Welcome to the Occupation

“Then Jesus said, 'The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. Everything they do is done for men to see . . . they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats at synagogues . . . Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men's faces.'” — Matthew 23:1-13

In the basement of St. Albert the Great in East Weymouth, the warriors gather to get their knitting on. It is the 129th day of their besiegement, and they are fortified with urns of coffee and trays of baked goods and ice buckets filled with bottled water. The youngest is a child no more than nine; the oldest, by the looks of him, might have been that age when Ruth wore a Sox uniform. Most are middle-aged and look to run the occupational gamut from businessman to truck driver, bank teller to florist. Some have the glint of righteousness and rage in their eyes, but most seem as innocuous and middle-of-the-road American as the cars they've left behind in the parking lot: Tauruses and Camrys and Ford F-150s and various station wagons and minivans.

This is not the cabal of rebels and subversives you'd expect if you'd read about the parish that refused an order from the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston and by extension the might and majesty of the Vatican. That order was simple: Close your doors and vacate the premises. Their response was also simple: No. Nothing else about this affair is simple, mind you, but that exchange was. The genesis of most battles usually is. The wars are what get messy.

So here sit the warriors, on a January night, and they speak politely and with utter respect for the church that does not want them here. And they knit. Not all of them, just a few, but it's what strikes me first as I sit in one of the back rows watching the proceedings: Several women have needles and yarn and are halfway to scarves or sweaters or hats, the kind you got from your aunt or grandmother on Christmas. And as the floor is given over to various speakers, one young woman with a soft, hesitant voice reminds the Knitting Group that they are making “chemo caps” this month to bring to local cancer wards.

I have a friend who just went through two arduous battles with cancer, and I think of her collection of caps, how giving an unnaturally bald head a bit of flair brought her no small measure of pride in the midst of a hideous experience. I look at the knitters, at the woman who's just made the announcement. I think of them entering the cancer wards bearing these gifts, and then I think: This is what's wrong with the Catholic Church? These people?

Which leads me to a hardly original and hardly surprising conclusion: If this is what the Catholic Church is fighting against, someone needs to smarten up the Catholic Church.

This is an admittedly snarky assumption, one that presupposes that the Catholic Church is, in fact, in trouble. It's an assumption so widespread in the press of late that I don't want to fall into the trap of accepting it as, you'll excuse me, dogma. I'm of the opinion, in fact, that in the northeastern corridors of our country we often ridicule people of religious faith. It's too easy to paint the faithful of any religion (but particularly Catholicism with its undercurrent of mysticism and rituals of transubstantiation) as hopelessly out of step, modern Bible-thumpers at war with change, with science, with reason.

Having grown up in a community that was overwhelmingly Catholic and then having spent eight years down South, I have seen my share of the walking stereotypes that conform to Hollywood's idea of religious nutjobs. However, I have seen just as many who hold to their faith with intelligence and no small amount of self-examination and grace. They believe in something higher than themselves, a life in which moral decisions are made not just for now, but for ages to come. And if that really is part of the cultural war going on in this country, I would much rather spend time with those who intelligently worship at the altar of something beyond themselves than with those who kneel to gods of mass consumption — the Church of Starbucks, let's say, the Tabernacle of Microsoft, Temple NASDAQ.

If St. Albert the Great is the epicenter of the latest round in a centuries-old battle between those who believe a Catholic Church is, first and foremost, a place to reflect upon and discuss the words and wisdom of Jesus Christ and those who theologically arbitrate the rules and regulations by which they get to call themselves Catholic, then the center of the epicenter is a priest named Father Ronald Coyne.

