Fall 1984, Vol. 36, No. 3, pp. 256-266.

Clare Wagner:
      Current Trends: The Church Speaks In New Voices

Sr. Wagner, O.P., currently works in the Office of Catholic Education for the Archdiocese of Chicago. Her many years of teaching, parish renewal ministry, and retreat preaching have brought her in close contact with many people of the church in the Midwest.

VOICES are rising among the people of God. The different words and tones and strength of those voices reflect the increasing pluralism in the American Catholic tradition. Some of those voices, the ones which brought this article into being, are growing stronger in recent years. A trend perceivable at this point is that people until now very soft or silent voices in the church are becoming increasingly articulate and are issuing a spiritual call to the church.

A very different set of voices is also being heard -- those of believers dissatisfied with renewal and with changes in religious education and liturgy growing out of the theology expressed in Vatican II documents and since that time. This constituency ranges from women religious who object to the life-styles, leadership roles, and dress of their sisters to parents who protest sex education and call for orthodoxy in catechisms for their young children. These members are, with greater frequency, appealing to authorities among the hierarchy and are receiving attention and response.

This article is an invitation to listen to some voices which have been raised in my presence, to reflect on their significance, and to think about some questions they provoke. The voices come from three distinct groups of Catholic church membership. What they have in common is that they are people "in the pew." They do not belong to organized subgroups, have not studied theology extensively, and are looking for "something more." They differ in that the first is a group of young men in their teens and early twenties who in high school or college have tasted something a little different from parish liturgy, have grown up Catholic, and evidence the spunk and critical stance characteristic of their age group. The young women are in their twenties, college graduates who have had various experiences of retreat, prayer, spiritual direction and have a strong personal faith. Christian values, a strong sensitivity to justice, and an awareness of global issues make them more than average Christians. The adults are parents in their thirties and forties linked to parish by children, the school, and a lifelong Catholic experience. They are committed to Christian values, though not involved in movements or parish programs at this time; all are family oriented.


In an all too brief encounter, the young men, pulled aside from a party for conversation, expressed feelings about church: "The church is too formal, too ritualistic." "The priest talks as if he were a higher being, not one of us." "The music is a drag; we want life in the songs." "We want more community and less hierarchy." "I wish the priest would talk about something happening in our neighborhood, who is hurting and what the problems are, instead of stuff that doesn't matter." And from a twelve year old, "Maybe if the priest would walk around during the homily time and ask us questions, it would be more exciting." Harsh critics, the young, but, in their own way, they have touched the heart of the matter.

One bright Sunday in Madison, Wisconsin, a group of young women and a woman religious, friend of each of them and former campus minister, gathered for brunch. They ordered omelettes, broke bread, and remembered the years they spent together in a small Catholic college. Responses to an end-of-the-morning question "What is church like for you now?" were these: "The only word that comes to me is pain." "Each of us is a temple of the Spirit; that isn't recognized." "There is simply no community." "The institution is impossible; only men up there all the time." "The church is so frustrating because I see so many possibilities in it and they'll never be." "We can't leave; we have to stay in there and change it." The final remark was: "The brunch we had this morning -- that was church." After warm good-byes, all left for different parishes, cities, states, and life concerns. They are people of promise. What will future church be for them?

Longing characterized the expressions of the mature adults who spoke of church. They agreed that, for them, church was an organization which provided a primarily social experience at Sunday eucharistic liturgy. They were, however, very clear in their desire for "something more," which was described thus: "To know that there is more to life than bills, family concerns, and work problems would be a source of peace of mind, would make me content." "To somehow have a higher level of experience." "It would be reassuring to know that God is there; God is in everyday life." "Could the church give us a spirituality that would help us cope?" "If we could just have consistently good homilies." "What about the personal aspect of religion; we need more personalization." "I want a deeply personal religion with a community whose members support one another in times of stress." "In our parish, everyone is treated the same way; there is no effort to make contact with, or listen to, individual groups with different needs, different thoughts." "It seems to me that Protestant ministers are more attentive to what their people say because they are dependent on the people to keep their positions; they have to get to know them, to interact. Catholic pastors are not dependent; they are appointed and paid by downtown."

Questions that immediately follow from these and similar statements spoken by parish members over the past five years are: "Who has ears to hear the words and underlying needs of these people?" And, "Do those who hear have power to change the parish?"


Until recently parishioners similar to those quoted have accepted without question the status quo. All the people whose words are included here perceive the church as an entity outside of themselves and having authority over the religious dimension of their lives. One might expect that intelligent adults who have a strong sense of what they need and want would simply develop strategies to achieve those things. If the desire was for better health or knowledge of computers or neighborhood improvement, they would take responsibility for themselves. The majority of people who belong to parishes still have a child-parent mode of relating to pastors and to the entire institutional dimension of the church. This relational defect has its roots in history and is extremely difficult to grow out of.

