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Church reform group looks to reinvigorate Catholic parishes

Posted: Friday, August 16, 2002

BOSTON -- David Zizik thought he had a good idea to help the Roman Catholic Church, so much so that he has pressed ahead with it in the face of resistance from Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law.

Zizik wanted to unite parish councils throughout the Archdiocese of Boston and give the most loyal Catholics -- those who volunteer countless hours overseeing parish finances, religious education and youth ministries -- a chance to collaborate and revitalize their churches. Donations were down in the wake of the clergy sex abuse scandal and many Catholics were demoralized.

But the church flatly rejected Zizik's proposal.

When Law got word in April of the plan for an Association of Parish Councils, the cardinal ordered every priest and bishop under his command to ignore the group. He said an Archdiocesan Pastoral Council already existed and the creation of another group would be ''superfluous and potentially divisive.''

Zizik was stunned. He had proposed the new organization to work within the church and alongside the hierarchy, bringing together a broader representation of Catholics than the existing council, which he said was hand-picked by the cardinal.

Zizik said his new group would be distinct from the fast-growing Voice of the Faithful, the lay organization trying to effect change but not necessarily in concert with church leaders. Law has publicly tussled with that group as well, over whether archdiocese charities should accept donations from the reformers.

Despite Law's directive on the parish association, Zizik was not deterred. He and others who support his approach have decided to move ahead anyway, and are working under a new name -- Parish Leadership Forum.

They continue to discuss their goals with the archdiocese and feel they have allayed some of church officials' fears.

''We need to strengthen parishes. That's how to reinvigorate the church, that's where the action is,'' Zizik said. ''We need to pool resources, provide support, provide a forum for ideas and concerns within parishes that mobilizes parish leaders.''

The idea for the group came after the release of archdiocese records which showed church leaders knew about sex abuse allegations against priests dating back to the 1960s but did not keep them away from children.

The revelations have sparked a crisis that spread through virtually every diocese in the United States, eroding trust in church leaders.

Zizik became convinced that victims could have been spared if parish leaders had an easy way to communicate with each other as the accused clergymen were shuttled among church assignments.

The Rev. William Clark, an expert on the church hierarchy who teaches at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., said Law may have opposed the parish councils group because he was more threatened by demands for reform from within the church than from church critics.

''People who see themselves as very involved and not trying to bring down the church in any way ... these people are the most loyal and most involved and in some ways, for that very reason, they present a bigger challenge,'' Clark said.

The cardinal argued that Zizik's plan violated church law. Bishop Walter Edyvean, the vicar general, said canon law dictates that a parish council remains ''exclusively within the parish where it has been established and it is presided over by the pastor of that parish.''

After meeting with Edyvean, Zizik's group decided to exist as a forum of parish council leaders, instead of as an association of parish councils, a move that seemed to placate church authorities, Zizik said.

The difference is the forum is a group of individuals, rather than a formal unification of the parish councils.

Because supporters of the forum believe in the church's fundamental teachings, the group won't be focused on divisive social issues, such as divorce or clergy abstinence, but on creating a support network that would help parishes teach each other, he said.

''There's a lot we can do without making wholesale changes,'' Zizik said. ''There's a lot of changes we can begin to do now if we start to talk to each other.''

The Rev. Robert McMillan, the archdiocese's director of planning and research, insists the church welcomes the idea of parish leaders meeting with each other, which he said has occurred before.

An initial forum event, to which pastors and a regional bishop will be invited, is planned for October, where Zizik will speak about the forum's goals. Topics will include handling financial hardship and parental anxiety over allowing children to take part in youth programs.

Lay Catholics want to give themselves a stronger role in helping the church heal because they're angry and see the damage the abuse crisis has done to their parishes, said Michael Roberto, a Harvard business professor and member of the forum's planning committee.

''We're getting people reconnected,'' Roberto said. ''When people hear about getting together and grappling on a grass-roots level and dealing with the fallout of this crisis, they say, 'Hey, that sounds pretty good.'''



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