Chicago Catholics are as feisty and independent as the wind that famously whips across this city from its lakeshore. In decades past, they enthusiastically embraced the labor and Catholic Worker movements. At some parishes today, lay people give sub-radar reflections at Sunday Mass.
“Catholics here have a strong sense of the vocation of the laity,” says Greg Pierce, a local publisher and community organizer. “They believe that it’s their church as much as it is the priest’s, the cardinal’s or the pope’s.”
When Cardinal Francis George proffered his pro-forma resignation two years ago after he turned 75, Pierce went into action. He invited a diverse group of parishioners to write essays—a series of open letters—to whoever becomes the next bishop of Chicago. Pierce asked them to describe the kind of leader they seek. He and Claire Bushey, an editor, compiled the essays into a book, whose title describes what resides in the hearts of many Chicago Catholics: An Irrepressible Hope. While the compilation represents the yearnings of people in a particular diocese, it also mirrors the hope that Catholics across the United States harbor in this Francis-enlightened era for a more inclusive, merciful and laity-empowered church.
The writers ranged in age from 14 to 83. They are black, white, Hispanic, Asian and Native American. They include priests and religious sisters, fallen-away Catholics and parish activists, a high-school student, a union organizer, several business leaders and one woman who claims to be officially excommunicated. (Full disclosure: this writer also contributed an essay.)
The prioress of a Benedictine monastery uses an encounter with Cardinal George to describe the bishop she seeks. When her mother was dying, George came to visit. She asked her mother if she would like the prelate’s blessing. The ailing woman suggested that she give the cardinal her blessing instead. “This story holds for me the seeds of a possible future for the church,” the prioress writes. “One in which women are recognized for who they are as the bearers of blessings for all.”
Many other writers advocate greater inclusiveness and a larger role for the laity, but there are just as many pleas for a humbler clergy. One businesswoman cites the example of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who asked anyone who had been hurt by the church to contact him. “He spent the rest of his life replying to those who wrote him, even on his deathbed. May our leaders understand that whenever our church primarily fears scandal, we sin.”
A retired pastor says he wants a bishop who “considers Chicago home, not Rome...who goes to our plays, movies and symphonies, likes hot dogs and pizza and dislikes tired pieties.... And yes, he should walk the parish dog. It’s good for the heart.”
A journalist accompanying his elderly mother to Mass finds himself pondering the words of the Creed. “What does it say about the Catholic Church when the word ‘love’ fails to appear in either version of our creed?” he asks. “It says we need to refocus.”
Some of the stories are heart-wrenching. A newspaper reporter recounts how the archdiocese informed his friend dying of cancer—a woman he’d served with on the parish council—that she could not receive Catholic burial rites. The reason: the woman had sought ordination in the Roman Catholic Women Priests organization. “I am certain in my bones that someday...church leaders will come to a new understanding about what it means to be a priest,” the woman’s friend writes.
Many entries press sore points that have driven away many cradle Catholics, like the university administrator who describes her pain at leaving the church of which she had been a part for 60 years. The leadership “will not allow divorced Catholics to remarry, yet will grant annulments when a marriage has existed for years and with children,” she says. “It does not accept long-term committed relationships among homosexuals, yet affirms the sanctity of marriage.”
It is unclear if these appeals from the pews will have any effect on the kind of leader Chicagoans ultimately receive. Pierce, the publisher, sent a copy of An Irrepressible Hope to the papal nuncio in Washington. He even received a response. “It was a very nice letter,” Pierce says, “but very non-committal.”