Voices in the Church

A devout attorney in search of the sacred. A gay activist battling for equality. An immigrant seeking refuge. A nun pursuing peace at any cost. A gathering of the faithful.

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Ramón Rodriguez
Dignity Chicago

Every Sunday at 5 p.m., the members of Dignity Chicago gather for Mass with a Catholic priest; rather than convening at a Catholic church, however, they meet at the Broadway United Methodist Church. The reason? It’s where they feel most welcome. Dignity Chicago is the local chapter of Dignity U.S.A., a national organization that promotes equality in the Catholic Church for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered individuals.

Founded in 1972, the Chicago group is one of the oldest chapters in the country. With a current membership of 120, Dignity Chicago includes among its goals getting the church not only to accept gays and lesbians as active Catholics, but also to bless their unions-goals that, the group admits, conflict with current church positions.

“Disagreement doesn’t mean you should be out of the church,” says Ramón Rodriguez, 29, president, who lives in Lake View. “If everyone who disagreed with the hierarchy over some issue just left, then very few people would still be members of the church. We are Catholics because we were baptized, because we call ourselves Catholic, and because we are trying to live the Gospel the best way possible for us. If we can reach one person who would otherwise feel alienated from his or her church, then we are accomplishing something.”

Current activities include regular talks with Cardinal George. “They are very pleasant meetings,” says Rodriguez. “He has always been willing to engage in a dialogue with us. We don’t try to change his mind, and he knows he won’t change our minds. But we still try to find some common ground and focus on that.”

-M. F. C.

Susan A. Ross
Professor of theology, Loyola University of Chicago

Inevitably every semester Susan A. Ross, professor of theology at Loyola University, faces the same question from some of her young female students: How can you stay in a church that so limits women? “Some days, I admit, it’s by my fingernails,” says Ross, 55. But she quickly points out, “No institution is perfect. I have friends who are Lutheran or Episcopalian and they run into sexism, too. So ordaining women as priests doesn’t solve all the problems.”

In her book Extravagant Affections: A Feminist Sacramental Theology (Continuum, 2001), Ross explores the idea of living a sacramental life. “Many Catholic women are becoming extremely creative, expressing their spirituality in ways that don’t require official approval,” she says. An example: the growing number of celebrations of Mary Magdalene.

Ross, who is married and lives in Evanston, includes herself in a generation of women who, “if we were Protestant, might have gone to seminary and become ordained.” Since that avenue is closed to Catholic women, Ross pursued graduate degrees in theology at the University of Chicago. “Education is one place where women have always found a place for themselves.”

Still, when Ross addresses various Catholic women’s groups, she senses “a low level of anger and frustration. They are dealing with an institution that has nurtured them and provided meaning to their lives, yet they see their daughters walking away from it. And they find it difficult to explain why, in this church, leadership by women is not permitted.

“It’s sort of like being in a family with a relative who is very hurtful. You just have to live with this person as best you can.”    

-M. F. C.

Vicki Quade
Co-creator of Late Nite Catechism

“I feel that I lead the life I was raised to.”

Vicki Quade grew up being both taught and fascinated by nuns, and in a sense her life still revolves around them today. In 1993, Quade and the actress Maripat Donovan created the one-woman comedy show Late Nite Catechism, in which Sister, a nun with no name, mixes lessons on Catholic Church history and the lives of the saints with plenty of improvised audience interaction. “It puts you back in your school days,” Quade says of the show’s success.

Originally scheduled for only 12 performances, the show has had a continuous run in Chicago since it opened (it’s now performed Friday through Sunday at the Royal George Theatre) and has also been staged throughout the United States and in other countries. Earlier this year, Quade launched a spinoff show, Put the Nuns in Charge, that finds Sister mixing a lesson on the seven deadly sins with commentary on contemporary events.

(At press time Quade was negotiating a settlement with Donovan, who now performs her own spinoff show in Los Angeles, and who had filed a lawsuit charging Quade with unauthorized use of the Sister character.)

Quade, 52, grew up in Burbank, a southwest suburb, where she attended St. Albert the Great School-"It seems like the guy had an ego problem; come on, just make it St. Albert,” she quips-and was taught by Adrian Dominican nuns. “I didn’t know what nuns were,” she remembers. “I knew they weren’t angels, because I talked to them, but they couldn’t be human because they didn’t look like anyone I knew. I was mystified, but I enjoyed being around them. I think that was a wonderful gift I was given when I was a child.”

Although she has sent all three of her children to Catholic schools, Quade describes herself as ambivalent and questioning in her faith today. She doesn’t go to church much anymore, and yet she has made a point of giving back. End-of-show collections at Late Nite Catechism have raised more than $2 million for nuns’ retirement funds.