It's important to note two things at this point: 1) Ron Coyne was a priest at my parish in Dorchester 27 years ago. He has remained a friend. When I married, he officiated. In fact, most of my friends from those Dorchester days asked him to preside over their weddings and the baptisms of their children and the funerals of their departed. So I would respectfully submit that I am not unbiased when it comes to this man. What scant faith I have left in the Catholic Church (another disclaimer but of equal importance, I think) comes only from the fact that if this man is in the church, then there must be something to be said for it. 2) Ron Coyne declined to be interviewed for this article. As the ousted pastor of an ousted church, he felt it incumbent on him not to jeopardize St. Albert's parishioners' chances (however slim) of regaining their parish.

I first met him in 1978, when he was sent to St. Margaret's parish in the Edward Everett Square neighborhood of Dorchester. It was a moribund parish in a moribund place, and Ron Coyne hit it like a typhoon. Not just the church; no, the whole neighborhood. He was 31 and his energy level and cleft-chinned, black-Irish good looks haven't flagged over time. (On the latter score, he's the Dick Clark of the Catholic Church. I look older than he does now and I was 13 when we met.) As for his energy, even back then, you wondered when he slept. You wondered how it was possible he never forgot a name. You wondered how his effusive optimism could be anything but a front. (This was Dorchester; we come out of the crib cynical.) You waited for cracks to appear in the façade, for this man to reveal himself as something other than what he seemed.

While you waited, the church filled up, a color guard was started, Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) activities took hold in the form of dances, sports leagues, bowling leagues, all-night sports competitions against other parish CYOs at the Murphy School in Neponset. Every year there was a variety show put on by kids between the ages of 6 and 16. I remember it as corny (one year us budding corner boys dressed up as the Jets in West Side Story and sang “Gee, Officer Krupke”) and yet, corny or not, we were involved in it, engaged by it, and actually enjoyed it. For those years Ron Coyne was assigned to St. Margaret's, the parish flourished. It was no longer moribund and neither was the neighborhood. The adults attended prayer groups and social groups and bake sales and ran charity drives, and Coyne moved through it all like a dervish, exhorting everyone to stay involved with their faith, with themselves, with their community, with the essential teaching of Jesus Christ: Do unto others as you would have done unto yourself.

He is the kind of priest you rarely meet (and plenty on the church's more dogmatic, more conservative side would say that's a good thing), the kind who believes parishioners who have faith in Christ and faith in themselves and faith in a community are what's best in the church. There's another type of priest who would be his polar opposite: the law-and-order priest, the toe-the-party-line priest. He's not asking you to engage with him or engage with Christ or engage with each other. He's not asking you anything. He's telling you to listen. To him. To Rome. And while you're at it, take a knee and tremble a bit, would you? One older gentleman from St. Albert's describes this priest perfectly when he says to me, “We had a priest once who spent money to install new glass doors. He pointed at them during a sermon and said, 'I had those doors installed so I'll know who arrives for Mass late and who leaves early.'” That, the parishioner tells me, was when he decided this was no longer the church for him.

What brought him back?

“Father Ron.”

“Father Ron,” as the parishioners at St. Albert the Great like to call him, came there when the parish was (you've heard this before by now) moribund. Maybe still proud, but worn. He stayed after Mass to greet and thank those who'd attended, and he did all the small and large things he's always done to bring a parish back to vibrancy. “St. Albert's was the only parish where it would take you 30 minutes to leave,” Maryanne Gottfried of Braintree, a member of the vigil, tells me. “Everyone wanted to see Father Coyne on the way out and let him know how his homily had touched them. For the longest time it was Pray, Pay, and Obey, but that time has long passed.” Another parishioner, Eileen Rowan of Weymouth, calls Coyne “the most human side of the Catholic Church one could ever meet.”

Some see it differently. One of my oldest friends, John Dempsey, a doctoral candidate in medieval history and a devout and orthodox Catholic, believes Coyne does not do service to church teachings, but instead invests his energies creating a cult of personality. “Ron Coyne had gathered around himself a bourgeois church, and together they worshipped a bourgeois God: no mortal sin, no devil, no Hell, no need for mortification or penance. It is interesting that in the gospels, Jesus often refers to Hell and to demons and the devil. But the people of St. Albert's have been told by their pastor that Hell does not exist. Who are they to believe?”

