"Healing Our Church" Small Group Resource: An Honest Review
Updated: Jun 25, 2019
After many years of giving my heart to parish ministry, I am thoroughly convinced that small group conversations can be a powerful opportunity for God to work real transformation in the Body of Christ (“Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them”). I believe this is especially true now, at this difficult moment in the Church, and clearly, I’m not the only one. As I explained in my previous post on this topic, several prominent Catholic voices have entered into this conversation with resources for small groups to focus specifically on the topic of abuse in our Church. I have been reading and analyzing these resources, and I would like to share some of my own thoughts, for anyone who is thinking about facilitating this type of conversation. Today, I start with “Healing Our Church,” published by RENEW International. But first a few caveats:
I am not an expert - on anything, really. I don’t have a background in counseling or psychology. My understanding of theology comes only from an undergraduate degree and a lot of independent reading and learning since then. I have only been seriously engaged with the issues surrounding clergy abuse since August 2018. There are many, many people more qualified to evaluate these resources than I am - I just don’t see any of them doing it, at least in a public way; so, here I am.
What I do bring to the table is years of experience facilitating small group conversations in various settings, as well as a lot of time spent reading and learning about these issues in the last ten months. Most importantly, I have sat with and listened to many, many Catholics who are wrestling with these issues; I have had almost 70 one-on-one conversations in the last five months or so, plus many more in groups and online. I have spoken with survivors of clerical abuse; priests, deacons, and lay people; young adults and seniors and everyone in between; believers from all over the ideological and theological spectrum; Catholics who are firmly committed to staying in the Church and those who no longer feel able to come to Mass; people who have advocated for change for thirty years and others who are just facing this reality for the first time. I won’t presume that my conversations are representative of the whole Church, but I do have some sense of the diversity of thoughts, feelings, and reactions present among Catholics in the United States at this moment. Also, I think the kind of people choosing to engage in conversation with me might be the same kind of people who would choose to attend any small group discussion a parish or other Catholic organization might offer. So, I am holding all of these people in mind as I envision how these various resources might work in the real world.
One more caveat before I move on: I may be critical of some of the available small group resources, but honestly, I applaud anyone who is trying. These are complicated, messy issues, and it’s hard to know how to tackle them in a pastoral way. Nothing you create is going to make everyone happy, and it takes courage to put any resource on this topic out into the world. So, I presume the good intentions of everyone involved with producing and promoting these materials, and I am grateful for their efforts. I simply want to help the people on the ground evaluate what’s available and choose wisely for their situation.
So, now we begin...
Title: Healing Our Church
Publisher: RENEW International, a 30-year-old Catholic organization that produces a wide variety of small group resources for “fostering spiritual renewal in the Catholic tradition”
Authors: Jerome Herauf (a well-established Catholic freelance author and editor) and Charles Paolino (author and managing editor at RENEW International)
Format: Six small group sessions, each containing prayer, a survivor story, “reflection” texts to read out loud, discussion questions, Scripture, and suggestions for action
Order: From RENEW’s online store for $12.95 plus shipping
Healing Our Church is clearly written with a pastoral sensibility and an awareness of the deep pain experienced by many “regular Catholics” in the pews. Whatever someone is feeling about the abuse crisis - rage, betrayal, sadness, despair - they will find their feelings acknowledged in these pages. The book is not quick to dismiss or move past these reactions, and the session “Why I Remain Catholic” comes only after three weeks of wrestling with the hard questions; I think this sequencing is important. In general, the book is written in a thoughtful, pastorally-sensitive style that many (although not all) participants would respond to in a positive way.
This resource makes very clear that discussion and reflection must lead to action. Each session ends with several concrete suggestions for individual action, from prayer to advocating for change. The final session specifically says that this discussion is “not an end but a beginning,” and the responsibility of the laity to be engaged in the renewal of our Church is emphasized several times. Weaving this awareness into every session should help allay any fears that the Church is promoting discussion groups as a way to soothe people’s anger without having to undergo any real reform.
Healing Our Church also emphasizes the need for lay Catholics to become better informed about these issues. In my experience, the reality is that even those of us who are most passionate about the reform of our Church have much to learn if we are going to be effective advocates for change. The list of recommended reading for each session would be a good start for anyone who wants to learn more.
I believe that most Catholics are aware that we need to spend more time listening to the voices of survivors, and this resource does include a survivor story in every session. Some stories are very brief, and they do not have quite the emotional impact that I have found in survivor stories in other contexts, but the presence of a survivor's voice at the beginning of each session does remind participants of the real human impact of clergy sexual abuse.