-K. M.

Darlene Chan
Parishioner, St. Therese Chinese Catholic Church

“So many Asians are looking for a place to call home.”

As a second-generation member of St. Therese’s Church in Chinatown, Darlene Chan, 46, understands the unique role that the parish-the only Chinese Catholic church in the Midwest-plays. “We deal with a lot of immigrants-some are Catholic and some aren’t,” she says. But all of them-Indonesian, Korean, Filipino, and Vietnamese families, as well as Mandarin- and Cantonese-speaking parishioners-are looking for transitional help, friendly faces, and, often, a translated homily.

For many recent Asian Catholic immigrants, who in China had to practice their religion underground, St. Therese’s is a revelation. “We have deep roots in the Asian community,” says Chan. “People turn to us for help, for consolation, and for joy.”

-M. F. C.

Linda Pieczynski
Past president, Call to Action

“There is great unrest in the pews.”

After the 1976 U.S. Bishops’ Call to Action Conference addressed the idea of laity-driven reform in the church, numerous grassroots groups sprouted. Call to Action, founded in Chicago in 1978, is one of the few survivors. With more than 25,000 dues-paying members nationwide, CTA now weighs in as the largest, oldest progressive Catholic group in the country.

“We’re a big tent,” says Linda Pieczynski, 54, who joined CTA in 1991. That’s when the organization leapfrogged from local activism to national advocacy after it ran an ad in The New York Times calling for massive church reform regarding women as priests, mandatory celibacy, and increased laity involvement. Membership soared and CTA’s scope expanded. “Of course, we want church reform, more than ever,” says Pieczynski, a past CTA president who is now the group’s media liaison, “but we are also involved in fighting racism, the death penalty, and the effects of global capitalism on the poor.” At their national conference in November, the progressive theology professor Charles Curran-stripped of his right to teach at Catholic University of America by the Vatican in 1986-will be honored.

While some would rather switch than fight, Pieczynski, a municipal prosecutor in DuPage County, doesn’t consider such an option. “People like me, who were born and raised Catholic, and went to Catholic schools-well, the church made us the critically thinking beings we are today. Why would we walk away from our heritage? You don’t effect fundamental change by walking away.” Pieczynski likens the causes CTA champions to Catherine of Siena standing up against the pope in the 14th century, or the woman’s suffrage movement in this country. “It’s always a small group of people who start creating change,” she says, “but eventually it hits critical mass.”

-M. F. C.

Sheila Adams
Executive director, Office for Black Catholics, Archdiocese of Chicago

Sheila Adams’s father was born in Mississippi and, like many other African Americans of his generation, came to Chicago during the great wave of migration between the world wars. He was nominally a Methodist, but Sheila’s older cousin was getting a good education at the Corpus Christi school in the family’s Bronzeville neighborhood, so he had no objection to sending his daughter there.”

On the day when the other second graders were lined up to make their first Communion, Sheila was not allowed to participate and went home crying. “Sister Ita called my mom and said, ‘I think she would really like to be Catholic.’” Sister Ita was right, and by fourth grade Adams had been baptized, taken her first Communion, and received confirmation-the first important rites of passage in the faith. “I’m not a cradle Catholic,” Adams says, “but I feel like one.”

Adams, now 58, embraced the faith, graduating from DePaul and working as a Catholic elementary school teacher for 11 years, and then being hired as executive director of the archdiocese’s Office for Black Catholics in 1990. Today she oversees the affairs of the 100,000 or so black Catholics in the archdiocese, about 4 percent of the church, a group that includes not only African Americans but also recent immigrants from Africa, Haiti, and elsewhere in the Caribbean. Adams says that 42 of the archdiocese’s 372 parishes are predominantly black, though significant numbers are present all over the archdiocese-as much as 10 percent of the congregation at Holy Name Cathedral downtown, for instance. Services in black Catholic churches often feature gospel music, and Adams says a visitor might notice more subtle features. “The main way the black Catholic churches differ is that they are just more outgoing,” she says.

Adams’s job has a variety of challenges, nearly all of them arising from scarce population. This year, Adams helped oversee the painful consolidation of eight West Side parishes into four. The school at her own parish closed at the end of this past academic year.

Evangelization of younger blacks is one of Adams’s highest hopes, although she says taking care of the existing flock requires plenty of her attention. “The older population doesn’t relish change,” Adams says. “And we want to get young people in a hopeful mode, where they can see a future for themselves in the church.”

-D. Z.

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