealey, “so I returned the call but couldn’t reach him. He never called back.”

“I think that Voice of the Faithful is a very good idea, with some very responsible people trying to help the church at a time when it is hurting,” Kealey told NCR. “I have spoken to Bishop Murphy about it. … There should be more organizations [like it], the more the better. The bishops should be paying more attention to the people.”

Although Murphy has not spoken publicly about Voice of the Faithful, he has expressed his opinion in several letters and e-mails to people who had written to him complaining about the “edict.” One of his letters was addressed to Fr. Andrew Connelly, a Long Island priest. “As the bishop of their local church,” Murphy wrote, “I have a responsibility that was given to me by God through the Holy Father to protect the church in the care of its unity. It is my considered judgment that a group from outside the diocese, such as Voice of the Faithful, is not necessary, nor is it helpful. In conscience, therefore, I could not approve this group for the use of church property.”

In a separate response to Catherine Kelly, a Catholic nurse, Murphy wrote, “They [Voice of the Faithful] are calling for dialogue to discuss the guidance and governance of the church but none of them has ever spoken to me. They call for change but of what? I do not and cannot prevent people from meeting but I have a responsibility to see to it that church property not be misused.”

Some weeks later, on Sept. 12, Murphy couldn’t prevent hundreds of people from meeting when the Voice of the Faithful on Long Island went to Plan B and met at a non-Catholic, nonsectarian facility, the Wyandanch Youth Center. More than 600 people -- some young, many middle-aged, but mostly older men and women -- packed the large gymnasium where there was standing room only. Organizers told NCR that Murphy was invited but didn’t attend, although several priests, sisters and deacons were present. After an opening hymn and prayer, those attending were invited to express their thoughts and opinions for no longer than two minutes each. The meeting’s facilitator, Sheila Pfeiffer, set the tone when she briefly outlined the who, what and why of Voice of the Faithful.

“We are centrist and not extremist,” she said from a front table, standing under a basketball net. “We’re about building up and not tearing down. We’re about working for the full participation of the laity in the church. We are not talking about challenging doctrine or dogma, but rather bringing the vision of Vatican II and its decrees to the life of the laity.”

Among the three representatives from the founding chapter of Voice of the Faithful in Boston, Steve Krueger said that the organization, simply defined, is “hope in action, hope to build a better church through a grass-roots movement that has been galvanized by the cover-up on the part of the bishops.”

Another guest from Boston said the keys to Voice of the Faithful are dialogue, education and prayer. The third Bostonian told those gathered, “You have the authority to be an active participant in the governance and guidance of the church. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

Several speakers addressed the rumors surrounding the group. The word was out that Voice of the Faithful’s unspoken agenda focuses on a female priesthood, married priests and homosexuality in the priesthood. In both her talk and the printed brochures given to participants, Pfeiffer defused and dismissed the rumors.

One of the handouts distributed during the meeting outlined the core principles of Voice of the Faithful: “We are a prayerful voice. We are led by the Spirit. We a collective voice. We are an inclusive voice. We seek the voice of the Catholic center. We are respectful of every voice. We are concerned for those who have no voice. We work for change within the church. We are a ‘grass-roots’ organization. We are independent of the existing church structures. We seek to cooperate with existing church structures whenever possible.”

Pfeiffer, a director of religious education for a Long Island parish, focused on defining the mission and goals of Voice of the Faithful. Basic elements of the group, listed on the handouts and printed on a large poster at the front of the room, include:

  • Mission -- provide a prayerful voice, attentive to the Spirit, through which the faithful can actively participate in the governance and guidance of the Catholic church.
  • Goals -- support those who have been abused, support priests of integrity, shape structural change within the church.
  • Motto -- Keep the Faith, Change the Church.

Throughout the meeting, polite applause marked the end of each person’s comments. But there were two occasions when the participants in the packed gym rose to their feet and applauded long and loud. The first occurred at the end of a talk by a young married man named Bob who said he had been a priest for eight years and had been sexually abused as a young man by a priest. His abuser has since died, he said. Bob talked candidly about his own dysfunctional family as a child, his drinking problem in later years, his years in therapy and his commitment to everything Voice of the Faithful represents.

The other standing ovation followed Pfeiffer’s suggestion that everyone take a moment to express support for all the “priests of integrity” who continue to work under some of the most painful circumstances in the history of the church.

No priests or religious spoke during the open-mike forum; several people who work for the diocese told committee member Anne Kerrigan that they didn’t attend out of fear of being fired.

Organizers said the next meeting is planned for Oct. 10, at a site yet to be determined, and future meetings are planned for the second Thursday of every month. Participants know that, at least as of this writing, none of the meetings will be held in a Catholic church. That didn’t appear to bother the participants. During the meeting they repeatedly said, “The people are the church.”

Dick Ryan is a freelance writer living in New York.

Related Web site

Voice of the Faithful
Phone: (617) 558-5252

National Catholic Reporter, September 27, 2002