A great barrier to growth in this area is the continued deification of the clergy. This is not a conscious and deliberate choice; the quietest of parishioners would deny such idolatrous behavior. Yet this hidden misconception has power. It is not clear among large numbers of Catholics that there is only one Jesus and that his Spirit is every bit as present in a mother or a grandmother as in a priest. A time honored understanding of the priest's function at eucharistic liturgy and in the sacrament of reconciliation reinforce the Jesus image. The false concept of the deified priest affects the way Catholics hear gospel stories, how they feel about their own spiritual potential, and the strength with which they voice their needs or their dissatisfaction. The faithful are always the rich young man, the woman taken into adultery, the prodigal, and the Pharisee, while the priest is in the Jesus role. On Good Friday the priest often reads the role of Jesus, and the people in the pews take the part of the crowd and yell "Crucify him" at the appropriate time in the reading of the Passion.

Though all may know it intellectually, many do not seem to fully realize that in priest, bishop, pope, and people there are Zaccheus and the woman taken in adultery, and there is the Spirit of Jesus. There are saint and sinner and the struggle to be whole and find meaning in life going on in all the people of God, no matter what their roles or titles or functions are. Such a statement may sound obvious here, but lack of awareness of this may be the single most crippling misconception in our tradition. It is an onus on priests and other believers. Priests suffer near exclusion from the human race; and people endure all kinds of injustices, demeaning remarks, misuse of power, and bad preaching, and relinquish the rights and responsibilities that are theirs as baptized adults.

The collection of quotations given above indicate new spiritual awareness and a readiness to speak out in search of a mature faith and in opposition to what might prohibit that growth. At this moment in history, the call for "something more" is being articulated frequently and clearly. It must be heard because, as John Shea writes, "the heart is a hunger and a thirst; and it needs the food and drink of God. But if this food and drink is not forthcoming, it will find substitute nourishment."(1)


We are a church of many voices. Some are speaking of the hunger and thirst of their hearts for the first time, while others, because of a different background, have been speaking for quite some time. John Naisbitt, in the conclusion of his nationwide best seller Megatrends, says we are "living in the time of a parenthesis," the time between eras.(2) Those who have been speaking out for quite some time and from a variety of motives and stances, have one foot or a part of their heart in the era to come. They are uncomfortable in the "parenthesis" and make others uncomfortable when they call for the future to be born. Megatrends names, defines, describes, and uses a large variety of examples to illustrate "ten new directions transforming our lives."(3) These church members speaking today -- voices of a new age -- come out of the very trends Naisbitt names. Though the trends are applied primarily to business, politics, and media, they name well certain movements affecting the people of God. Each of the ten relates to spiritual realities in some way. Three of the ten will be used here.

In describing the trend from centralization to decentralization, Naisbitt points out that there is a collapse of whatever does not recognize a diversity in America that is beyond politics and geography. One example of this is the collapse of general purpose magazines, for example, Life, Look, and Saturday Evening Post. They once had circulations of 10 million. They folded and were followed by 300 special interest magazines in the first year. Now there are 13,000 special interest magazines.(4) "Universal formulas, which we used for so long, don't work anymore .... Decentralization creates more centers. That means more opportunities for more individuals."(5) What are the implications for church?

One fast growing illustration of decentralization in the church is parish self-selection. The Parish Project of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops has examined 329 parishes considered "vital." These parishes are strong indicators of what will keep parishes alive into the future. This kind of parish is "one dealing more deeply with questions of faith and social responsibility, in which leadership is broadly shared among priests and parishioners, in which finances and programs are more planned, in which the liturgy and preaching are more carefully developed, in which small discussions and prayer groups are more common, in which the role of the priest as facilitator of worship, faith development, service and leadership will be more pronounced."(6) People with "new age" voices have developed these kinds of parishes or have left their territorial parishes to search out a parish like the one described. Already common in Europe and quickly growing in the United States, parish self-selection could destroy the parish system, making scores of the present 1,900 parishes in the United States obsolete in the near future.

Perhaps the breaking down of this well established system will be the very way in which voices calling for spiritual renewal will make themselves heard. In Latin America the ordinary means of contact with Church is not the parish but the base community. In Africa, a parish covers one thousand miles; it has twelve mission stations directed by lay catechists and a priest comes for Eucharistic liturgy every two months. Parish life is flourishing there.(7) What does this have to teach the American church?

