Faith & Service

“Live with Hope”

Notre Dame, Boston College presidents offer vision for Church revitalization

November 12, 2021

Lay leadership and the lasting influence of Catholic education figure prominently in the vision that the presidents of two preeminent American Catholic universities offer for the revitalization of the Catholic Church over the next 20 years.

Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., of the University of Notre Dame and Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J., of Boston College were the featured participants in “A Conversation on the Catholic Church,” a luncheon event hosted Wednesday, Nov. 3, at Boston’s Seaport Hotel by the Notre Dame Business Council, an independent, Boston-based alumni organization.

“The first thing I would say to this group is that God is still with the Church, but there are tough issues we need to face." —Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J.

The task of renewal “is proving increasingly daunting” and is no longer as simple as trying to reverse a half-century drop-off in vocations to the priesthood, said the panel’s moderator, Charles I. Clough, chairman of Clough Capital Partners and a permanent deacon of the Archdiocese of Boston.

Clough noted sharp declines in sacramental participation, religious practice and affiliation among the faithful at a time when seminaries are under pressure to consolidate and Catholic schools and parishes continue to merge or close. Data published by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University show baptisms, first Holy Communions, confirmations and sacramental marriages all markedly down since 2000.

Meanwhile, fewer than one in four self-identified Catholics attend Sunday Mass, while the number of Americans who identify as former Catholics may be as high as 30 million. How to respond?

“The first thing I would say to this group” of some 200 executives and Church leaders, Father Leahy began, “is that God is still with the Church, but there are tough issues we need to face.” One of the models that would help us a lot would be to get dioceses” to follow Catholic universities’ lead in forming boards of lay trustees. With the participation of the bishop, who would retain full authority over faith and morals, such a board would offer professional guidance on facilities, fundraising, operations and other priorities, Father Leahy said.

Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C. and Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J.
Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., of the University of Notre Dame and Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J., of Boston College. (Lee Pellegrini/ Boston College)

A historian, Father Leahy acknowledged some problems with trustee overreach in American dioceses in the 19th century, but said the modern experience has been far more positive. “Our two institutions have benefited from lay men and women who have given so much of their time and their energy to being trustees,” he said.

Father Jenkins concurred, at least on the broader point of lay involvement as essential to the Church’s long-term health. “The strongest dioceses are those that de facto invite in lay people” to leadership and consultation roles, he said.

A native of Omaha, Nebraska, Father Jenkins described St. Pius X, the parish his family attended, as an ideal, “kid-centric” response to the needs of Catholic families in the 1960s and ’70s. “It had a school with 1,500 kids, sports teams, men’s and women’s groups, charitable and social organizations, and it was just a very vibrant, active place, as many parishes were at that time.

“There was a lot there that would attract you to be part of it, even apart from faith,” he said.

Further, “external pressure” encouraged religious participation and church attendance among all Americans of that era. “I remember reading that Dwight D. Eisenhower, when he was running for president, didn’t have any formal religion that he was part of, and he was told, ‘You gotta choose one.’

“The reality is, now we’re just in a different time,” Father Jenkins continued. “The Harvard political scientist, Robert Putnam, wrote a book, ‘Bowling Alone’, in which he presented data that while Americans were bowling more, membership in bowling leagues declined. More generally, he argued, membership in traditional civic and social organizations declined.

“These trends have been reflected in religious organizations as well. The Church in the United States is well into a period where we’re kind of groping … for the structures and forms that will attract people.”

Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C. sits in a chair and speaks.
Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C. and Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J. were the featured participants in “A Conversation on the Catholic Church,” a luncheon event hosted Wednesday, Nov. 3, at Boston’s Seaport Hotel. (Lee Pellegrini/ Boston College)

Societal shifts away from marriage, family life and civic participation present an opportunity, Father Jenkins noted. “One thing about young people these days: It’s clear they’re pretty lonely.” They may be unchurched, but they retain a “spiritual yearning,” he added. “How can we capture that longing to provide an answer and structure that will be relevant and vibrant just as St. Pius parish was in the 1960s?”

Education at all levels, the two priests agreed, will play a seminal role. “So much of the renewal of the Church will be shaped by what happens on the campuses of Catholic colleges and universities, and the high schools and grade schools,” Father Leahy said. “That’s why I think it’s very important that we maintain as many of those schools as we possibly can.

“In my experience, curriculum carries the mission of the institution,” he added. “I think, at places like Notre Dame and BC, there is still a core curriculum, meaning that students are required to take courses that deal with large questions, whether it comes out of literature, history, philosophy, theology, mathematics, the sciences. That is a great opportunity for us to hand on the faith. And also to touch on … what’s meaningful for students.”

