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A Church like the Grotto

| Tuesday, October 8, 2019

I’ve learned a lot over the past month. Since “The self-regulated spiritual upper-class” was first published, I have received dozens of emails, attended two panels about the Church abuse crisis and read through 19 of your responses to my survey.

When I first sat to write this column, I sifted through the survey responses once more and found a reply to the “Use this space for any additional comments” section that I hadn’t yet seen. It said, “Take yourself to the Grotto and breathe that beautiful air! Thanks for doing this work.”

That’s actually a pretty good idea, so I’m going to relocate, and I’ll get back to this in a minute.

… One hour later …

I should have considered that it’s 11:30 on Sunday afternoon after game day, aka prime Grotto-going time, but I didn’t, so here I am at the Grotto with at least 65 other people.

I’m sitting on a bench nearest to the stairs, as far as possible from the center of the action so I don’t distract anyone with the clacking of my keyboard. But if we’re being honest here, the past 15 minutes of clanging basilica bells have been much more distracting than me.

The Grotto is objectively beautiful. In front of me, giant boulders intertwine with ivy to form an archway, under which hundreds of candles flicker softly. To my left and right, trees at the beginning of their autumnal metamorphoses stand tall, blocking the sunlight and dropping a few orange leaves to the ground. Behind me, a path lined with bushes of yellow flowers leads to the lake, whose blue water glints in the sunlight.

In every direction, I see people. A few wander in each minute and, at the same time, a few make their way out. Some of them walk with purpose, like they’ve planned every second of their limited time here. Others move so slowly that I think they may not know where they are, but the slight smiles on their faces seem to convey that, even if they are lost, they prefer to remain unfound.

Over the past month, I have struggled to find an image of what Church reform would look like. I sat through two panels and listened to experts explain that lay people must advocate for increased transparency in the Church in order to hold bishops and the Vatican accountable.

I watched Juan Carlos Cruz, a survivor of clerical abuse, explain in very clear terms the ways he had been silenced by higher-ups in the Vatican. And I saw his cries for reform and his call to Archbishop William Lori for accountability essentially dismissed by an explanation of how far the Church in the U.S. had come.

As I read through your responses, I could feel the deep desire for change, but as I sat through these panels, I realized that this change will be difficult to come by because the Church’s structure can only be changed by those who sit at its top — those who benefit most from the structure. The Church is a global institution, and it must be changed at an institutional level. From your responses, I gather that many of you are disappointed with this framework.

Here’s what some of you had to say:

“I was baptized, raised Catholic and confirmed … I was skeptical of the Church’s stances on social issues, specifically LGBTQ+ inclusion (or lack thereof), inclusion/allowance of women in leadership (or lack thereof) and birth control/contraceptives as I entered college but I still identified as Catholic … Since my graduation in 2015, I have been unable to support the Church in any capacity as I’ve spent more time researching and reflecting.”

– 2015 Notre Dame graduate, Liam Madden

“I knew almost nothing about Catholicism until I got here freshman year. After my first semester, I highly considered converting to Catholicism, but eventually decided that I wasn’t in a place to commit to a religion I was unsure about.

“To me, admittedly as somewhat of an outsider, it seems Catholicism has lost its way focusing its worship on the Church and its leaders rather than God and Christ. These priests and holy men are only human, so putting so much trust and responsibility into their hands seems reckless.”

– 18-24-year-old Notre Dame student from Dayton, Ohio

“I am a devout Catholic, who still follows the teaching of the Church, but has many concerns with [its] leadership … and would like to help reform in many ways. … I am still working through some things within my heart, but I believe that the Church is worth saving, and we must use love but also justice to uncover and reform after all the scandals have come to surface. It will be ugly before it gets better.”

– 17-year-old high school student from Cincinnati, Ohio

“I have faith in a higher being. I truly enjoy the Catholic theology, but I can no longer tolerate the Catholic Church. The cover-up is inexcusable. It has tainted my view of the Catholic Church, but not the faith/theology.”

– 55-75-year-old respondent

I imagine you, people who inspire me to keep asking questions and whose honest answers have informed my thought, joining me here at the Grotto. I know many of my respondents would be sitting here with me, on a bench to the side, away from all the religious action, but comfortable in its presence. Some would be front and center, lighting candles and engaging in deep prayer. Others might feel most comfortable on the other side of the lake, still nearby, but not directly present.

Even those of you who, like me, have become disenfranchised by the Catholic Church, would be able to find some place of comfort here. This is because the Grotto is a place for people to do their thinking, removed from the busyness of life and tuned into the serenity of nature.

It is also, in my opinion, an image of what I think the reformed Church should look like.

The Church does not need to have open doors. It needs to have no doors. It needs complete transparency. Complete openness to the outside world and the willingness to weather every season. It needs to welcome people where we are, and it needs to be a place that does not close itself off to wanderers and explorers.

A Church like the Grotto is a Church worth fighting for, but I am struggling to figure out what this fight would look like, struggling to compose a vision of how exactly lay people are expected to hold the hierarchy accountable so that this more open Church can be achieved.

I have decided to start with some thought experiments informed by case studies — to take a deep look at some of history’s non-violent revolutions and the ways that everyday people took on the powerful. Join me in two weeks as we discuss the Polish Solidarity movement and how I think its tactics can be applied to the fight for a Church like the Grotto.


Ashton Weber is a sophomore with lots of opinions. She is majoring in economics and film, television and theatre with a JED minor. Making new friends is one of her favorite things, so feel free to contact her at [email protected] or @awebz01 on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Ashton Weber

Ashton is a current Sophomore majoring in Economics and FTT, and minoring in the Gallivan Journalism Program. She is originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, but now resides in Flaherty Hall. Feel free to contact her about anything... literally, anything. She is often bored.

Contact Ashton