In very early times, parish meant a way station of hospitality and community for travelers who would otherwise be endlessly alien and endangered. It did not so much contain people as support them as they continued their journey.(8) Perhaps this understanding of parish will recur in the twenty-first century. Perhaps, too, the people of God, a pilgrim people, will be endangered in our society because of their living out of the principles of the gospel, the Peace Pastoral, and the forthcoming Pastoral on the Economy. As they live in the market places of the new century bearing the cross and experiencing the resurrection in their worlds of daily life, centers, "way stations," of community, love, courage, and the challenge of Jesus' message and presence may prove to be utterly essential for the journey.

Parish self-selection as well as small groups within parishes, such as Marriage Encounter, charismatic prayer groups, and peace groups exemplify the presence of the decentralization trend as it is affecting church.

Another megatrend is the movement from hierarchies to networking. Naisbitt flatly states, and he is not writing specifically of religious organizations, "Hierarchies remain: our belief in their efficacy does not. Because hierarchies failed and that was noticed by some, people were forced by need and desire to talk to one another and that was the beginning of networks. They exist to foster self-help, to exchange information, to improve productivity and work life and to share resources. Networking begins at a local level to change the world through clusters of like-minded people with an ideological purpose acting together."(9)

Two characteristics of networking are that it is quicker and more energy efficient than any other known process, and it is egalitarian. People from various social, educational, and economic levels interact, but they do so as peers, and information is the great equalizer. "Networks offer what bureaucracies can never deliver-the horizontal link."(10)The most important thing in networking is that each individual is at its center. In a networking process, it would be very unlikely to hear someone complain, "Each of us is a temple of the Spirit; that isn't recognized." Recognizing that is exactly what empowers the networks. One clear example of networking is a group of women growing in number and strength and hope. Using all the techniques of networking, and respecting to a very high degree the importance of each individual and equality among members, 1,200 women gathered at a conference in Chicago called "From Generation to Generation Woman Church Speaks." The conference was the culmination of eight years of pain and struggle which is certainly not over, but something new and clearly of the Spirit permeated this gathering. Fifty-nine percent of those gathered were lay women, forty-one percent women religious; there were black women, Hispanic women, American Indian women, single women, married women, lesbian women, and women who lived in community. The weekend was primarily a time of celebration. The gift of the Spirit underlying the celebration was a deep realization of the Second Vatican Council's definition of the church as the people of God. The women experienced themselves together not as the whole church, not as in the church, but as church. "What is significant here is that women are appropriating that claim to themselves as persons called to a special mission in both the Church and the world which has been shaped by their particular experience of being woman."(11) The women spoke. Words came from theologians; there were shared stories of pain and hope and strength; women spoke in prayer; they interacted in spontaneous and formal discussion of ministry, sexuality, mission, spirituality. Confident voices spoke in harmony, and the conversations that began there will not come to an end. The women sang again and again, "From Generation to Generation, My voice will speak as Woman Church; From Generation to Generation, a birthing cry goes forth." The networking that fashioned this experience and that continues and grows makes hope and belonging possible for Woman Church members.

Networking is a phenomenon which has been known to save millions of dollars in gasoline, to make food more available and less expensive, and to change neighborhoods. People skilled in the art of networking have a tool for effectively influencing society. Those involved in networking no longer feel they are voices crying in a wilderness, but a collectivity with a capacity to nurture its membership and influence society. Only the future will tell of the influence the peace movement will have on a bureaucratic society or the woman's network on a hierarchical church.

From either/or to both/and is a third trend. It also accentuates the unprecedented diversity of our time. A store called "Just Bulbs" displays 2,500 types of bulbs and hints at a long list of insignificant and more important options available. Multiple option in art, music, television, ice cream, and religion is a phenomenon that characterizes our society. In the area of ethnicity, we have moved "from the myth of the melting pot to a celebration of cultural diversity."(12) This last statement took on flesh in a northside Chicago church when, on Holy Thursday, the Eucharistic liturgy was celebrated in English, Spanish, Laotian, and Vietnamese. This was done in one service; though a unified liturgy was unachievable, the statement made by the multilingual celebration was powerful. Present also in this assembly were Black, American Indian, handicapped, and poverty-stricken believers. This enriched expression of the body of Christ gathered to remember and break bread was a sign, not only of its universal nature and its beauty, but of the significance of the church in the world as a unifying and transforming influence. The breath of the Spirit is all inclusive; the Eucharistic bread is nourishment for everyone.

These megatrends and the other seven described and analyzed in Naisbitt's book are significant for church because they describe movements within church and are affecting its existence in society. They name the methodologies which voices among the people of God are using to express themselves. Because the church exists in the world, it would be tragic if church leaders chose to ignore movements prevalent in the society as it leaves this era for the twenty-first century.