It's a good question, one that points out the schism in the church between those who believe that Hell is literally a place you are sent when the Sin Ledger finds you lacking and those who believe that Hell is the place where you swim in search of what's left of your sold-off soul.

The philosopher George Santayana wrote that “Fanaticism consists in redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim.” If you accept the truth of this statement, you have to wonder how it applies not only to the church itself, but to the parishioners of St. Albert's. They are, after all, fighting for a building. A building they do not own that belongs to a church they have serious misgivings about. When I speak to the parishioners, what comes up time and time again is the paradox between how much faith they have in the ideas of the Catholic Church and how little they now have in the men who run that church.

“They lost sight of their people,” Sandi Jones says, but then adds, “It's my church so I'm here to stay and fight for what I believe in.”

Says parishioner Earl Thomas, “The spiritual aspects of the church follow the word of Jesus, while the hierarchical side is guided by men who are susceptible to the lure of money, power, title, and numerous human failings. I feel much more in God's grace attending a service with a decent, God-fearing lay leader in a 'suppressed church,' than I would attending a Mass in the Vatican led by a disgraced coconspirator to the molestation of children, such as Bernie Law.”

I'm with Earl. However, a Mass in the Vatican is a Mass. While the service at St. Albert's, by definition, is not. So is the question simply one of bifurcation? Of splitting off from the church, like Martin Luther did, and forming a new one? If we are to accept that a religion is defined by its rituals and its adherence to its leadership, doesn't that make the members of St. Albert's decidedly ex-Catholic?

Only, I think, if you accept a my-way-or-the-highway interpretation of what it is to be Catholic. More than one St. Albert's parishioner — in fact, half a dozen — repeat the same line to me: “We didn't leave the church. The church left us.”

And so they redoubled their effort. But what is their aim? Mary Akoury, cochair of the parish council, believes, “If in your family you see a family member making poor decisions that not only harm themselves but others as well, you don't just sit back and accept this behavior. You challenge, you confront, but you never separate yourself from them.”

“The problems of the church,” Patti Perkins tells me, “are in the leadership, not the beliefs. They just don't get it.”

This very well might be what the parishioners of St. Albert's are fighting for — a church that “gets it,” gets just how deeply and at how corrosive a level the child-sex-abuse cover-up demoralized its flock. Note that I stress the cover-up, not the child sex abuse itself. As bad as the abuse and rape and molestation were — and we all know it was as bad as bad gets — it paled in comparison to the organizational response to it. Nowhere in evidence were the principles of “mortification or penance” my friend John Dempsey alludes to. Not, that is, until light was so fully shined on the crimes that the church had no choice but to acknowledge — if not atone for — them. The institutional crime was not the abuse of children, but the covering up. The lying. The bribery. The refusal to be held accountable.

Accountability, it seems to me, has always been the cornerstone of the church, of any respectable religion. We are all flawed and are not only prone to, but guaranteed to, sin. The issue is never whether we will or won't sin — we will — but rather how we make amends once we do. Making amends for crimes of this magnitude, which went on for so long and were covered up for as much time as the church felt it could get away with, needs to entail more than the stray apology, delivered under near-duress or the threatening clouds of world censure. A pope who calls for a “purification of memory” ceremony in St. Peter's Basilica and pledges atonement for 2,000 years of Christian sins, as John Paul II did in 2000, is missing the forest for the trees. That would be tantamount to my shooting your spouse and then standing up in open court and apologizing for all the sins of my life, including crashing a friend's car when I was 17. Some may appreciate the apology (my friend the car owner, for instance) but by wrapping my most recent sin in the swaddling clothes of past ones, I am inveigling, on some level, my responsibility for the current crime.

