Rebuilding the church’s image after the sexual scandals of the last few years will take lots of prayer and hard work, in that order. But let’s not rule out the influence of the Holy Spirit, whose work I witnessed firsthand several weeks ago at Seton Hall University in New Jersey.
The university’s president, Msgr. Robert Sheeran, welcomed into his home about a dozen writers from the university’s host town of South Orange and the nearby community of Maplewood, where I live. The guests were not chosen on the basis of their religious affiliation, but in recognition of their work and of their involvement in the community. (An exception was made for one writer whose invitation owed more to charity and compassion than talentyours truly.)
Although both Maplewood and South Orange are small towns, most of the writers who sampled Monsignor Sheeran’s hospitality (not to mention his food) were strangers to one another. It took Seton Hall to bring these neighbors and fellow writers together under one roof, an inspired act even if the evening had been dry, stilted and over none too soon. The writers at least would have had a chance to meet a few colleagues, swap the names of babysitters and undiscovered neighborhood restaurants and talk shop before going their separate ways.
As good fortune, or divine intervention, would have it, Monsignor Sheeran’s hospitality inspired several hours of wonderful conversation, thought-provoking debates and spiritual insights. In a sense, it was similar to several memorable dinner parties I have been lucky enough to attend. But this one, we all agreed, was different. Our host was a Roman Catholic priest who represented a Roman Catholic university. Many of the guests, perhaps more than half, were not Catholic, and I’d bet that several had never met a priest before. Certainly they had never been invited into the home of a priest and had seldom set foot on the grounds of a Catholic university.
Monsignor Sheeran made it clear that he had no agenda for this event. He said he simply thought it would be a good idea to get to know some of his neighbors.
It was more than a good idea; it was an inspired idea, one worthy of a great university. Diverse points of view on subjects ranging from local politics to world conflicts were debated in civil, although occasionally pointed, language. I am delighted to report that the cable television culture of half-informed assertions loudly proclaimed has not quite supplanted old-fashioned manners and civility, at least not on this evening in South Orange, N.J.
As pleasant as the evening was, as eye-opening as it might have been for the non-Catholic guests, it might not have merited these 900 or so words were it not for the larger context. Thanks in part to the misjudgments of some of its leaders, the American Catholic Church finds itself very much on the defensive today. One of my former teachers, a wonderful priest who has served as a teacher, pastor and administrator for four decades, told me that he stopped wearing his collar when he walked around midtown Manhattan. Another priest-friend was subjected to a rude slander from a passerby while on his way to an event in Manhattan. Meanwhile, lay Catholics often are forced to suffer in silence as their church’s scandals become fodder for contemptuous jokes and stinging (and borderline bigoted) commentary.
On this night in New Jersey, however, the president of a major Catholic institution of higher learning found a way to bring together Catholic and non-Catholic neighbors in a spirit of conviviality and inquiry. Though it was not planned as such, the writers’ dinner at Seton Hall was a wonderful response to the church’s crisis. The face of the church on this night was inquisitive, welcoming, tolerant and, yes, even witty. What a contrast to the images in today’s popular culture!
It occurred to me that night, as I stood outside Seton Hall’s library with a friend, that this is how the American Catholic Church can rebuild the trust it has lost, how it can rise from the shame it has brought upon itself. It can reach out with renewed confidence and love to non-Catholics with open minds. It can reaffirm its good works and sacred mission with the faithful who yearn for an end to scandal and embarrassment. And it can do so parish by parish, school by school, event by event.
By offering a confident and loving welcome to a diverse group of neighbors, Seton Hall and Monsignor Sheeran displayed much of what Catholics treasure about their church. Those of us from the parish know that the positive side of Catholicism has been overshadowed by controversy, prejudice and incompetence. We know of the virtually miraculous work performed by nuns, priests and lay people who labor on behalf of the poor, the sick and those in despair.
By reaching beyond the familiar, by embracing new friends and encouraging old ones, Seton Hall University and its president opened the door to the Holy Spirit. And as far as I can tell, the invitation was accepted, with joy.