For dioceses that are considering a broader response, RENEW offers a whole package of support - facilitator training, follow up gatherings, and much more. They worked with the Diocese of Allentown, Pennsylvania to implement a diocesan response in Lent 2019, and I think a widespread and ongoing response like this, if well-implemented, could be really transformative to a local Church.
There is an excellent webinar available through the RENEW website. It’s part sales pitch, of course, but most of the presentation is devoted to addressing why there’s a need for this kind of conversation, and I found the presenter (Sister Terry Richard) very thoughtful and honest. In particular, I appreciated her assertion that a necessary first step towards healing is for Catholics to move out of denial and face the truth about our Church and the systemic nature of these problems. I would recommend this webinar to anyone considering facilitating a small group, even if they're not using Healing Our Church.
There is a lot of good material in each session of Healing Our Church, but it feels like way too much to pack into a 90 minute meeting. There is such a strong need among lay people to feel heard at this moment in the Church that I think any discussion needs to leave a lot more time open for participants to share their own thoughts and feelings. One woman I spoke to who facilitated a group using Healing Our Church said that she thought the whole first session needed to be reserved for that sharing, before jumping into any other content. (In the small groups I lead, I assume that going around the circle and having each person answer the question “Why did I decide to join this group?” will take at least an hour.) Stifling open sharing to “get through the session” could be very damaging to the trust of those in the group.
I think the survivor stories are valuable, but they do not give a complete picture. The stories included paint a fairly rosy picture of the current situation in the Church and recount how the survivor (or their family) ultimately found peace and healing through their faith. If we really want to listen to the voices of survivors, we need to hear all of them - those who have found healing within the Church and those who have not, those who feel hopeful about reform and those who have given up on change after years of fighting. I firmly believe that we as Catholics need to be willing to encounter the ongoing anger felt by many survivors, and I wish some of that anger had been included in these stories.
Maybe it’s just me, but I never like “read these paragraphs out loud” as an element in small group discussions. To me, it always feels like an outside voice intruding in the conversation and shutting down dialogue. I understand the desire to give some more “content” to participants - to share information and offer theological reflection, but this way of doing so is just not my preference in the intimate setting of a small group. As a facilitator, I prefer to raise up the wisdom that emerges from group members and then offer any other needed “information” in my own voice.
With any small group, the more times you meet, the greater trust and depth will develop in your conversations. On the other hand, a larger time commitment will always keep some people away, so it’s hard to strike the right balance. Six sessions is a big commitment of time, which is something to consider if you want to use this resource.
For another, much stronger, opinion about the limitations of this resource, I would encourage you to read this blog post by Mary Pezzulo: “Healing Our Church” Will Not Heal the Church. The author only read one part of the book, so her evaluation is limited, but she raises some very good points. I don’t agree with everything she says, but I do think it’s helpful for all of us to hear her perspective. In particular, her objections should make Church leaders think carefully about how to care for those who are affected indirectly by clerical abuse, while always prioritizing first the direct victims of this abuse. It’s not an easy balance, but we should at least be aware of that tension.
If you’re going to buy a small group resource and follow it closely, this is the one I would recommend. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good place to start, and I think a thoughtful facilitator could make it work well.
If you use this resource, I would recommend being flexible about how much of the content you try to cover in each session, especially in the first meeting when it’s particularly important to make sure everyone feels welcomed, valued, and heard. I would also place some distance between yourself as a facilitator and the contents of the book - Participants should know that they are free to engage with the “Reflection” sections in an honest, critical way, and you as a facilitator should not feel the need to defend any limitations in what’s written. If you treat the resource simply as a starting place for discussion, I think it could be a valuable tool.
There’s a lot more I could say about particular pieces of content in Healing Our Church, but I think that’s probably enough detail for one blog post. I’m happy to have a more in-depth conversation with anyone who is considering using this resource. If you have already led a group using Healing Our Church, I hope you will comment below with your own real-life experience.
Next in this series: Bishop Robert Barron’s “Letter to a Suffering Church," Dr. Matthew Halbach's The "Wounded Body of Christ," and a summary of the model I created for the small groups I have been facilitating in Milwaukee.
God of compassion, give us your grace and wisdom as we care for the broken hearts of your people.
Help us to tread carefully in the places of pain and receive each person's story with mercy and love.