“...what a Catholic institution provides is the question of ‘What’s the purpose of my life?’ That’s a different kind of education than just teaching me how to program a computer or … how to manage a spreadsheet.” —Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C.

The two universities, leading institutions in their respective traditions of the Society of Jesus and the Congregation of Holy Cross, are world leaders in the teaching and study of theology. Notre Dame placed first and Boston College seventh in theology, divinity and religious studies in the annual QS World University Rankings that the British firm released this past March.

In addition to the theology department in its Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences, Boston College is home to a standalone School of Theology and Ministry that offers 23 graduate-level certificate and degree programs and has graduated some 4,500 alumni into work in the Church and related organizations around the world. The Church in the 21st Century Center, created in 2002 to “explore the problematic issues highlighted by the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church,” today leads conversations in faith transmission, leadership and responsibility, sexuality in the Catholic tradition and the fostering of Catholic intellectual life.

The academic excellence of Notre Dame’s theology department pairs with the work of its McGrath Institute for Church Life. The institute’s mission — through initiatives such as the Echo Graduate Service Program, the Notre Dame Vision retreat experience for high school students and the Bishop D’Arcy Program in Priestly Renewal — is to “address pastoral challenges with theological depth and rigor” and “form faithful Catholic leaders for service to the Church and the world.”

In addition, the University’s Alliance for Catholic Education has trained thousands of teachers and hundreds of principals since its founding in 1993.

Students walk past the Sorin statue on Main Quad during fall.
Students walk past the Sorin statue on Main Quad. (Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame)

Both schools, Clough pointed out, are among the relatively few Catholic universities in the U.S. that offer master of divinity programs in which seminarians train for the priesthood alongside current and future lay professionals. Father Leahy said he would advise the closure of isolated seminaries in favor of university-based training where future priests might better mature in their understanding of pastoral life and the laity.

Father Jenkins said a significant challenge for higher education is its current tendency toward a merely functional focus on career paths, earning potential and return on investment. “Those are important questions,” he affirmed, “but what a Catholic institution provides is the question of ‘What’s the purpose of my life?’ That’s a different kind of education than just teaching me how to program a computer or … how to manage a spreadsheet.” Such an orientation, he added, “helps the Church, but it also, I think, differentiates our institutions.”

How does that mindset translate into the renewal of parish life?

Father Leahy says bishops might consider focusing at first on establishing “destination parishes” that would offer the highest-quality preaching, music and faith formation. The best practices exemplified by these parishes might then take hold among their neighbors. Quoting the Book of Proverbs — “Where there is no vision, the people perish” — the Jesuit educator argued for big-picture thinking and on-the-ground commitment. “I think there is faith among young people. It’s not shown in practice the way our generation or our grandparents practiced the faith, but there is faith. Our challenge is to tap into those great values and desires our students have.”

Audience questions prompted Fathers Jenkins and Leahy to touch on such issues as the prospect of expanding leadership roles for women in the Church and the price tag of the education the two institutions provide.

Father Leahy, 73, said that while he expects to see married priests in his lifetime, he doesn’t expect the question of women’s ordination to be resolved soon, less because of theology than social reality and the need for coherence in a worldwide Church not yet ready to accept such a move.

Women have “carried” the Church, Father Jenkins said. “My mother, my grandmother, they were the people who made the whole thing go.”

The Church needs women to take part in important decisions at the leadership level, “which is separable from the ordination question,” he said. “Pope Francis has appointed a number of women as leaders of Vatican offices and I think he plans to continue that.”

The two presidents acknowledged the high cost of education at their respective schools. “Excellence is expensive” is how Father Jenkins put it, adding that Notre Dame and Boston College have prioritized student financial aid in their development goals.

“There’s probably no better investment you can make,” Father Jenkins told the questioner.  “Economists will tell you that the investment in a college education will return four or five times as much in increased earning power. The burdens on families are great, but we must work together to make a college education possible.”

Father Leahy called on those Catholics who aren’t trying to pay tuition bills to invest in the future of Catholic higher education and the Church, making reference to the age-old tradition of tithing. “There’s a lot of wealth in American society,” he said, offering parish-based college scholarships as an example of how to share it.

But it was as pastors that the two priests offered their closing remarks.

“The greatest power of the Church is the holiness of its members,” Father Jenkins said. “Don’t underestimate yourselves. For all our challenges, just to live the Gospel and to follow Jesus and to pray and do what you can: People notice that, and they respect that. Probably as much as any structural change we could make or doctrinal change or change of practice — that what’s going to strengthen the Church.

“That’s the mustard seed,” he said. “Live with hope. That will have the biggest effect. So that’s my homily for today.”