ST. PAUL, Minn. (CNS) — A group of theologians has urged Archbishop John C. Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis “to make a fresh effort” to listen to laypeople and bring spiritual healing to the archdiocese.
A dozen tenured members of the theology department at the University of St. Thomas released an open letter to the archbishop Sept. 15.
The group proposed Archbishop Nienstedt “leave the legal talk to the lawyers (and) bring pastoral talk to the people”; that he reintroduce himself “to the people and parishes”; and finally, that he “engage laypeople in the important work of the archdiocese.”
“We believe that without such public steps the pastoral state of the archdiocese is not sustainable,” they said.
After facing strong criticism over how the archdiocese handled recent cases of abuse allegations concerning certain priests in archdiocese, Archbishop Nienstedt and other archdiocesan officials have taken several steps to overhaul the process of addressing such cases.
The majority of recent claims allege abuse that took place in the 1970s and 1980s.
The theologians expressed dismay over the scandal itself as well as “the manner in which these scandals have been handled,” suggesting the archbishop lead a liturgy of reconciliation to start a process of healing in the archdiocese.
In a reply, Archbishop Nienstedt addressed their proposals point by point, noting that he already taken the initiative to plan a series of healing Masses “designed for all those who feel they have been hurt by the church.” The first Mass was scheduled for Sept. 22, with more to follow over the next several months.
“Many Catholics have shared with me the same pain you are describing,” he said.
“The theme of healing and reconciliation is at the heart of these liturgies, which can provide powerful prayer experiences for those who have been wounded or those who know others who are suffering,” Archbishop Nienstedt said in his reply, which the theologians’ group provided to Catholic News Service.
He addressed the proposal that he reintroduce himself to the people.
“The reason I became a priest was to become involved in the lives of people, and I appreciate every opportunity I have to do so. I have met and continue to meet with victims and survivors of clergy sexual abuse, their families and their friends,” he said.
“I am also reaching out to community leaders, ecumenical leaders and parish leaders to talk and learn about how we can be a part of the healing process,” Archbishop Nienstedt said. “I often spend my weekends celebrating Mass at local parishes or going to community events.”
Such events are not publicized, “but they are happening on a regular basis,” he added.
The archbishop also told the theologians he agreed with them about involving more laypeople in the work of the local church and noted the majority of his leadership team are laity, and other laypeople are on boards and advisers to his office.
He recently appointed a layman, Judge Timothy O’Malley, for the newly created position of director of ministerial standards and safe environment.
The theologians in their letter said they were offering their proposals in hopes of opening “a path toward recovery from the pastoral breakdown we are witnessing.”
“The harm done affects first of all the victims themselves. But it touches the lives of all of us as members of the church,” they said, “including our efforts as professional theologians to represent the Catholic faith and the Catholic intellectual tradition in an honest and credible way to our students, their parents, our alumni, and our colleagues and friends.”
While they expressed hope the legal process would give the abuse victims justice and “offer appropriate restitution that leads to their healing, we know that no legal decision will heal the damage done to the body of Christ.”
“Laypeople must be placed in positions of responsibility in priestly formation, in the governance of the archdiocese, and especially in the management of the scandal,” they said. “The harsh light now being shone on the inner governance of the archdiocese makes clear that the problems are not merely personal.
“They are systemic, the product of a long-standing and deeply entrenched clericalism that does not have to be the corollary of the ordained priestly ministry,” they said.
Archbishop Nienstedt said in his response to the group: “I’m thankful we share the same desire to help the church and would welcome a meeting to discuss how we can work together to help bring the word of God to his people.”
The Sept. 15 letter followed a similar one sent July 25 to the archbishop by a group of tenured female faculty in the same theology department, who raised similar issues.