What is it that these people want who are currently speaking out, or who have been voices crying in the wilderness for years? All the data is not in, but the examples referred to here are representative. Simply stated, what the people of God want in life is a living relationship with God which, to use John Shea's words, "is activated by the experience named Spirit."(13) This living relationship is the very heart and soul of church. The various voices quoted in this article and those heard in parish meetings, in retreats for lay and religious Christians, and in spiritual direction want this with heart and soul and all that it means in human living. Furthermore, they want this to be facilitated by the church structure and institution, and they would like a dialogical relationship with church leadership.

In his book An Experience Named Spirit, Shea opens up and fully develops an understanding of the living relationship with God through theology and story. His description of the experience named Spirit is pertinent here. Shea describes Spirit as the sustaining and transforming presence of God, the immanent presence of God to creation. Jesus opened himself completely to divine love and it flowed through him to others. "Through his human love, divine love entered and transformed the lives of people. In this experience people recognized the presence of God, and they named the experience Spirit."(14) It is the experience named Spirit, this conscious activation of the living relationship with God, that is the center of Christian reality. It is the core of the movement Jesus founded and what people cry out for even when they do not have the words to name it. Jesus was the catalyst of the experience of Spirit; he brought this living relationship into the hearts and minds of people with passion and precision.(15) Of course, he would not leave us orphans, and so "through our human love with one another, inspired and supported by the Spirit of Jesus, we initiate each other into a relationship with the ultimate love that Jesus revealed."(16)

This reality is the birthright of baptized Christians. This is the "something more" without which people of this time in history will discount and dismiss the institutional dimension of church. What the voices of a new age named, in one way or another, as their longings were community, attentiveness to individual differences, enthusiastic celebrations, spirituality, and equality. And those who have had these, or tastes of them, are determined to continue to grow. Though unarticulated, people like those quoted in this article also want conversion, or spiritual awakening, a deepening sense of justice, and the challenge of neighbor love and even enemy love.

They want their local churches to be places where the secrets of God are revealed. The secrets ought to be spoken out loud among God's people as Jesus intended -- the secrets of God's unconditional love and God's presence in human love, of the wonder and promise of the dream or reign of God, of forgiveness seventy times seven times, of the possibility of intimacy with God in prayer, of the fact that there is a point of intersection between each human story and Jesus' story, that each of us is precious in God's eyes and God is in solidarity with us, that living a Christian life is the greatest challenge available in the world and it can be done in communion with God and one another, that we are in the world to reflect God and transform this world. All of this is the birthright of the baptized.

What are the ramifications for the Catholic church as it exists today if the voices are not heard by church leadership? That would be serious. Cannot the Spirit of God speak through all the people of God? Intense listening in order to discern what it is God wants, is necessary for survival. Philip Murnion in his article on the church of the twenty-first century expresses this opinion: "We are likely to see a recurrence of the clashes of 1968 and ensuing years in which the constituents of institutions challenge their relative powerlessness to affect the decision of these institutions, governmental, corporate, educational and ecclesiastical.(17) The challenge Murnion refers to is being placed in subtle and in very distinct ways by God's people. If there are not "ears to hear," the young men will find substitute nourishment for their spirits apart from the institution; the young women who have an appetite for things of the Spirit will search out small groups here and there with which they can affiliate; the young and middle aged parents may leave the institutional church as their children grow up, or select vital parishes outside their territorial parishes when that option is available; "Woman Church" and networks that are as strong will grow and flourish and deepen spiritually and will continue to resist patriarchism and be tirelessly involved in the mission of Jesus.

No one knows exactly what the face of the twenty-first-century church will look like. There are reasons for hope and for concern. One thing is certain: the movement Jesus founded will not die; its countenance may, however, change significantly. It seems to be the moment in renewal to do what religious communities were asked to do after the Vatican Council -- to return to the spirit of their founder. The Spirit of the church's founder, Jesus Christ, is available to the people of God in tradition and story and the hearts of believers.

  1. John Shea, An Experience Named Spirit (Chicago: Thomas More Press, 1983), p. 153.
  2. John Naisbitt, Megatrends (New York: Warner, 1984), p. 279.
  3. Ibid., cover of book.
  4. Ibid., p. 106.
  5. Ibid., p. 140.
  6. Philip J. Murnion, "An Odyssey to 2001:The Local Church," The Living Light 19 (1982): 305.
  7. Peter Hebblethwaite, "The Local Church in 2001: A Response," ibid., p. 308.
  8. Murnion, "An Odyssey," p. 305.
  9. Naisbitt, Megatrends, p. 213.
  10. Ibid., p. 219.
  11. Maria Riley, O.P., "Woman Church Speaks," in Center Focus 58 (January 1984): 3.
  12. Naisbitt, Megatrends, p. 273.
  13. Shea, Experience Named Spirit, p. 11.
  14. Ibid., p. 41.
  15. Ibid., p. 38.
  16. Ibid., p. 42.
  17. Murnion, "An Odyssey," p. 297.