I asked the parishioners of St. Albert's to respond, via e-mail, to two questions: What is their opinion of Ron Coyne? And how do they reconcile their occupation of a church with their allegiance to the church? I received more than 50 replies, and when I printed them out they composed nearly 40 pages, single spaced. In those nearly 40 pages, time and again, the parishioners mentioned the child-sex-abuse scandal and the church's decades of lies about it. I hadn't asked them about the cover-up. Yet they returned to it again and again. Why? Because, as Catholics, you are taught accountability. You are taught to atone. To confess. To tell the truth and take responsibility. Judging by those 20,000 words, the Catholic Church failed miserably on that score and fell into the classic trap of all ensconced authorities: asking their faithful to do as they said, not as they did.

If the aim then of the redoubled efforts of the St. Albert's faithful is to rescue their church from itself, what is the aim of the church? Since the archdiocese won't return my phone calls, I'm left to ponder. The question I had wished to ask was simple: How does the U.S. Catholic Church expect to continue operating if the number of new priests is at an all-time low and some of its most fervent parishioners feel alienated?

Who needs to bend here? Who needs to break? Who needs to change?

To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you go with the Army you've got, not the Army you want. It's hard not to suspect that this is the Catholic Church's plan as well: You go with the church you've got, not the one you want. End of discussion. But whose church is it? And if the church expects, for example, to hold “listening sessions” for Catholics concerned about abuses, but allows no questions to be asked, how does it expect parishioners to believe it respects their opinions, let alone their faith?

The archdiocese plans to close more than 80 (depending on which published reports you read) of its 357 parishes. O'Malley himself explained the reasons for this in a November letter distributed to what remained of those 357 churches:

1. The decline in priests.
2. A 50 percent reduction of “annual income to the diocese caused by the [sex-abuse] scandal.”
3. Stock-market troubles that left the archdiocese with an unfunded pension liability of $80 million.
4. Parishes “unable to pay their bills.”

Note number 4. No one, not even the most disillusioned Catholic, would argue against closing parishes that are no longer financially viable. The church, by covering up the sex scandal for as long as it did and then continuing to lie about it after the fact, created the financial fiasco that resulted when faithful parishioners showed their outrage by withholding money at Sunday collections. That in turn led to the need to close financially destitute parishes. Even if that was not the result most parishioners probably hoped would come out of their simple request to be heard, it was, on some level, acceptable. The men who run the archdiocese made the mess, they spent years fostering the spread of it, and when it finally caught up to them, they had to “downsize” as O'Malley put it in his letter. And the vast body of Boston Catholic parishioners said, “Fine. We don't like it, but we're adults.”

The problems came — and here is where the archdiocese really doesn't “get it” — when viable, vibrant parishes started to be shuttered. Self-sufficient, profitable ones. Parishes fully able to “pay their bills.” O'Malley (for whom I confess to feeling a deep empathy; he seems at the very least a decent man thrust into a minefield, blindfolded, with only spotty knowledge of the terrain he's been told to cross) responds to such logic in the same letter by writing, “Viability must be seen not at the parish level, but at the level of the whole archdiocese.”

Oh. So it's about the archdiocese as a whole. But only a few Catholics I've spoken to have any faith in the archdiocese. Certainly not when it comes to managing their money. And isn't there something intrinsically callous in asking those you've betrayed and whose wounds are still quite fresh to sacrifice on your behalf when you, to the best of their knowledge, have sacrificed nothing? And if you are to ask this sacrifice of them, shouldn't you ask it at the level you initially proposed — i.e. the closing of non-vibrant parishes?

Because in the end, all organizations win or lose their faithful based on perception. If you are perceived as caring, you're probably going to thrive. But if you're perceived as arbitrary in your kindness, or your lack of it, you will sink.

There's a moment in the 1970s football film North Dallas Forty when a frustrated player unloads on the head coach in the locker room by saying, “When we call it a game, you call it a business. When we call it a business, you call it a game.” In the Catholic Church, this is something like the way matters of faith versus matters of intellect seem to be dealt with. Faith is, simply put, belief in the absence of proof. This is true not only of faith in a god, but faith in the absence of one. There is as much ugliness in the world to support belief in the absence of a god as there is beauty to support belief in the existence of one. Since neither belief can be validated until death, neither holds moral or intellectual sway over the other. A person comes to his or her beliefs through a leap of faith, the leap being the jump over the chasm between what is and what might be, the faith being what you feel is true. Faith is inherently emotional.

This definition has worked out well for organized religions throughout history — to be a follower, you must exist in a state of faith, where many questions will lie unanswered. If you ask uncomfortable questions, however, you are often told to rely on your faith. If you persist, churches in general, and the Catholic Church in this case (because it is the subject of this article, if for no other reason), will ultimately respond with intellect. Want to know why priests can't marry? See Lateran II of the year 1139. Have other pertinent questions? Please refer to the Council of Trent. Or the Code of Canon Law. Or a litany of papal decrees and constitutions stretching back two millennia.

The problem is that the rank-and-file, Joe Lunchbox Catholic knows nothing of Lateran II. Nor am I sure he should. If the basis of religion is faith, then faith in the Catholic Church is placed in Jesus Christ and his teachings. That's it. Trust is placed in the hierarchy and the Vatican. But trust can be broken. Trust can become negotiable. If the steering of the vessel of the church has fallen into shaky hands, then questioning the course and even revolting against it is not an act of the unfaithful. It's an act of the faithful against those who have mislaid their trust.

One argument that could be made against American Catholics is that they have become too grounded in the temporal world. They have succumbed to the temptations that our egregious wealth as a nation has thrust upon them. And so, as a friend notes to me, it's been a full 35 to 40 years since Catholic parents in this country encouraged their sons toward the priesthood and their daughters toward the convent. After all, what chance does the afterlife hold against a six-figure job at Fidelity? While I do agree that we've become increasingly temporal at the cost of the spiritual and while I would certainly concur that we've become depressingly consumerist to the detriment
of our very souls and personalities, searching for inner fulfillment via the Sharper Image catalog or a pilgrimage to Pottery Barn, I also think that this alone does not explain the dwindling numbers in the Catholic Church or the lack of priests and nuns. Long before the sexual-abuse scandal and ensuing cover-up, disenchantment had already begun to take hold in the church. While some of this had to do with the aforementioned cultural shift toward acquisition and consumption, I'd argue that an extravagantly wealthy culture tends to be an extravagantly educated culture. And education — of all sorts, I'm not just talking about having a college degree, but of sampling a multitude of ideas, many of them crappy, through endless leisure-time exposure to the arts via TV, radio, film, and print media — leads people to question. It leads them to ask, “Why?”

People in power don't like “Why?” “Why” isn't supposed to come into it. “What” is, and “how” certainly (Pray, Pay, Obey), but not “why.” So when American Catholics began to ask “why” in greater numbers and were told “Because we say so, that's why,” they began to drift. When the sex scandal broke, they began to withhold their Sunday donations and speed up the pace of their drifting. And when Bernard Law sat at his deposition and let loose with a litany of “I don't knows” and “I don't recalls” that would have made an Enron executive blush (even in the strictly temporal world), parishioners began to full-out flee.

Except for those at St. Albert's and several other “vibrant” parishes. Because ultimately, why should they flee? It's their church. Their faith. And neither is broken. Just the trust. Just that. And when you break someone's trust, you give up the right to dictate what constitutes an appropriate reaction to that breach.

Since the closing of St. Albert the Great on August 29, Ron Coyne has been back at his family home in West Roxbury. He has been placed on emergency response duty. That means that when a church is in need, he is called in. Yet when the priest at St. Thecla in Pembroke was injured this fall, the parish was told that no priest was available to step in. There is a shortage of priests, you see. A shortage of priests.